Stimming: An Unexpected Pathway to Personal Creativity and Success
It’s rather strange how quickly our survival instincts take over and we are able to learn new words and meanings when our lives or loved one’s lives are depending on it. Words and terms that you never knew even existed. Words and terms that people who are familiar with them already say so quickly, eloquently and matter-of-factly - as if everyone knows or should know what they mean. Pretty soon though you find yourself amongst those same people, rattling off words and terms as if you were a certified doctor or therapist. The process is baffling. It’s like being dropped off in a foreign country and the only way to survive is to learn the language, which you pick up in a matter of weeks. Too bad that survival instinct didn’t take over in my 9th grade Spanish class. I might have gotten that A+ from Miss Trujillo.
When I first heard the term “stimming”, believe it or not, my first question wasn’t “what is that?” My first question was, “how do you spell that?” I wasn’t sure if it was spelled with an “E” or an “I”. My next question was where does the word “stimming” stem from? For those who are unfamiliar with the term stimming, it is a term many in the autism community use to refer to self-stimulatory behavior which is a specific behavior like rocking, watching objects spin or fall, squeezing, swinging, flapping hands, or repeating words and phrases. This involuntary behavior helps people with autism manage emotions, handle sensory overload, or focus their thoughts. If you think about it, most of us, from time to time, do typical or what we might call “normal” stimming-type behaviors like drumming our fingers on a desk; wiggling or tapping a pencil; pacing back and forth; bouncing a knee up and down; twirling a lock of hair; or even humming. My personal favorite is taking the cap from a pen, bending back the clip part of it and twirling it between my thumb and index finger. It somehow helps me think better and relieves stress for me. The difference between normal (socially acceptable) stimming and autistic stimming, is how often it occurs and what kind of stim activity is chosen. My personal belief is, if the stimming isn’t a distraction, and doesn’t cause harm to the one stimming or to others, then it can be a reasonable, healthy coping mechanism for that individual. But if it does become distracting, disruptive, or dangerous, then the stimming needs to be modified – which is easier said than done.
Before Chase was diagnosed and before I knew what the word stimming meant, one of Chase’s favorite things to do was to either sit or lay on the floor and roll his Hot Wheels cars back and forth and just watch the wheels spin. He could do this for hours if I let him. It was probably his favorite thing to do in the whole world for the first 3-5 years of his life. When we were at family get-togethers, all of the other kids would be playing together, but Chase would find anything with wheels, go into a corner and start rolling the toy and watching the wheels spin. I had no clue what that was about at the time. Fast forward an autism diagnosis later and I finally had a word for what he was doing. Stimming! One of the first programs Chase had when he started his therapy was to help him manage this behavior. It took a few years to help retrain Chase to sit up straight and play with cars appropriately, but that didn’t change the desire for him to stim. He just went from watching wheels spin to watching objects fall. We’d go to the beach and he would sit and pick up sand and watch it fall. He’d be at school and sit in the sand box and pick up the bark and watch it fall. When he was in the classroom, he would use his pencils or crayons. It didn’t matter if the teachers or aides took the object that he was using away, he would always find something. Chase wasn’t cognizant of his surroundings either. No matter what setting he was in, or what the circumstance was, or what surrounding activity was taking place, if he felt the need to stim, then stim he did. During this time, I was still in the process of learning my son and understanding autism and all of the idiosyncrasies that come with it. As time went by, I learned that for Chase, the stimming was much more frequent during those times when he was still struggling with speech, comprehension, social interactions, – all major sources of stress, which is one of the triggers for stimming. As Chase’s speech, comprehension, and socialization improved, his stimming decreased, but it remained a regular fixture in his life. I figured out by this time that he would stim when he was bored. He would also stim in class as a way of zoning out because he didn’t comprehend or understand the relevance of what the teacher was discussing. But he would also stim even when his surroundings were calm, no confusion or stressors in the picture at all. This puzzled me and made me want to peek inside his head and see what was going on in that mind of his. When Chase was younger, I always wanted to ask him what he was thinking about when he was stimming. He would sometimes make noises like he was playing out a scene or something. At the time though, I knew that he didn’t have the language to express to me what was going on in his head, so I just left it alone. Fast forward to Chase at 9 years old and by now, I had figured out that stimming was just a part of who Chase was and that it was, for the most part, okay. There were still however, a couple of modifications that I felt were necessary for him to make in order to help him and me.
First, I needed to limit his stimming to one, simple multi-piece object (under 20 pieces please!) that was appropriate for stimming – NO MORE boxes of puzzle pieces, stacks of collectible trading cards, board game pieces, decks of playing cards, crayons, pencils and bags of marbles rolling everywhere! Chase’s grandfather, “Papa”, came to the rescue on this one and bought him a small bag of shiny, plastic, gold St. Patrick’s Day coins about the size of 50 cent pieces. Perfection! Here we are 4 years later and Chase still has these coins and they are still his go-to stimming objects. The gold has rubbed off, leaving the coins black now, and a few have gone missing, but they are still doing their job. If there is one thing in our house that Chase makes sure he keeps track of, it’s those Lucky Coins!
The second thing I had to do was get him to limit his stimming to a private space. This took several conversations and role playing, about social perceptions and being aware of his surroundings. It was during one of these conversations though, that I finally felt comfortable with where Chase was with his language and comprehension so that I could finally ask him what was going on in his mind when he was stimming. He was sitting in his favorite chair one day with his coins, rubbing them in his hands and then watching them fall as he normally does. I simply asked him, “Chase, what are you thinking about when you’re playing with your coins?” His response was simple but poignant. He said, “Imagination.” With that one word, it all made sense. I started asking him more questions. “What are you imagining?” He said, “I’m thinking about my recipes and the movies that I want to make.” I asked him, what about when you are making those noises, what are you thinking about?” He said, “Sometimes, I’m thinking about battles, like The Hulk and he’s fighting with Iron Man. It helps me be creative” And creative he is.
When I understood how stimming was helping Chase, and we were able to get him to a place where stimming became a private activity, I began to regard the coins as a kind of “executive pacifier”. To me, Chase’s stimming is no different than when the high-powered executive sits at his or her desk watching the balls of Newton’s Cradle swing back and forth; spins a top or a coin; swivels or rocks back and forth in a chair while solving a problem or mapping out the next big vision. Frankly, I much rather have Chase stimming as he does, than have him engage in some of the more outlandish or harmful habits and rituals of some individuals, including some famous geniuses. (I won’t name any names here.) And if comparing Chase to successful individuals and geniuses sounds like a proud Mom saying that her son is a genius, well your hearing is correct – Chase is a genius at being Chase, which is all I could ever ask for.