Stimming and the Benefits for People with ASD

I have not had a lot of time to write for my blog.  My husband and I have been taking an online course on Autism which has required most of my writing time.  I did have to write a research paper for the course, and I thought I would share it on here since I put work into it.

As a requirement of the course, I had to use person-first language, which is not my preference.  Please do not read this and think that my opinions on that issue have changed.

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Reading through a number of written works by individuals with autism creates an awareness of how important it is for them to be able to self-stimulate, or stim.  The stimming is an important part of being for people with autism, and the efforts of the population with typical neurotype to restrict, restrain, or limit stimming is harmful to people with autism.  The stims are incredibly variable and serve many functions, making life happier, easier, and less stressful for people who find the world often overwhelming and difficult to understand.

The world can be hard to process for people with autism, and stims can help by providing a way to self-regulate, to gain control of one’s own sensory input.  There are many ways that this happens.  One is through regulating emotions. According to The Stimming Checklist (n.d.), “Often emotions like sadness, anger, or anxiety will prompt stimming as a way to both experience these less pleasant emotions while also keeping our cool.” Positive emotions also elicit stimming in most people with autism.  Many adults with autism report relying on stims to help them regulate during social situations.  Social interactions, even after years of supportive therapy, can be very difficult for people with autism, and stimming is reported to allow them to participate in more varied situations, with more people and stimuli, for longer periods of time.  The sensory processing difficulties that accompany autism can be regulated by stimming, creating a way for people with autism to create their own sensory input.  This can result in greater sensory input when needed, or a sensory distraction when there is already too much sensation around that is out of the individual’s control.  Finally, a pragmatic regulation in an attempt to be considerate around other people can be a reason for stimming.  For example, “In a crowded lecture hall with a fascinating speaker, we might want to jump up and down with excitement and ask a million questions because we are so engaged, but if we believe this will not be helpful to ourselves or our classmates in the long run, we might choose a stim like twirling our pens or rocking in our chairs to remain focused and engaged without disrupting others” (The Stimming Checklist, n.d.).

People with autism report that efforts to curb their stimming are painful and result in more trouble than the stimming itself caused.  Emma, a poet who relies on alternative communication describes stimming as self-care, she says when asked to stop stimming, “it makes thick feelings worse.” (Zurcher, 2012).  Adults with autism report feeling that the “therapy” they were subjected to as children in order to learn how to pass as less autistic left deep emotional scars.  Feelings of shame are connected to the belief that stimming is wrong.  People report that stilling their stims leaves them open and vulnerable to the assault of daily living in a world that is too much to handle.  They also report that the negative emotional associations and judgment that society places upon those who stim break down the self-esteem and self-worth of individuals.  Julia Bascom (2011, April 5a) describes it as:

The hands are everywhere.

They’re at our chins. “Look at me,” with a face pressed in so close to yours that you count the pores until they force your gazes to meet. They grab our hands, “don’t do that, people will think you’re retarded.” They smack away picking fingers, because our foreheads must be pristine and easy-to-look-at for them. You turn away, pull away, try to put some distance in so you can breath, and they grab your hands, your hips, your shoulders and twist you back. You bounce your leg—surely you are allowed this?—and they press a hand to your knee, stilling you. Everyone taps their pencil, but when you start their hand closes over yours and won’t let go.

 

This is the opposite of how students in class should be made to feel, regardless of whether they are dealing with a disability or not.

Self-Injurious stims are often cited as the reason to stop stimming altogether.  Many people with autism do hurt themselves or injure themselves when stimming.  However, the idea that people with autism need to suppress their autistic nature and pass as people with typical neurotypes creates additional stress on already stressed nervous systems.  People with autism are dealing with a minefield of sensory assaults and attempting to appear different from their inner nature can be more than they bear.  Bridget, a person with autism, states that these behaviours are often a result of students “passing,” or forcing themselves to appear as if they do not have autism. She tries to follow instructions to stop stimming but finds that the need does not disappear. She writes, “Those occasions damage me, chipping away at what is already paper thin defenses until there is nothing left” (It’sBridget’sWord, 2012). A better solution to help students who feel the need to injure themselves is to be proactive and give them space and acceptance to stim safely in public, openly, as they feel they need to.  That way, perhaps more of their defenses can be strengthened and they would not feel so vulnerable.

Some research supporting the idea that stimming should be stopped suggests that it is harmful to learning and focusing.  It certainly can be distracting to others in a classroom, and the inclusive model of education creates opportunities for students with autism to annoy and disrupt their classmates.  An online search of how to stop stimming comes up with many results and reasons to “help” children with autism conquer their need to stim.  The May Institute (n.d.) pontificates,

Self-stimulatory behaviors may seem harmless. But for children and adults with autism who lack social and self-regulatory skills, these behaviors can interfere with learning at school or completing daily living activities at home. They can also be disruptive and upsetting to others, causing them to avoid or ostracize the individual in social settings.

However, in reality, there are many stimming behaviours that are not disruptive and actually help students with autism learn.  One adult with autism writes about stimming and focus, describing it like an itch that unless scratched continually distracts and derails focus.  “If anything, stimming improves my concentration. It’s a release, like sneezing or scratching an itch” (MusingsOfAnAspie, 2013, January 3).  There is also research supporting this idea.  Studies have been done that show that when a person is abstaining from something that they want (need), they have a more difficult time concentrating on a task (MusingsOfAnAspie, 2013, June 18). Students with autism struggle with executive function, and when they are using their brain to stop stimming, they are unable to use it for learning and focusing on the tasks that are being asked of them.  In a classroom, students with autism should be taught socially acceptable behaviour and stim options, and the rest of the class should be taught how to accept and understand the learning needs when in a diverse class.

  
A school environment is precisely the place where social acceptance needs to be taught and modeled.  People who are concerned that the stimming child would be isolated, bullied, or alienated need to work on changing societal attitudes.  Kirsten Lindsmith (2014) describes having a hard time making friends with “same age neurotypical counterparts,” but says that, when she allowed herself to express her personality, she made close friends with a student with ADHD. She recollects fondly, “We got along swimmingly and stimmed together, repeating phrases and sounds and generally torturing our poor math teacher.” Children are adaptable and learn acceptance just as easily as prejudice, so teachers and Education Assistants have a responsibility to demonstrate and encourage friendships with students with autism.

Perhaps the best and most natural reason for stimming is the pleasure it expresses and creates.  Many people with autism have written about dealing with intense sensory input, and the intense joy they feel when they are stimming.  Joy and stimming seem to be inextricably linked; there is joy when stimming, and stimming when there is joy.  The words of adults on the spectrum need to be the authority on this topic, as they share what those of us who are not on the spectrum cannot truly understand. Julia Bascom (2011, April 5b) says that she feels that stimming is a benefit of autism, as it allows her to experience the world in a more enjoyable way. She sees others around her feeling “miserable” because they feel constrained by the need to follow social norms, while she is able to “amplif[y]” her enjoyment of the world through stimming. Reflecting on stimming, she writes,

If I could change three things about how the world sees autism, they would be these. That the world would see that we feel joy—sometimes a joy so intense and private and all-encompassing that it eclipses anything the world might feel. That the world would stop punishing us for our joy, stop grabbing flapping hands and eliminating interests that are not “age-appropriate”, stop shaming and gas-lighting us into believing that we are never, and can never be, happy. And that our joy would be valued in and of itself, seen as a necessary and beautiful part of our disability, pursued, and shared.

Creating a positive, inclusive, and understanding setting by accommodating this need to stim benefits the student. This, in turn, can help create a happier classroom environment for other students, teachers, and Education Assistants.

Stimming is a powerful drive among people with autism, and it is a productive way to deal with the onslaught of sensory inputs they experience every day. Adults on the spectrum need to be the authority, as they are best positioned to describe the desire to stim as well as the positive benefits. They explain how it helps them calm down, focus their minds, and put themselves in a better mindset for learning. Attempts to stop this behaviour can cause emotional damage and a buildup of overwhelming emotions for students who are expected to “pass” as if they do not have autism. Stimming can also be a source of overpowering joy for students, and we should not deprive them of this beneficial aspect of autism to conform to social conventions that are built on an illogical “one size fits all” model.

 

 

References

 

Bascom, Julia. (2011, April 5a). Grabbers [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://juststimming.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/grabbers/

 

Bascom, Julia. (2011, April 5b). The obsessive joy of autism [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://juststimming.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/the-obsessive-joy-of-autism/

 

Harris, T. J. (n.d.). Reducing self-stimulatory behaviors in individuals with autism. Retrieved from http://www.mayinstitute.org/news/topic_center.html?id=355

 

It’sBridgetWord. (2012, October 7). Self injurious behaviors [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://itsbridgetsword.com/2012/10/07/self-injurious-behaviors/

 

Lindsmith, Kirsten. (2014, May 16). Stimming 101, or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the stim [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://kirstenlindsmith.wordpress.com/2014/05/16/stimming-101-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-stim/

 

MusingsOfAnAspie. (2013, January 3). The high cost of self-censoring (or why stimming is a good thing). Retrieved from http://musingsofanaspie.com/2013/01/03/the-high-cost-of-self-censoring-or-why-stimming-is-a-good-thing/

 

MusingsOfAnAspie. (2013, June 18). A cognitive defense of stimming (or why “quiet hands” makes math harder) [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://musingsofanaspie.com/2013/06/18/a-cognitive-defense-of-stimming-or-why-quiet-hands-makes-math-harder/

 

The Stimming Checklist. (n.d.). So what is stimming? Retrieved from http://what-is-stimming.org/so-what-is-stimming/

 

Zurcher, A. (2012, January 2). An Interview with Emma about stimming [Web log post]. Retrieved from https://emmashopebook.com/2014/01/02/an-interview-with-emma-about-stimming/

 

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