Autism isn’t just an abstract condition that hides in the recesses of my mind. It animates me. It makes me move, sway and dance in unusual patterns. It makes me “stim.”
When I was in early elementary school, I would wave my fingers in front of my face whenever I was excited, such as after getting a good grade back on a spelling quiz or while playing my favorite games on my Nintendo DS. Today, while I no longer habitually “flap” my hands in this way, I still find that my body often moves in tune with my inner rhythm. I might be sitting in a lecture and suddenly notice that I’ve been rapidly lifting my foot up and down for the past several minutes, as if there’s an imaginary organ pedal that I’m using to play the music of autism. When working on homework in the evening, I might feel the desire to get out of my chair and pace around, going in small circular odysseys in my dorm room. Next to my desk, I keep a basket of small toys, including a rubber ball, some lavender-scented putty and an assemblage of plastic cubes attached to each other. I have these in case I need to squeeze or spin something in my hands while completing other tasks, such as participating in a Zoom meeting.
This is stimming, which is often defined as “self-stimulatory behavior.” Through repetitive movements, stimming allows people to manage high levels of excitement or to help them focus. Stimming is not exclusive to autists or other neurodivergent people, as even neurotypical people might find themselves tapping their fingers on their desks or clicking the tops of their pens. However, autistic people often have more noticeable or unique stimming patterns, which can lead to stigmatization.
There are some instances where autistic people learn to manage how they stim, to change how they respond to the music of autism. In my case, however, I’ve found that while I might stim less or in different ways than before, I still consistently experience moments when my excited brain compels my fingers and feet to move around, making it a bit challenging to stay still for extended periods of time.
I suspect that this is the case for a lot of other autistic people. While the specific ways autistic folks stim can vary wildly from person to person, a lot of us will need something to do to satiate the autistic rhythm inside our heads during intensely emotional experiences.
Therefore, it is crucial for everyone — our educators, our supervisors, our leaders, and our peers — to help our communities de-stigmatize stimming. This would involve educating people about why many autistic people do repetitive movements that seem unusual to others. That way, instead of responding with suspicious glances, they recognize that these neurodivergent people are simply trying to manage and make sense of the complex feelings they’re encountering — a daunting challenge that anyone, even if they’re neurotypical, can relate to.
This is in line with how many disability theorists conceptualize a “social” model of disability. Rather than blaming individual people for struggling to adapt to often-unwelcoming institutions, the social model suggests that the struggles that disabled individuals face are primarily due to societal barriers and prejudices. In the case of people with autism and other neurodivergence, we should work to challenge discriminatory policies, practices and attitudes rather than suggesting that neurodivergence itself is the problem. Abandoning harmful and inaccurate assumptions about stimming is one crucial step to achieving this goal.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to move, sway and dance to my rhythm.