I had intended to write last night but as it often happens, other life stuff got in the way. Our youngest son Ryan has had a heck of a time falling asleep recently and so I have taken to serenading him to sleep with my own special version of lullaby time. After I was done, I was ready to sleep myself!
Tonight I'm going to do a follow-up to my blog post on Monday, September 20th, Stimming and Self Soothing Behaviors in Our Family - Part 1. Thank you to those who commented and emailed and also those who didn't but stayed with my writing from beginning to end. I always appreciate your support!
Stimming is certainly a topic which warrants interesting discussion. If you did not read Part 1, I invite you to do so as what I am about to write will make it easier to put my perspective into context.
Tonight my focus revolves around the question I posed in my last blog:
In reference to stimming, is it possible that what some see as a stigma or odd behavior can actually be therapeutic?
YES, YES, YES, YES!
Before I go ahead, let me say that the stuff I write below and in my blog in general is my opinion unless I have specifically referenced research and provided you with that information.
I am not a doctor. I don't have a degree in autism research. As a Mom of two kiddos on the spectrum and a fellow autism spectrum traveler who Googles her way through many days reading and researching about autism and Asperger's, maybe there should be some sort of honorary degree. In all reality, I'm not looking for accolades, just strategies, tools, answers and support. Well, maybe a trophy would be nice!
Here is my opinion from what I have gathered from my own life experience and from reading a wide variety of articles and opinions at various websites.
Going back to the basic definition of stimming, we recall that stimming is a repetitive body movement that self-stimulates one or more of the senses in a regulated manner.
If I were to put that into layman's terms, I'd say that it is an action or actions (physical or verbal) done repetitively by a person that help stimulate or regulate the senses and may also help serve as a soothing, coping and/or focusing mechanism. In other words, it calms and makes you feel good!
So I got to thinking after I was finished with my last blog that whether or not someone is diagnosed as having autism or Asperger's, we all have some sort of behaviors we do to help us cope with stress or anxiety or to give us a soothing calm, an adrenaline rush or an endorphin high.
Some of these are considered bad or nervous habits. Some probably aren't really given much consideration at all but when I give the list below, let me know if you or anyone you know identifies with any of these. I'm keeping it G rated but I can think of others and sure you can too!
These deal with the senses and providing sensory input. There are tons more! What can you think of?
Tactile: twirling hair, drumming fingers on a table, playing with facial hair, scratching, clapping
Proprioceptive: cracking knuckles, teeth grinding, snuggling in quilts or blankets, jiggling or crossing legs, pacing
Auditory: humming or whistling, tapping a pencil or pen on a surface, snapping fingers
Taste: sucking on mints or hard candy, smoking, chewing on gum, pencils, pens, hair or jewelry
Smell: sniffing certain scents, wearing a certain perfume or cologne
Vestibular: Rocking in chairs, dancing, sliding, skating
Visual: blinking, gazing at fingers, staring at lights, lining up objects
I bet you're in there somewhere, right? Here is what I think is the difference in societal norm.
The word "stimming" unfortunately has a stigma attached to it. If you hear "stimming" you're likely to think it has a negative connotation or is associated with people who have a disability or who are participating in what would be considered an inappropriate social behavior.
But that being said, by recognized definition, stimming is a repetitive body movement that self-stimulates one or more of the senses in a regulated manner.
So, by definition, don't we ALL technically participate in stimming in some form or another? I say YES. We're human beings. We all have the need to regulate ourselves and we seek activities that bring us pleasure.
In fact I would go so far as to say that many of the extra-curricular or leisure activities that people participate in are highly based in self-stimulation, self-regulating behaviors. A few I can think of off the top of my head are video games, dancing and listening to or playing music. Drumming would be a great one. For the thrill seekers, there is bungee jumping and sky-diving and most X-games activities! Some people jog or run to regulate. There are whole industries built around these behaviors that are considered socially appropriate. For that matter, there are industries built around the socially inappropriate as well but I won't go into that here!
What are your hobbies or special interests? Why do you like them? What do they bring to you? I bowled regularly from the time I was 4 until I was in my 30s. I used to love playing tennis, softball and racquetball and when I was in my late teens through early 20s, I was a club dancing machine! I still enjoy video games, singing and brain teasers. Do or did these hobbies and sports help regulate me in some way? Yes they did!
So even though all of us, autistic, differently abled or not, have what are considered socially appropriate activities we do to try and provide ourselves with sensory input, some of us need more input than others in order to be able to focus and function in our daily lives. Our level of what we need is much higher.
Some of us are often out of sync with our bodies and have more of an urge or need to stim than others. We need to distract our brains from sensory overload and we do so by doing some sort of alternate behavior. Some of these are easier for us to control than others. Some we do and may not even be aware of unless someone brings it to our attention.
I think part of the reason why "stimming" has the negative connotation is that people associate it with behaviors which come across as more noticeably distractive, such as flapping hands, making loud noises out of place, rocking, slapping or banging one's head or touching body parts inappropriately. With many people on the autism spectrum that stim, they may not always be self-aware or socially understand why their particular self-regulatory behavior might not be considered socially appropriate.
I think also that with many who have autism or other disabilities such as deafness or blindness, certain stimming happens as a reaction to a legitimate physical problem that the person does not have the capability to communicate in words. It might be an ear infection or a tummy ache, bowel problems or a headache. It could be depression, anxiety or fear.
If our sons are stimming more than normal, we try and see what the catalyst might be to see if we need to seek additional medical attention or assist them with an emotional issue. For example with Justin, he may be trying to focus on school and needs to block out other sensory input. With Ryan, who toe walks when he is barefoot or spins, it may be he needs vestibular input like swinging or needs to wear a weighted vest.
June who commented on my last blog, astutely asked how do you tell the difference between a stimming motion or just a release of nervous tension or hyperness, so to speak?
There will often be overlap. I would say though that most people would say that a socially inappropriate stimming motion is less easily controlled, happens in greater frequency and the person doing it may not be aware of it taking place.
I think in many cases it would be hard to tell the difference because motions that are a release of nervous tension are often motions which help calm, regulate or soothe us. Technically, those motions are self-stimulating behaviors and therefore stims. (At least that is how I look at it.)
BUT, I would say that most people looking at it from the perspective of the autism community would say that some stimming motions are not so easily controlled. Stimming actions among autistic people have a wide variance in their severity and what might be considered socially appropriate.
I guess I would pose the question back, is the person aware of his / her behavior and if so, can he / she control it? If the person isn't aware, if it is brought to his / her attention, can it be redirected or controlled or does it continue to occur in a way which makes it seem as if the person stimming is oblivious to the action?
I think as children grow into adults that their behaviors done to release nervous tension (maybe shaking a leg, tapping a pencil on a desk, popping gum or stretching or letting out a primal scream) are things that they are more aware of. When one is a child or teenager, they are less likely developmentally to be aware of why they are doing what they are doing. They do it because it helps regulate them or because it feels good. For example, a baby may suck his thumb or a child may cuddle with a blanket or special stuffed animal.
John and I had a discussion with Justin the other night about his stimming. It was such an incredibly mature conversation. He indicated that he was aware that he stimmed but often he did not realize he was stimming until he was redirected by a parent, teacher or aide. Some of Justin's main stims that have shown up in a school environment include humming, making noises and flicking hands and fingers. Justin realizes that he does these things to help him focus or concentrate or just because it feels good.
I think a lot of us do what makes us feel good. We crave the endorphin rush. I know I do and when I don't get it I am way out of sync. Serotonin and endorphins are natural neurotransmitters that can improve mood, dampen pain and regulate sleep. Whether it be through exercise, eating certain foods or participating in certain activities which provide us with a natural release of this stuff, I believe we all seek it out in one form or another. Hopefully we do it in legal and ethical ways. We like to repeat what feels good.
My opinion is that many stimming behaviors release serotonin and endorphins as well.
Again, these are just my thoughts and opinions! I'd love to hear yours! Any mistakes are all mine and anything you disagree with is all yours! :-)
By the way, if you're seeing weird line breaks or my blog looks different than normal, I apologize. It's just another round of Karen versus Blogger and next time I'm bringing in the big guns. (Clint, Arnold, Jackie, Charles and sweet innocent me!)
I'll be talking about different stuff in my next blog but feel free to comment on this blog below! I love your comments!
Y'all come back now, ya hear?
Letting My Light Shine,