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Hi! I’m Johnny Profane.
Welcome to Part 2 of a series on how sensory overload, anxiety, and autistic stimming all relate.
I call this episode… “Zen & the Art of Autistic Stimming.”
HERE’S THE TOO-LONG;DIDN’T READ, CLIFF NOTES SUMMARY…
Dear autist, you are hard-wired for #AutisticJoy.
Stimming is part of that wiring.
You can use this reflex to manage a crisis…
AND, believe it or not… to enrich your life.
Kind of an autistic hack.
If you are autistic…
Surprise! Every human who ever shamed… or punished you… for stimming…?
💯%. Dead. Wrong.
If you love an autist… parent one… employ some… wonder if you are one…?
There’s a special kinda joy in understanding how to support the autistic folks in your life.
Real talk. Some tough.
But I’m pretty sure… a coupla ideas you may want to share… with someone that you know… cares.
If you know anyone who is autistic, you’ve heard something about “stimming.”
Mebbe something like… stims are quirky movements or sounds autistic folks make. Usually when they’re upset.
Most folks… even autists… do think of stims as something to use in an emergency. Say, to distract and soothe during sensory overload. Or survive a business meeting.
But I believe they’re central to our well-being. Not just a tool in our emergency road kit.
I suspect they’re inborn instincts. Meant to integrate our autistic minds, bodies & hearts… Through our senses.
Lemme tell ya a true story…
Only thing is… right now, at this moment… I don’t know what day it is. I don’t know anything.
In fact, only thought in my head…?
Where am I?
I look around.
Street corner. Cars turning. Buses whizzing… A city?
Behind? Office building. Across the street, coupla boujee shops… Mebbe downtown?
Above… blue sky. Sun…? Could be anywhere…?
Where am I?
I got no fucking clue. So, I say out loud, “I got no fucking clue.” So, some lady gives me the eye….
I try to remember. What am I doing…?
Pacing. Back. Forth. For awhile.
Paced the other corner too… Twice. Mebbe more.
Something’s wrong. REAL wrong.
I can’t recognize a thing. I finger comb my hair. I pick that spot on my right cheek. I rub my upper arms. I stretch…
Say,… Hold on… I’ve been doing this over and over…
I check the time on my phone.
Wait a minute… phone?
I remember… I’m outside my psychologist’s office.
An inner voice sniffs, You CAN call him, you know.
I grunt. Hit the speed-dial.
Dial tone… Ring… Ring… Ring…
Inner voice sneers, He’s not going to answer. They never do.
I hate that guy living in the back of my head…
I growl. C’mon. C’mon…
“Dr. Mike, it’s me, Johnny.”
Relief! I stammer, “I need… I need… I need to know… Am I okay…?”
THEN… It all rushes back to me…
I spew everything into his ear… I’m still downtown Bloomington. After the session. Waiting for the Medicaid taxi. Over an hour. Dispatch refuses to tell me when it WILL come… Frustrated to tears.
I trail off into the phone, “Everything looks weird… too bright… fake. I mean, nothing looks real. Am I okay? Am I okay….?”
We talk deep breathing. We talk emotional disconnect from anger… panic attack… dissociation. We talk about… talking about anxiety management. First thing… next session…
I get re-centered. Taxi? Eventually comes. I get home ok…
But emotional overload & panic attacks are not the points of this story.
Today we are talking autistic stimming. What. Why. But most of all… How.
How you can actually use stimming to increase your #AutisticJoy.
Work with me here.
Gonna take me a minute to get there.
What is autistic self-stimulation?
Pros define it as “stereotyped or repetitive motor movements.” It’s one of three core behaviors that earn you a formal autistic diagnosis. Which they’ve labeled a “disorder.”
Most of us #ActuallyAutistic folks call it “stimming.” With affection. Cuz to us? They can be comfortable little fidgets we can always count on.
For many of us, they’re automatic. For others, they may be automatic sometimes. But sometimes conscious. Sometimes… a bit of both.
Sorta like your breath.
Altho stims come in all shapes & sizes… all autists do them. And most report enjoying them…
I can see no earthly reason to label them a “pathology. A “symptom” of a “disorder.”
I’d call em an autistic instinct. Ya know… good things. Put there for damn good reasons. Survival. And joy.
I gotta lot of stims. Some, when I’m nervous. Some, I’m excited. And come to think of it, a lot of em when I’m happy, too.
For instance, I PACE… a lot. Like my story, outside the psychologist’s office. My pacing mighta looked purposeful to a passer-by. But it began automatically. And it was minutes before I noticed.
Like all my stims… I repeated em over & over & over. Until I ran out of steam and noticed. Or a passer-by said something. Whichever came first… I forget.
Here are some stims of mine.
I rub my arms, hands, legs… or eyes until I see white
I finger-comb my hair. Repeatedly.
I pick at skin.
I swing arms. Once in a great while, I flap.
I hum… Sometimes, random notes. Aimlessly. Sometimes, a song phrase. Repeatedly. Or just purr.
Straighten & re-straighten objects within arms reach.
Tap fingers… in an emergency, feet.
Rock. Oh, g-d knows I rock.
Lately, I stretch. As I wait in checkout lines… like yoga… palms on floor.
People stare… Screw em.
Okay. Partial list. As I’ve aged… become more aware… and happier as an autistic…
I find myself stimming in crisis a lot less…
You should know my wife laughed when we talked about this podcast, and I asserted, “I don’t do it much anymore.”
When her giggling fit was over…
She suggested I’m more comfortable now … And no longer give a shit who sees. Goes with my mohawk, sunglasses & fedora cosplay…
But as I’ll explain… even if I do them now, more than ever…
I’m making them work for me.
SO… WHY… DO I DO STIM?
Not what you think.
Pros tell us stims are not compulsions like in obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I’ve known a fair number of folks with OCD. They’ve told me they know what they’re doing. They choose specific actions to manage specific painful thoughts. Lotta times fear.
But stimming begins without thought. It’s automatic. I can’t say that enough…
Unlike obsessions, I’m not compelled to stim. I don’t experience anxiety if I can’t “complete” them.
Now, over many years, I came to notice sooner and sooner after stimming began. Later, I began to feel the growing impulse. And like learning to control or hold your breath, I gained some control over stims.
And I did so because I used to feel deep social shame and embarrassment if someone caught me stimming.
Quite possibly parents… or others… trained me out of it early on.
SO, ALRIGHT… AGAIN… WHY DO YOU STILL STIM…?
Cuz… I enjoy em.
And I’ve found they help me in many ways.
One way? To soothe anxiety.
Many stims came automatically to my rescue in my opening story.
I was under great emotional stress.
I was angry.
I was bored.
I was really anxious about my ride home.
And, not only had ALL my plans changed… there was no plan at all. No escape. No way out.
I needed to calm down… allow my body to relax.
Distract myself from a situation I had no control over.
I needed to purge excess emotion.
I needed to quiet negative, repetitive thoughts.
I needed to escape noisy, complex, scary, sensory assault.
Most days, stimming helps with any one of these. But in this crisis… I needed them all at once. In short…
I was overwhelmed…
During overload of any kind… I lose myself. My orientation to space, time, identity… reality. What some pros call “ego death.”
I also needed to “locate” myself. Reassure myself… on a cellular level that…
I. Am. Here. I am not dying. I am okay.
I needed to stim. I needed to stim. I needed to stim.
As you might imagine I thought about that incident a lot.
Yeah… it was scary. But it changed my life. Quite literally. I realized I no longer wanted to live with that level of anxiety in my life.
I moved to the country. I retired. I reduced performing music and ALL social contact. For starters.
But most important to this discussion…?
I began an exploration of stimming. And what it meant to me that my body chose them as a survival strategy… by instinct.
I’d already noticed that stimming brings me quiet pleasure when I’m not in crisis. So, I gave myself permission to hum, pace, stroke my arms. However & whenever I felt like it… when I was alone.
At first, I worked to experience that comfort… instead of suppressing it. Until it became natural to accept it. To remain conscious. To enjoy it…
And finally? I began USING stims… to add to my life.
Because my autistic mind, heart, body, and soul don’t play nice together….
I may be aware of what I’m thinking, but not what I’m feeling. I can be so enraptured with a project that I’m finishing, I forget to eat. Any emotional rough spot can completely rob me of direction and purpose. And achievement.
During that severe panic attack outside the psych’s office…? Every part of me was flying off in a different direction.
And it came to me that stimming wasn’t a side-effect of the panic. It reeled me back in. Re-centered me. Integrated me back with myself and my surroundings.
Automatically. Instinctually. Like I was running on autopilot.
I already knew some well-researched human relaxation responses. Like the one everybody knows… taking a deep breath to relax…
And there are conscious techniques to enhance that effect… “cleansing” or abdominal breath. Lamaze practitioners teach others.
I knew “body awareness” techniques. Tai Chi, yoga, walking meditation, body scans… they have the same effect.
There’s a body of evidence these ritualized, repetitive movements have a calming, integrating effect… when combined with a light, conscious focus.
The similarity to stims had been staring me in the face for years.
So I began practicing an integrated form of stimming. Most days.
It’s helped me in two powerful ways.
First… I use a very simple technique for anxious moments. Let’s say, a medical appointment… which I dread.
I pick a stim I know no one will notice… like stroking a small piece of cloth. As I stroke, I observe the process. Watch my fingers glide over the fabric. Feel the texture… silky or rough. Watch the light play on the surface… shiny or shadowed. Notice how the repetition is automatic. For me, keying into the sensory input quickly helps me focus… calm down… and center.
Frequently, a stim and the choice to remain aware and focus on it… rather than suppress it… soothes me.
The same basic idea works with rubbing my arms. Rocking. Humming…
Perhaps with one or more of your stims.
Sometimes my mind is too scattered to stim consciously. Filled with thoughts or fears. That’s when focus can be difficult. So I stim slowly and count repetitions to 4, over and over.
If I can catch my signs of anxiety early, 30 seconds or so of integrated stimming centers me.
As you may guess from my story above, if I’m having a full meltdown? It takes a good deal longer.
The second way?
I began using my true go-to stims… pacing & striding… with purpose… daily. For the benefits. No emergency.
I first noticed I paced automatically in my early teens. I frequently burst out of unpleasant emotional scenes without thought…. And shut myself in a room to pace. Sometimes, run outdoors. Once, I jumped out of a moving car on a girlfriend…
Because pacing worked so well for me, I came to use walking… walking rapidly… striding… to reintegrate. Daily for hours. To isolate & recuperate. From the social fatigue of living and working… while trying to maintain an autistic mask.
It wasn’t long before I noticed a pattern. When I stride in woods or a quiet neighborhood, at first my mind swims with thoughts, worries, fears…
And the never-ending process of reviewing recent events. I check for missed social cues and similar errors that my autistic mind can’t process in the moment.
But after 20 minutes or so striding…?
Gradually my thoughts slow down. My breathing and heart become regular. I become more aware of trees and flowers, bird calls, the smell of a field.
I return home rested, relaxed… and in touch with my body and internal feelings.
So now, I add bodily awareness to my striding. I spend a few minutes focusing on the feeling of my soles on the path, the rolling motion of my foot in each step. Then perhaps a few minutes scanning my body for tension or soreness from the top of my head to my heels. Or counting my breath… breathe in four steps, out four steps.
Simple, simple little routines. Using stims I already perform involuntarily… in a conscious, comfortable manner.
But they’ve improved my life.
When I approach anxiety, panic, or meltdown… I work my stims. In most cases, the feelings subside.
When I make the time to practice them on my own… with awareness… I feel calmer. More aware. Particularly of internal states… a considerable challenge for me. Like some autists, I have poor interoception.
In short, I spend more time in the world being the “me” I like best. Considerate. Compassionate. Creative…
The “me” I am when I’m alone. But now I can share more of that “me” with the folks that I love.
I want to add a cautious note about self-injurious behaviors. A pretty controversial topic.
I’ve had mild behaviors since childhood. I suspect there’s a connection between stims & SIBs. I’ll come back to this in a future podcast.
But what I want to leave you with has nothing to do with specific techniques I’ve created for myself.
Besides autists tend to want to find their own ways of doing things…
My main point is stims are nothing to feel… or give… shame about. They’re there for a purpose.
If you’re autistic, I strongly encourage you to explore stims. In whatever way you find they improve your life.
If you care for an autist? I ask you to think long & hard before discouraging any autist… young or old… from stims. These built-in regulators and integrators.
It seems likely to me, it may deny your loved one an extraordinary enrichment of their autistic life.
I have important shoutouts to share!
As I’ve written, my ability to function varies wildly. I reached a point in this series on anxiety & sensory overload where I hit a wall.
Three amazing, intelligent and generous souls I know online helped me make sense of this project when I lost my way. @HarrietBGarner is my goto resource for insight… and kick-in-the-pants inspiration. @isntJen… a fierce autistic mom of autistics… always gives me ways of looking at things I’d never thought of. And then… @DrHlexia, Small Bob, balances a crystal intellect with a compassionate heart.
But I must add a Fourth Musketeer… My wife, Kimmie. She stops me cold with her keen observations. Usually built on something based on her life wisdom.
Keeping things short…
I’ll mention again that I need your support to keep this podcast going. The goal in front of me is replacing my ancient Dell laptop with a modest gaming PC. So I can create good auio and video. $400 to $700 US. Five folks have helped already. But I have a ways to go…
If you enjoyed this episode? Please click the “Support” button on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you heard or read this episode.
Any amount you can affford will go straight to my autistic activism.
But… I can’t say it often enough…
The biggest support you can offer…?
Share this episode with a friend that you know… cares.