Now before I get down to the nitty gritty of this post, I just want to point out that everyone stims – stim is short for sensory stimulation. Those of us on the Autistic Spectrum tend to have less control over our stims and the need to do so, but every human stims to a lesser or greater extent. Stimming is something that happens with emotion. That emotion can be good or bad, and for NTs (neurotypical people), those stims are often less exaggerated.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome later in life than most and it’s now on looking back at how I reacted as a younger person that I can see the stims I had and how being told off for ‘fidgeting’ led to more meltdowns, especially in my teenage years. As an adult I’m more aware of my stims and whilst I can still find them embarassing if I catch myself stimming in public, I can see their importance in helping me process.
There is a hugely positive side to stimming. I love the feeling of rubbing my hands up and down my thighs, the way it can calm me and make me relax. I love when I tap my thighs with my hands or click the lid of a pencil, it helps me to focus. Tapping my fingers on my thumbs when walking alone at night in the dark (after work for example), helps me feel safer. Rubbing my newly shaven head has replaced wrapping my fingers in my hair for a feeling of security. Sometimes just the pleasure of making a random clicking sound with my tongue can make me so intensely happy. My stims largely involve touch but that clicking sound is the most beautiful thing at times.
As a teenager, one of the stims I picked up was scratching my arms. It kinda went along with cutting myself (one of my forms of self harm). The scratching came from the feeling that I wanted to crawl out of my skin, and looking back at it, it’s one that I developed after a particularly harrowing incident where I was held at knife point by another teenager I knew. I’m still not entirely sure why he did it, but it threw me into more chaos than I was already in and the feeling of the scratching and the marks it made created a form of sensory relief. The only thing is, it was easy to get carried away and scratch my arms bloody (this is possible even with the shortest of nails). I not only loved the pressure of my nails on my arms but the trails of colour it left across my skin. And if anyone asked, it was easy to say that my eczema was acting up (which it was through most of my teen years). It’s a stim I’ve since recognised as not the best to continue, because it often alternated with cutting my legs, and I started to associate them, they both involved a build up of negative emotion. To be honest, I never thought I would be rid of the scratching. I could see no way out of it. Especially when things built up and my PTSD really kicked in. That was until I met someone who has helped me stop.
In the past eighteen months, I’ve exchanged scratching for rubbing my arms. It’s different from rubbing my thighs as rubbing my thighs is always through clothing, whereas when I rub my arms they are bare. I apply a lot of pressure when doing so, and whilst the visual aspect of the stim is not nearly as pleasing, the pressure works just as well and covers a larger area in one go. I’ve scratched once in the past eighteen months. Once. And that was after a particularly bad build up of emotion. How has this person helped me go from regular scratching to once in the past 18 months? Simple. I told them how I equated the stim with my self harm, and somehow, the more we talked, the more I felt able to let go of the stim, and I promised them I would. I made a promise. One that on the grand scale of things, I have failed to uphold once. And considering the stim had been there since my early teen years, which was over half my life, that’s huge progress.
I’m starting to see that when I stim in public it’s not a bad thing and that it only tends to be my smaller stims, the finger tapping, the occasional head rubbing, tapping my thighs as I walk. I don’t vocally stim in public often and if people want to give me funny looks, go ahead. I may look a little strange, but maybe next time someone asks you to stop tapping your foot when you’re nervous or clicking your pen, you’ll spare a thought for those of us who literally cannot control it.