Saturday, April 4, 2009

Stimming, autistic and NT

Autisics stim. If you've ever spent time around autistic people -- especially autistic children -- this is pretty much a given. What most people don't seem to consider is that NTs stim, too.

In fact, there are circumstances under which NTs even use many of the stereotypical autistic stims (or, more technically, "self-stimulatory behaviors") and under which those stims become generally understood -- and even almost expected.

Admittedly, most of those circumstances are pretty extreme, emotionally speaking, but one of the (many) hypotheses floating out there about autism is that it's (at least partially) caused by a deficit in the ability to self-regulate emotions. In many ways, this is an argument which helps support that theory.

On the other hand, there's also evidence against that idea. There are certainly difficulties with emotional self-regulation in autistic individuals -- and even Aspies such as myself -- but issues of causation are complex.

In any case, as I mentioned before, there are certain types of stimming that NTs regularly engage in. Many autistics engage in these same stims as well, but they're not usually pathologized unless there is an issue with the context. For instance, some autistic individuals have been known to masturbate in public because they don't understand why they shouldn't.

While that particular societal more may seem silly when looked at by someone without our cultural baggage, it is rooted in many deep-seated beliefs about sexuality. As such, it is unlikely to change anytime soon.

And yes, masturbation is a type of stimming... or, more accurately, a category of types of stimming. It involves repetitive movement intended to stimulate the senses of the person engaging in it in a specific manner... which is pretty much what the definition of stimming is.

While that particular type of stimming is pretty easy to find among NTs, the stereotypical autistic stims (e.g. rocking, head-hitting/banging, hand-flapping, spinning objects...) are somewhat more difficult to find.

Discounting children's use of rocking horses and adults in rocking chairs, there's one circumstance in which NTs frequently rock. When they're given extremely distressing news (e.g. the death of a loved one), many individuals will have a reaction that's quite familiar to many autistics. Specifically, they will start crying, almost hold themselves, and start to rock back and forth. Despite the extreme circumstances, this rocking serves almost the exact same function as it does in autistics: it's a soothing motion, one that helps the individual cope with an extreme emotion.

In NTs, head-hitting and head-banging is usually reserved for moments of extreme frustration or what I like to refer to as "D'oh!" moments. While NTs usually don't engage in this behavior with the same intensity (or frequency) that many autistics have been known to, that is a quantitative, not qualitative, difference.

Hand-flapping also follows this pattern. If you've ever watched videos of people as they are informed that they won the lottery (or Publisher's Clearinghouse sweepstakes, etc.), you probably know what I mean: many people in such circumstances jump up and down, waving their hands excitedly... in a manner quite familiar to most in the autism and autistic communities.

Finally, object-spinning is mostly a matter of autistic children (which is to say that autistic adults don't do it nearly as much). Parallels in NT children are pathetically easy to find. Simply put, neurotypical chlidren like spinning toys. Autistic kids like to spin toys... including spinning toys.

Edit: Corrected a typographical error.


  1. I have a question. My son (a 13 yr old with AS) has been bouncing since he was 3 1/2. He bounces straight up and down when he is excited, thinking hard, playing on the computer.

    OT's have worked with him, and I am told he will probably continue this behavior.

    I am used to it, and have dealt with the issue. But a new one has come up. He is a 13 yr old who is 6ft tall and weighs 155 lbs.
    When he bounces,the whole room can rock.

    Are there any ideas for something to put beneath his feet (the idea would be a kind of shock absorber)? Any thoughts??

  2. It's really a matter of what your child is getting from it. I could make suggestions, but the general issue is that if something interferes with the function of the behavior, your child won't like it.

    If your son doesn't like it, he will almost certainly move to get rid of it so that he can continue his bouncing uninterrupted. If you try to prevent this, it will quickly become a giant mess.

    This is one reason why you should probably talk to your son about the problem. If he understands, he can help you find a solution... and whatever he helps you come up will will probably be better than anything I could suggest.

  3. Thank you, I agree. He is always inciteful when we brainstorm these issues.

    No solution yet, but we laugh about the possibility of the drywall cracking.

  4. Hi Alexander, great blog!
    I have a 6 year old son who has yet to be fully diagnosed even though he is certainly within ASD prism and a possible aspie.He's been through arms twitching to eye stimming(still does a lttle) and finally sleeve bitting/nibbling(which was a bit embaressing to be doing in public-wetting his clothes with his mouth).He has stopped or significantly reduced those types of stimming but lately he has developed a new kind of stimming involving his genitals.He is actualy masturbating by crossing his legs and bending slightly up and down while his arms and legs seem to eratically strech&twich(he also places his hand on his croch most of the times)!The thing is that he does it in public eventhough we(parents& teacher) have explained to him that he should only be doing this at home and when he is alone.He replies that he cant control it and that he does it because it soothes him down. But i am afraid his schoolmates are already starting to wonder whats wrong with him and we all know the consequence of being"weird" could lead with an autistic child at the school enviroment.I have many ways to explain to him and try to "talk" him out of it but without any results.I have noticed that he even does it while he is playing with his game console(which is his favourite thing to do)!Today was the worst day because he did it for like hours so intensely he could not get up and walk. Any suggestions or ideas would be welcome. Thank you.

  5. Hmm. That looks almost like a cross between genital stimming and rocking...

    I can't give you professional advice as I don't have a lot of relevant detail (or a relationship with you or your child), but perhaps teaching him standard autistic rocking as a more acceptable substitute would be one method? I'd really have to know more to think of other alternatives.

    As for the calming-rocking-like-thing while he's playing video games, it's worth noting that excitement is an emotion, and can become overwhelming just as easily as any other. It is certainly the antithesis of calm!