Stimming, for the unenlightened, is repetitive neurological stimulation. Basically, it’s a repetitive sensory data input that distracts the brain from overload and helps a person relax. It can be motion related, like rocking or pen clicking, or tactile related, like running fingertips back and forth on an object or one’s self, or other sensory input related like staring at a candle flame or moving water or listening to a piece of music over and over. I think the key to defining the stimming here is that it calms the mind. It has been compared to zen and meditation, and the joke is that aspies reach nirvana all the time.
I wasn’t aware for a long time that I stim. I knew what it was because I babysat a low functioning autisitc girl for a couple of years some time back, but I didn’t realize I was stimming, too. It’s funny that over the years my blouses all lose their buttons in exactly the same place, because I unconsciously play with the button that is closest to one or two inches above my belly button. That’s a funny pattern not to notice. Or the hems slowly unraveling out of my blouses because I hook my fingernails on the hems of my blouses and pick. Those are little stims. I don’t really space out that much while I do them, they are mostly just to help me focus while I’m in high energy mode dealing with customers or being in public. I have no idea if other people notice. No one has ever said anything.
I love my cell phone. I love to hold it. I love to feel the bumps and curves and buttons. I unconsciously pull on the antenna and sometimes unscrew it out completely. My phone is super to have in my hands when I’m nervous. Mine is a flip phone, too, so I can play with feeling the pressure in the hinge that keeps it closed.
I bet I have a million different ways to stim. The worst one is scratching. Sometimes I have to scratch, and my poor face suffered in a couple of spots over the years. I’ve had to very consciously stop scratching my face. A doctor told me I was breaking down my skin and would soon have cellulitis, a local infection that can eventually turn into staph from the constant picking and scratching because it can never heal like that, and the integrity of the skin is compromised, and bacteria can get in. I’m doing pretty good with it, you can’t tell anymore, but every day I have to consciously stop myself.
Sometimes I move parts of my face till they are exhausted. I didn’t realize for years that I’m a blinker when I drive. I blink in a variety of rhythms until I almost can’t blink at all anymore. I think it has a lot to do with sunlight and headlights. Sunglasses help a bit, I don’t do it so much with them on. I’ve also nearly destroyed my lips chewing on them. If my hands are busy, like when I drive, other parts of me go into action. If I have to sit still at a desk and talk to someone, my feet start exploring. I love running my feet up and down cords under a desk. One time during a really trying customer complaint I realized my feet were actually climbing the wall underneath the desk, both of them flat to the wall surface and my legs at straight 90 angles to the rest of my body. I have no idea if the customer noticed my body was so active in my chair.
Can you imagine me in school as a child? Or sitting in church next to a mom who was embarrassed over everything I did? I learned how to be really still in public as I grew up, but I also became that much more antisocial. I think there is a direct connection between my inability to freely stim and getting along with people. Stimming keeps my nerves ‘down’, and I’m very good at interaction when I can fidget or wiggle or whatnot. Not stimming turns into tension and a bad attitude that I have a hard time controlling, and worst case scenario, throbbing migraines.
I think this is why there is contention out there over stimming at work and bosses being intolerant. Aspies can seem pretty weird, being hooked on needing to do particular movements that don’t seem terribly professional and possibly make them seem a little hyper. Most people think of being relaxed as being still. I’m my most relaxed when I am completely unconscious of my hand continually moving in a stim. I have annoyed the crap out of people with the way I play with pens and office equipment or tap my feet, so I’ve had to really watch that. And I’ve caught myself doing some pretty weird things, like lightly kicking drawer handles over and over while I do scheduling over the phone, or pulling on my nose a lot during a cold.
I especially stim when I get really absorbed, like when I read. Sometimes my stimming gets so disruptive I have to stop reading. I still haven’t figured that one out, because I really like reading. I think my brain just has to spread out the stimulation it’s getting from my eyes and thoughts. The more intense the material, the weirder my stims get. I’ve even caught myself running my feet up the walls to play with the light switch while I lay on the couch and read. I won’t have a clue I’m doing it until I accidentally flip a switch or nearly roll off the couch. The worst thing I can do is have a glass of water or tea anywhere around me while I read. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to jump up and save everything.
My fave kind of stimming is youtube. That is the coolest thing. I can spaz out on a good youtube vid over and over and a solid hour goes by without me even noticing. It’s like a drug or something. I eventually reach a point where I’m almost having an out of body experience because I’m so disconnected, and slowly ‘come back’ realizing I’m not even seeing the vid anymore and the music has become ethereal. Doesn’t take a whole lot to do that, really. Youtube certainly makes it easier.
I mean it about the drug thing. My brain literally pumps out endorphins when I stim. I could space out within seconds on sunlight hitting ocean water and be so utterly content that I would never want food or friendship again. Nirvana! I’ve discovered I can stim in my head like that, visualize light on water and calm my nerves a bit. I’ve done a number of thought experiments like that, and I’ve been told by medical staff I have marvelous control with the relaxation techniques I use. I might still feel like a nervous wreck about to explode somewhere in my head, but it doesn’t show up on instruments anywhere when I focus. I can’t be anywhere around caffeine for that to work. I’m hypersensitive to chemically induced change in my body, so it’s just best not to be friends with anything stimulating.
Woops, not writing a book on stimming here. Just thought it would be nice to put out something searchable from a less frustrating or experimental point of view. If you are aspie looking for ‘normal’ aspie behaviors to compare yourself to, hello. If you aren’t aspie and think this is weird, get in line.
On a Mr. Spock aspie scale of one to ten, rate your nirvana level, one being the calmest and ten being sheer overload. (I made this, you are seeing it here first.)
1. I can stand still and contemplate the universe for hours, as long as I can twiddle my fingers.
2. I can hear you talking and I don’t care, I’m still going to stare off and let you do all the worrying.
3. Your talking is starting to get a little annoying because I was right in the middle of discovering the secret link between the stark, harsh reality of the universe and the human soul.
4. So what if I didn’t take out the trash or get the mail and another day slipped by, what is that compared to the sweet union of universe and soul? Rich people pay big bucks in fancy spas for experiences like mine. Get a grip.
5. Ok, I’m getting the stupid trash out, hope you’re happy, because this freaking out over something so mundane seriously screwed a beautiful experience I was having.
6. I’ll stop flapping my hands when you realize you are minimizing my existence on this planet to a generalized term of unendearment, and I never would have talked to you that way over something as trivial as taking the trash out.
7. Yes, I understand that my existence is defined by my actions and that doing something constructive is healthy, but you’re just going to sit there and watch tv anyway, so excuse me while I go stim somewhere else.
8. No, I won’t cuddle now. Don’t touch me. You think the trash is more important than I am.
9. Ah, food… I like food. Anyone who brings me food is my friend. I will sit by you for food.
10. Don’t talk to me about the tv show, I’m contemplating the stark, harsh reality of the universe of hot nachos and how my soul intertwines therewith through a rush of sweet joy and sensation.
Ok, you can see my scale doesn’t hold to the linear model we are more familiar with. I see experience more as a circle. Or a sine wave. Overload can come at any time, in any place on that scale, and just as quickly dissipate for me. I’m sure others have bigger overloads, or maybe they last longer. I find it easier to deal with overload by letting people know I can be ‘bought’. I’ll accept small gifts and favors (usually food) as tokens of forgiveness. After all, it runs both ways. We’re all stupid to each other.
The biggest challenge is learning to let it go. So someone doesn’t like my stims, I make a joke out of it. I’m weird, I know that. Who cares? Bosses become idiots under a lot of pressure, just be who you are anyway. I think the goal is, if you are working with the public, is not to scare the straights, to make them more comfortable in the business atmosphere. If you have to sacrifice part of your aspie soul doing that and you don’t feel comfortable about it, by all means look for another job. I’ve had a lot of jobs. I’ve never been fired. I’ve always been told I’m the best, no matter what I do, and eventually I usually become the most annoying, too. They are glad to see me go, even if replacing me is a real drag because there will never be another who worked as hard as I did and got all the paperwork right and cared about the merchandise. So what? Life is short, go have new experiences, learn new things. It’s nerve racking to work under a boss who picks on you, I agree. It’s a drag to have to go through the job hunt all over again, I agree. It doesn’t look great on an application to see such a long list of former jobs, I agree. But you know what? I have had so many experiences, met so many people, and have been told so many times I’m really good– how can I even think that 15 years in one place would be better? It has to be about more than the money. I know we all need money, but you don’t get more by sitting there frustrated at your boss because you need to stim and it’s annoying people.
Aspies are known for being wonderfully inventive and intuitive. While you sit there frustrated, use some quality time in your head to problem solve. Investigate your soul, what you really want, how do you get it. Formulate a plan, think about how much you will enjoy secretly taking new steps while your current job keeps feeding you. After all, it’s just a job. If it truly is hell, plan your escape in such a way that you glow with radiance and leave gracefully and on good terms to the best of your ability. Shed crocodile tears if you have to. Play the crowd. Use your skills and wit to your advantage. Just don’t keep blaming other people around you for making you miserable because you can’t stim when you need to. They can feel the hostility coming off that one, and it’s always destructive.
I just say, “Sorry, I fidget, let me know if it bothers you and I’ll stop.” Or, “I guess my nerves are up, I can’t quit moving.” I have a whole bunch of things I say. I know I annoy people, may as well face it head on. I might have an edge here, though. I was unaware of being aspie for many years and had to learn to survive being weird, so I’m not coming fresh out of a diagnosis at a younger age thinking the world needs to move over for me. The world out there doesn’t care if you are aspie. They care if you are worth your dime and their time, and they care how you represent them to the public or to their own bosses higher up. You are selling yourself, trading your time for food and shelter. Stay focused on that. Is it worth the paycheck to learn to adapt? You can adapt far more easily than you think you can. Being aspie isn’t a sentence over your head. It’s just a descriptive term for the way your mind works, mostly. So you are aware of it and that you are different, so what? Everyone is hiding something. It’s a big game, figure it out and play it.
And if you aren’t validated as a human being on the job, that doesn’t mean you can’t validate other people. You may not feel social, but you can say things that make people feel like you noticed or care, even if you don’t. They are more likely to forgive your weird stims and stuff if you are more forgiving of them to begin with. You have the power to step out of the vicious circle of human behavior and change the outcome, even if you are having the worst possible day and don’t feel powerful at all. It’s ok, to have bad days, just don’t get carried away with them to where people cringe to see you walk through the door.
Sorry so long. It’s dangerous for me to hit the computer before breakfast. Good thing I’m not some kind of cult leader or BOSS. hahahahahahahahahahaha!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Where are you on the “aspie scale” for stimming?