Why Kids with Autism Stim—Helpful Advice from an Autistic Adult

Stimming behavior can seem mysterious, but it's easier to understand when explained by an adult who has autism.
boy jumping on trampoline

Recently my son Liam, a non-speaking 7-year-old on the spectrum, has been struggling. He's always demanding to wrestle or do other heavy-impact play. This gets exhausting for all of us after a while, but if Liam doesn't get this kind of sensory input, he goes from snuggly to furious in seconds. Since Liam struggles to communicate, I wasn't sure what was going on—at least not until I read an amazing blog post by Candi Brooks, a mostly non-speaking autistic adult who types to communicate and is working toward a degree in astrophysics. She writes the fantastic blog Neurodiversity Is Magic, and her most recent post, "Why Autistic People Stim", was EXACTLY what I needed to better understand Liam's behavior.

Brooks writes about stimming—or engaging in self-stimulatory behavior like hand flapping, spinning, jumping, pressure-seeking, moving woodchips (my son's favorite outdoor stim), and a whole list of other activities. She lists four reasons for stimming:

  1. Hypersensitivity to sensory input
  2. Hyposensitivity to sensory input
  3. Communicating frustration or pain
  4. Because it's calming and enjoyable

You can read the full blog post here (and you should, because it's awesome!), but I'll share with you the part that helped me better understand my son's recent tantrums:

Unlike many autistic people, I am hypo-sensitive, not hyper-sensitive. What do I mean by hypo-sensitive? Sensations are something all humans crave. We enjoy delicious food. We enjoy music. We enjoy nice, warm lighting. We enjoy soft clothing. However, hypo-sensitive people need much more stimulation to feel satisfied and calm in their environments. Hypo-sensitive children/adults frequently look disoriented. Where the average person perceives shapes, we see only contours. Where the average person hears speech, we hear a subdued and undecipherable acoustic wave. We often appear aggressive—with all our biting and touching, while we simply crave, crave, crave sensations...just like all human beings; only it's so much stronger.

I wake up at 8:30 am, and my body feels like a sagging, floppy boob. I cannot feel my feet, or my arms, or my legs, or anything. I stand up and my legs feel like spaghetti, but I manage to walk myself out to the living room. Once I reach the living room, the hurricane begins. I run as fast as I can to the couch....I jump off and crash onto the floor. I spin around and around and around and around. I jump as high as I can on my mini trampoline. I grab the remote and turn on the TV and stare at the images until my eyes go blurry. But it's just not enough...I still can't feel my body. I jump up and down and flap my hands, until all of a sudden....I can feel my body! My body now feels "right." Three hours later, I can't feel my body anymore, so the hurricane comes rushing back!

Before I was able to communicate, no one understood why I engaged in this behavior. People thought it was "meaningless" and that I was just "in my own world." I wanted to scream and shout that I did these things because I NEEDED to, not because I WANTED to. I often like to say that my body needs to go out of control to stay in control. That may be confusing but it's the truth. People see this wild and strange behavior and think, "she's out of control." But my body doesn't perceive it as being "out of control" because it's simply the amount of stimulation I need. Since my brain is wired differently in regards to sensory input, I experience sensory input differently. I often cannot feel parts of my body until I receive enough stimulation. For example, if I am in the middle of typing and my hand starts losing sensation, than I will often flap them wildly until I get feeling back. It's hard to do anything when you cannot feel your own body. Another example is when I start to lose focus. Sometimes I cannot focus because I'm not receiving enough sensory input. I often need to get up and pace back and forth until I regain focus. So, when people say stimming inhibits learning, often it's the opposite, stimming enhances learning! Stimming is what helps us be able to "function" in a body that never truly receives enough sensory input from the outside world.

I was so moved and enlightened by Brooks' insight into hyposensitivity. Now, when Liam melts down, I hear her words in my mind: My body needs to go out of control to stay in control.

That's exactly what happens with Liam, and I'm so grateful for Brooks' insight and all the help she and other autistic adults offer through thier words, stories, and shared experieinces. Truly, they're helping me be a better parent, and I think they have a LOT to offer all of us who are parenting kids on the spectrum.

Jamie Pacton lives near Portland where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter @jamiepacton.

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