When I was about 7 or 8 I would pull my fringe down over my forehead and put my head down on the carpet and then zoom around like an aeroplane with a collapsed nose wheel – because I loved the feeling of carpet rushing over my hair against my forehead. I sometimes got carpet burns on my forehead from it.
One of the things that autistic people often do is referred to as stimming. Stimming is a sensory seeking behaviour that tends to provide comfort or help with emotional regulation (these are my words based on my own understanding).
Stimming appears in the diagnostic criteria for autism in the DSM-V, but not in a way that means that a person must stim in order to be diagnosed autistic. Many autistic people would say that they don’t stim – including me, until the pennies started dropping. Stimming is listed under the heading of “Restricted and repetitive behaviours” which also includes needs for sameness, special interests, and sensory sensitivities.
The good old “traditional examples”
The DSM-5 helpfully lists examples of restricted and repetitive behaviours (RRBs) to aid clinicians in their evaluation of a person, but they are really quite restricted and stereotyped (ironic, huh?).
The good old RRB “Lining up toys” is listed in this part of the criteria – I say “good old” because it seems to be the example that people remember and then go on to use to question the diagnosis of (or withhold diagnosis from) the people who don’t do it.
To be clear, “Lining up toys” is one sign that might indicate autism, but it doesn’t guarantee it and neither is it something that all autistic people do.
It’s the objective, not the specific behaviour
Every now and then in the autistic online world someone will pose an #AskingAutistics question about stimming. I’m really glad they do, because the examples that come back are wonderfully diverse. And they all share that common objective of providing comfort, mindful centering or emotional regulation. I think I would agree with many autistic people who say that almost anything can be a “stim” if it’s done for those reasons and has some kind of repetitive edge to it.
Of course, there are those who are ready with “You’re not properly autistic” if someone says they stim by dancing or tapping their fingers on a desk or gazing into sunlight. But these people really miss the point, I think. Discounting behaviours because “everyone does that” and using it to question diagnosis is missing the point of “why”; what is the person looking for in that behaviour (consciously or not)?
By the way, telling someone they are “Not properly autistic” because they don’t do X or Y is a really shitty thing to do (unless, just maybe, you’re a kind clinician who has evaluated the person and you’re carefully and caringly explaining why the person doesn’t meet the diagnostic criteria). See Impostor Syndrome.
My own stims
I haven’t done the head-on-the-carpet move for decades, but I still remember the feeling. At the same age, I had a complex tic involving grunting, sniffing, grimacing, shaking my head and blinking. I say “complex” because I had a compulsion to do all of those things in a specific order or together to play out a particular rhythm, and I would keep doing it because I never got it quite right. Unfortunately, even though I did it during a medical appointment with a doctor, nobody thought to question why I was doing it. But I still catch myself doing some parts of this routine even today.
Other things I think are very probably stims include gazing into distant flashing lights or spinning radars & losing track of time, listening to very loud music with a strong pulse and heavy bass, rubbing my feet on the edge of the bed when I’m going to sleep or waking up, twanging rulers on the edge of a desk, clicking my tongue, and a host of similar ones that have become such a part of my life that nobody notices them.
“Didn’t display any stereotyped behaviours”
My autism diagnostic report says that I didn’t stim on the day. I probably can’t argue with that, but I do wonder if the list of examples used in the DSM-V is based on decades old observations and somehow misses the whole point of what stimming is. I don’t “rock” for instance, because my proprioceptive sense gets enough stimulation and I don’t need to provide it with more. But there are loads of ways that I look for stimulation visually, aurally, orally and haptically.
I should have known when somebody said at work about 20 years ago “Why do you eat all of the pens?”. I literally did. I could have a Bic biro in my possession for no more than an hour before I had cracked the sides of it in my teeth and if I was unlucky had the ink from it all over my mouth. All of the Bic biros in my drawer were chewed in this way – and I would typically have a drawer full because I was forever needing a new one.