We have been asked a few times about ‘stims’, and while we have mentioned them within other articles (see directly below, in an article on autistic meltdown), we thought it would be useful to delve deeper in a single blog post.
Autistic meltdown, or neural high jacking – what is meltdown, how can outsiders deal with it empathetically, and how do autists manage their own meltdowns? (ASD/ASC)
Understanding stims is key to understanding how autists process emotions and sensory input. Stims, and the action of stimming, refers to ‘self stimulating’ behaviours; they’re not limited to autists (many of us twirl our hair, or tap our fingers to an imaginary beat, for example); but most autists stim.
Stims may be used for various reasons; for example in times of anxiety; in periods of happiness or contentment; when the body is in need of regulation; and simply because the individual feels good.
Most people, if they have heard of autism stims, think of hand flapping, which is the stereotypical one used most commonly in the media. But perhaps rightly so, as a repetitive hand movement is a very common stim, in times of dis-regulation, sensory overload or anxiety.
Most autistic individuals stim to some degree; they can be very subtle however, and autists who are late-diagnosed may not even realise that their habitual behaviours are stims. For example, clasping or rubbing one’s hands together, or wrapping hair around a finger.
Here are some examples of physical autistic stimming-
Clapping or flapping the hands, or moving them rhythmically.
Finger clicking or snapping, e.g. with the thumb and third finger.
Beating out a rhythm with the hands or fingers (and feet), to a beat in your head.
Flicking or stroking fingernails.
Playing with jewellery, especially if it has movement, e.g. a ring with a spinning section.
Touching something smoothly tactile, like a watch, a clothing label, or piece of jewellery.
Proprioceptive stims e.g. rocking or moving the body – and as well as a ‘big’ movement, this can be the tiniest movement, for example isolating and clenching a small muscle.
Moving the joints somehow, to achieve a ‘click’ or mobilisation – e.g. moving the joint to the edge of its socket.
Examples of vocal stims can be humming; singing without recognisable words; and making mouth noises (for example sucking on the teeth or cheeks, or clicking the tongue).
Cognitive autism stims
There are also cognitive autistic stims that autists carry out, that seemingly provide some kind of sense of control, comfort or regularity. These could be a particular numerical sum, or counting in a particular formation. (Many autists use echolalia, and sometimes a favoured phrase or number sequence that sounds appealing may be used as a stim.)
There are also other stims, such as: visual stims, e.g. staring at lights or an interesting kinetic picture (like the one at the top of this page), or watching a spinning object; auditory stims, e.g. listening to the same song on a loop; olfactory and oral stims such as sniffing objects or licking and chewing on things; facial tics and features of Tourette syndrome; dermatillomania or picking at the skin (e.g. scabs or hairs), trichotillomania (hair plucking) and also pressure stims – perhaps sitting in a certain way to achieve a sense of pressure.
Self injurious autistic stims
Some individuals may direct a repetitive action on themselves, e.g. hitting their head or face. Stims like this can be detrimental; e.g. in the case of hitting oneself, they are not desirable or helpful in the long term, and can lead to self-harm. In such cases the need to stim may be directed to another object, such as a squeezy toy or boxing punchbag. Using pressure or movement may also be a useful alternative, e.g. pressing the hands against a wall or pressing up from the floor, or bouncing on a Swiss ball. Weighted pressure blankets may also be useful, e.g. to sit or lie under. These ‘tools’ may work to help redress sensory dis-regulation.
Letting off steam
Although some proponents of behavioural training seemingly seek to reduce stims, and frame them as some kind of antisocial behaviour, in fact there is nothing wrong with autistic stims. Remember that autistic individuals may have problems not only with processing feelings, but also sharing their emotions in the expected way. Stims are very often a way of putting an emotion into a physical representation.
So, the above everyday examples of behavioural stims are perfectly normal and acceptable, especially in children who are finding a place in the world; stims should not be discouraged.
They are simply a way of recalibrating, finding a sense of calm, and satisfying an inbuilt need for repetition. “Autistics are easily overloaded, and simply need to release tension more frequently. When I stim, I often feel like an old fashioned boiler letting off pressure; sometimes in tiny bursts, sometimes in huge belches of steam,” writes Kirsten Lindsmith.
Stims can be valuable communicative information, if an autist finds (in that moment) talking difficult. A stim can indicate rising anxiety, for example. This is valuable information for family members accompanying a young autistic child somewhere, and a potential sign that the environment could be stressful.
In the workplace
In situations such as the workplace where autistic stims are not necessarily encouraged or accepted, there are ways to make them less noticeable; e.g. there are many fidget toys or gadgets like pens, chewy stim toys and pieces of tactile jewellery that can divert attention.
Many autistic women for example enjoy having smooth, manicured nails that fulfil a nice sensory need, and touching the nails can be very discreet.
(NB, follower JFC has pointed out that our question: ‘It would be interesting to find out to what extent smoking and vaping is used by autists, to satisfy the need to stim; especially in the workplace’, could be misleading, in that smoking indoors is banned. It was more pondering the concept of the Smoking Break, a social gathering that takes place outside, and whether some autists may smoke or vape to satisfy a stimming need, while also navigating the social landscape. We’d welcome any feedback from smokers/vapers on this matter!)
What else causes autistic stimming?
Sensory challenges are often cited as big causative factors for stims, as the stimming can create a tactile input (e.g. flicking a muslin or blanket, or a clothes label). The action can help self-soothe and calm the individual, if the stim is linked to anxiety or over / under stimulation from noise, lights, socialisation etc.
It’s proposed that stimming can actually cause the release of beta-endorphins in the body, which then causes a feeling of ‘numbness’ from sensory overload, or plain old pleasure.
The main hypotheses and known causes for stimming are: blocking out excess sensory input (in overstimulation); managing emotions; providing extra sensory input (in understimulation); reducing pain; and self-regulating.
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts!
We have read and referenced clinical psychologist Tony Attwood’s work here on Spectra.blog previously. He’s created useful videos on identifying autism spectrum disorders, and we wrote very enthusiastically about how he ‘frames Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism in a positive light.’ He advocates the term ‘discovery ‘over ‘diagnosis’, saying: ‘[The word] ‘discovery’ concludes that this [autistic] person possesses admirable qualities, abilities, and/or talents.’
Our author Kathy Carter was impressed with Professor Attwood’s focus on autists’ strengths; however, it was recently brought to our attention that he’s also renowned for emphasising false stereotypes about autists, and getting laughs at their (our) expense.
NB – this post was written ahead of the talk: ‘Tony Attwood – What you need to know about Autism’, on May fifteenth, 2019, in Sheffield. (Photo below of Professor Attwood by ACMAH).
In short, he DID reduce his ‘disparagement humour’ and was MORE respectful to autists. You can read our balanced report below. We still have concerns, however!
“I promised I would change and I did” – did Professor Tony Attwood’s autism conference pacify the #actuallyautistic community?
A ‘cold touch of affection’?!
One of the most alarming viewpoints Professor Attwood has previously expressed is that autistic mothers, while they can be (in Tony’s words): ‘Remarkable guardians and supporters of [their] children’, ‘They have’, again in his words: ‘The cold touch of affection, rather than the genuine one; and so, we often find that an ‘aspie’ mum marries an extreme neurotypical dad, and so it is Dad who gives the affection; so when a child is upset and falls over, who do they run to? They may run to Dad, not mum.’
(Source – transcript of an ABC radio interview with broadcaster Richard Fidler, on Shona Davison’s website).
In one sweeping statement, he’s disparaged every autistic mother out there!
Is joking about marginalised people OK?
A misguided view? ‘Autistic mothers have the cold touch of affection, rather than the genuine one’.
The ‘cold touch of affection’ comment was seemingly not made as a joke as such; more a (misguided) statement of fact (in Professor Attwood’s opinion); however, he’s well-versed in using humour to attack autists.
Writer, broadcaster and performer Kate Fox wrote an open letter to Professor Attwood following her dismay at comments made during his talk at the National Autistic Society’s 2017 Autism and Mental Health conference. Kate and others believe Professor Attwood deliberately makes jokes at autists’ expense to gain laughs AT them, not WITH them. She quoted social psychologist Thomas Ford’s work on ‘disparagement humour’, agreeing that: ‘When marginalised people are joked about, it gives other people a sense that it’s okay to disparage them too.’
Another writer, Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, wrote dispairingly about Professor Attwood when writing about a talk he made in America. ‘He used humor about autistic people, primarily… An example is when he talked about how he knows when a parent of a child is autistic, [when] he delivers the message about autism diagnosis for their child, and ‘puts on his robot voice’, to imitate the [autistic] parent.’ (Source: ‘Making a mockery of disability’.)
‘Good-natured fun is between people of equal social and political power. When you have a position of greater power and privilege, and you satirize people who comprise a stigmatized, vulnerable, and misunderstood minority, it’s not good-natured fun. When he makes fun of autistic people by grotesquing a stereotype, he sends the message that autistic people are here to be laughed at, [and] to be mocked,” Cohen-Rottenberg writes.
“It was like a trip in time back to the 70s, where Alf Garnett discovers autism…”
A further writer, Paula Sanchez, said, again in response to Professor Attwood’s talk at the National Autistic Society’s 2017 Autism and Mental Health conference: ‘The worst part of the day was Tony Attwood. His talks were chock-full of jokes at our expense… oh, how amusing we are; oh how the audience laughed at his quips about suicide, special interests, IQ, virginity and robots. Attwood’s presentations came across as exploitative and offensive. It was like a trip in time back to the 70s, where Alf Garnett discovers autism.’ (Source: ‘How not to do an autism conference’.)
He knows that autists may not take the joke well…
On his own website, Professor Attwood quotes a study on youths, that states: ‘The adolescents with autism had significantly poorer comprehension of cartoons and jokes. Subjects with autism had difficulty handling surprise and coherence within humorous narratives.’ So, he acknowledges that ‘Individuals with autism have… difficulties in integrating content across narratives and discourse’, and that ‘Adults with high-functioning autism may not achieve a feeling of surprise, if and when they understand the punch line. If they do achieve a feeling of surprise, it may not be converted to one of humour.’
He knows that autists may not take a joke well. He also knows that, as indicated by his comments regarding knowing when a parent of a child is autistic too, that autism often runs in families, and therefore, that many parents attending his talks may also be autistic.
So why does Professor Attwood continue to joke about autistic individuals IN FRONT OF THEM?
Professor Attwood is increasingly raising awareness about female autists, and has written about important subjects including girls with Asperger’s-type presentations of autism: ‘Slipping through the diagnostic net, and being at risk from developing Anorexia Nervosa, due routines and rituals around food.’ He’s supported the author Liane Holliday Willey in the promotion of her book ‘Safety Skills for Asperger Women’ (and wrote the foreword). He’s also got a way with words, and uses them to his advantage.
But given his apparent support for females, how can Tony Attwood reinforce the terrible stereotype that autistic mothers have ‘The cold touch of affection’? It harks back to Kanner’s early thoughts on ‘Refrigerator Mothers’, now outdated. As neither a diagnosed autistic individual nor a mother himself, it’s a terrible sweeping statement for Professor Attwood to make, and upsetting for the parents who look to him for guidance and inspiration.
A 2019 autism conference
This month (May 2019), Professor Attwood is presenting a conference titled: ‘Tony Attwood – What you need to know about Autism’, (cleverly dropping his usual references to ‘Asperger’s’, now that the term has been merged diagnostically with ‘Autism Spectrum Disorder’), in Sheffield. It’s hosted by the ‘Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health’, and it will be interesting to see whether his brand of humour is utilised there, and even endorsed by an organisation pertaining to promote good mental health. Spectra.blog’s curator Kathy Carter is attending the event, along with other #actuallyautistic advocates and writers, including Shona Davison, who has personally crusaded to highlight Professor Attwood’s disparagement humour techniques.
Kathy will be reporting from the event and along with her #actuallyautistic peers, trying to redress the balance, and ‘calling Professor Attwood out’ on his potentially unprofessional and derogatory attitudes, and any mis-judged presentation techniques.
To conclude.. you could argue that we ‘Aspies’ ‘Just don’t get the joke’. Or you could argue that it’s BULLYING… #autisticsdeservebetter
A little disclaimer – here at Spectra.blog we don’t claim to be experts about Autism Spectrum Disorders / Conditions; the information we post here is based purely on our own exposure and experiences. We’d also love your feedback on our posts.