"Stimming" (in quotes for the last time in this story) is fairly common to the autism spectrum. There are a hundred different definitions in a hundred different books and they all are probably correct. I don't believe a simple definition can sum up everything that stimming is, or what it does, for people on the autism spectrum. For example, here is a dictionary definition:
Stimming is a repetitive body movement that self-stimulates one or more senses in a regulated manner.
That's a pretty broad definition. Nothing about the how or why of the beast. Nothing particularly helpful at all.
Now that we've confused things nicely, let's talk about my son, Haydn's, stimming.
Haydn (for those who are new to "Haydn's World) is my six year old son. He is always silly, often brilliant, and way too cute to be my kid. He was diagnosed at the age of four, with Asperger Syndrome. Along with his super-power (that's what we call it) come the usual band of villains - sensory processing disorder, pragmatic language deficiency, o.c.d., proprioceptive dysfunction, social anxiety... stop me if you've heard this one before. One of the coping techniques that seems to be easy for little guys like Haydn to implement, is stimming.
Haydn started stimming at a young age. He took the lids off of boxes and containers and spun them like a top. He grabbed his little trucks and spun their wheels endlessly. My initial reaction was, "My boy's a genius. He can make a toy out of anything!" (Ah, the days of my blissful ignorance)
The spinning progressed to where he took toys (or anything else for that matter) apart in order to find a part to spin.
Small warning bells going off now.
When Haydn was about two and a half, three years old, light switches made their entrance. He NEEDED to flip light switches. He could not help himself. I think he used the light switches as a tool to calm himself while he got acclimated to a new environment. He walked the perimeter of every room, hugging the walls and checking out the switches, everywhere he went. He walked from room to room, and flipped light switches on and off, slowly working his way through the entire house. It usually took about fifteen minutes and then he was ready to barely engage the people in the house.
Since then, we spent hours upon hours working on controlling this impulse, and after about three hundred years we helped Haydn get it under control. He no longer walks the perimeter of new rooms and does not flip switches. Every once in a while he falls off the wagon, but he more or less has this one under control.
(He DOES get a pass in one location... His Room. Haydn's room is his sanctuary, a place where he can stim and spin and do whatever he feels like doing with very relaxed rules and no consequences. I want him to have one place that he can go to where he does not have to worry about the 'typical' rules of behavior. A place where he let his spectrum flag fly)
Because stimming is a significant part of his behavioral make-up, he and I have talked about it at length (simple terms, he is only six) and I have tried to explain to him what it means, and why he does it.
More overt physical stimming revealed itself as Haydn got older. He started "flapping his wings," as he calls it, when he is a heightened sensory environment (any place that is very crowded or loud). He wiggles and hops around more, and sometimes, he spins himself around in circles when he gets overly excited.
On a rare occasion, he will kick it old school and take it to the light switches, or grab an object and give it a good spin. More often than not, he will just sit and WATCH a fan or toy spin, all the while making grand proclamations concerning the awesome-ness of that which is spinning, and always making sure to tell us four or ten times.
The stim-beast is always lurking in the shadows of Haydn's life, and will make an appearance anywhere, at any time. He and I recently went to a favorite store of his to look at some potential gifts for Christmas, and he spent the first few minutes staring at a spin-art toy as it circled round and round.
"Haydn, what are you doing over there?"
"I'm stimming on the spin-art, Daddy-o." Of course you are...
(He's becoming very self-aware in his old age)
In Haydn's World there are two types of stimming. There is stimming that can be ignored, or passed off as "normal" behavior, (looking at fans, watching wheels spin, spinning himself in circles, snapping his fingers, etc.), and there is stimming that is stigmatizing behavior:
"STIGMING." (My word, learn to love it)
In Haydn's World, appropriate stimming is not discouraged. I know that when he starts to stim, there is usually a pretty good reason for it, and finding the cause of the stress is more important to me than the actual behavior. I will talk with him, and try to pin-point the source of his stress, and when we find it, figure how we can deal with it. Haydn, like most Aspies, has some pragmatic language deficiencies, so getting to the point can take a little time and patience, but with a little work, we usually get our answers. As far as behavior goes, if any other kid would do it, Haydn can do it. It's that simple. If it looks a little odd, we try to get it under control. One of our principal concerns in Haydn's World, is perception. We are constantly attempting to decipher how Haydn perceives things and, help to shape how people perceive him. I find it unfortunate that I have to spend so much time worrying about what other people may think, but as a child, how you behave pretty much defines who you are to your peers.
So stimming is acceptable in Haydn's World. As long as he doesn't freak out the neuro-typical kids (the typpies, as we like to call them) too much, or their moms (usually more of an issue than the kids at this point), he can do whatever he needs to do.
Stigming, is the type of behavior that will make another kid stop and stare. Flapping, twitching, flipping switches, EXCESSIVE spinning in circles, eating paper (I guess he's got a little goat in him), anything that will make another kid stop what he is doing and start nosing around in Haydn's business, or worse, ask him what he's doing. (It's not so bad if the kids ask, but the parents can be a problem sometimes. I usually tell them not to stare too long, or they will catch what Haydn has, and give it to their kids. They never seem to get the joke).
Haydn is pretty good at controlling his impulses, but he IS still just a little boy. This type of self control is extremely difficult, and when he turned five, some of these behaviors, particularly the wing flapping, popped up a little more, so we worked on some anti-stigming moves.
We walk though the main concourse at the Bergen Mall and Haydn is clearly having a moment. He jumps and spins a little more than usual, and the wings are primed and ready for take off.
"Haydn, are you alright?"
"My ears are bothering me Daddy-o."
"Would you like to get out of here for a minute?"
"No!" God forbid we leave the mall
"What should we do?"
"Do you like the lights in the old gym?" Whoops, lost him.
Suddenly, the wings are out and Haydn is cleared for take-off.
"Are you sure you're OK, Haydn?"
"I'm not leaving the mall!" There he is! Back in the conversation
"I'd like you to try to keep the hands under control if you can."
"Do you like the Hello-Goodbye song?" Excuse me? The Beatles?
"Love it. Why don't you try to make a fist and hold it down low, when your wings start to flap. I don't want you to accidentally hit somebody in the face and give them a boo-boo."
"OK, Daddy-o." No reaction. Still flapping.
Haydn is a good boy, and the last thing he wants to do is hurt another kid. I don't want to make him too self conscious of his stigming, by making a big deal about the actual behavior. I just want to find something that motivates him to keep things under control, without embarrassing him.
The crowd is buzzing and the wings are really a-flapping. I try to help calm him down again.
"Haydn why don't you try making a..."
He starts to jump and hop and appears to be ready to flap his way to ceiling. It looks like he is actually going to explode out of his skin. Then he just stops. He starts to talk to himself very quietly. Knowing Haydn, he is probably running through the steps necessary to calm himself down.
Or he could just be talking about the mall light fixtures...
He talks quietly under his breath for a few more seconds, slowly lowers his arms down to his waist, and locks his fingers together. He looks at me with bright blue eyes...
"Hey Daddy-o, I locked up my wings."
"That's terrific Haydn. I am so proud of you."
There you go. He did it once (pretty much on his own!)... He can do it again.
I watch him walk with his hands locked up for a few seconds, hopping and skipping, with a huge smile on his face. He quickly releases his fingers and...
The wings have been put to rest.
"Hey Daddy-o, can we go to see the toys at the Mickey Store?"
"Of course. Anything you want kiddo."
So, Haydn, the wing tamer, and his very proud Daddy-o walk into the Disney Store to check out some toys. It looks like Haydn is starting to develop a better understanding of who he is and how his mind works.
He is a little better at controlling his impulses, and he is figuring out how to solve these problems on his own.
He is growing up right before my eyes.
Rips a label off of a Buzz Lightyear suitcase, stuffs it in his mouth, and starts to eat it...