Stimming, short for self stimulation, has been a way for people to cope with anxiety for probably all of mankind’s history. It has gained fresh focus in the world of autism, as community members and caregivers find ways to name and categorize coping techniques.
Think for example of the “worry stone” – a small thumb-sized stone with a worn indent on one side. This stone can easily be carried in the pocket. The smooth texture is soothing when the person rubs their thumb over it. Worry stones have been around for thousands of years. We know ancient Greeks used them. Native Americans would pass them from parent to child. The stone eases worries and anxieties with that repetitive motion.
On the other end of the spectrum is the fidget spinner, a relatively new entry into the world of stimming. It’s smooth whirring and repetitive sounds draw in the mind and release anxiety.
If you go all the way back in time, think about meditation and chanting. A purpose of meditation and chanting is to release anxiety. It draws the mind into the repetitive pattern of the chanting so that everything else falls away.
How Does Stimming Work?
The human brain can get overloaded with sensory input. Sometimes the overload happens when the mind gets caught up in loops worrying about what’s going to happen in the future. The solution is to distract the mind with something else calming and immediate.
Stimming provides that focus.
Sometimes stimming can be audio, like repeating a set of words or mantra. Religious and spiritual communities discovered the soothing quality of that thousands of years ago.
Sometimes the stimming combines both texture and sound. Clapping provides both noise and touch to increase the drawing of focus. So does finger-snapping.
All people of all mental types tend to engage in stimming of one type or another. A neurotypical person might repeat a mantra to meditate. An autistic person might repeat Pokemon names to calm. The only real difference is that the autistic person might do it more often. One could say maybe the autistic person is just more anxious, because of the extra sensory issues they are challenged with.
The Challenges with Stimming
If a spiritual person meditated for an hour a day saying mantras, they might be praised for their focus. If an autistic person spent an hour a day reciting baseball scores, they might be categorized as having issues. So some of this has to do with how society “judges” people.
But it’s worth noting that people fall into habits. A spiritual person who prays for an hour each morning could be encouraged by family for their dedication. But it could be that an autistic person finds solace in a habit which is harmful to their body – scratching, head-banging, and so on. They get used to the routine, and the pain provides a temporary escape from the outer pain the world is causing. It can be hard to break these kinds of habits.
It’s always about balance. We all need a way to self-regulate to deal with anxiety. It’s important to try to find methods which help us get through the anxiety without harming our bodies. It’s also useful to find techniques which we can use in a social setting that doesn’t add to the anxiety. So while a worry stone in a pocket is a perfect “hidden escape”, twirling in circles with your arms wide is probably less socially acceptable.
But sometimes you just have to twirl.
Image of tigers eye worry stone used as fair use to go with product link.