Thursday, November 12, 2015

To stimm or not to stimm

Silently he walks up to the lazyboy and fits himself snuggly into it’s seat in a foetal position. The pencil that a moment ago was just a thing to be held at all times suddenly takes on a new life. Mo lifts it up to his face and starts to flick it to and fro in close proximity to his eyes with both thumbs and forefingers deftly controlling it’s momentum. Suddenly he seems to enter a state of bewitchment. As he reaches a certain point in his repertoire his features contort to match the intensity of the movement.

“Stop it Moeez You are stimming too much!”  he hears a familiar voice rudely interrupting his ritual. Sometimes he stops for a few seconds to pacify the interloper, at others he has been heard saying “You tell me I am autistic. Autistic people stimm. Then let me stimm!”

Stimming or self-stimulatory behaviour to the on looker presents itself as a repetition of physical movement, sounds or objects. Common examples of stimming are hand flapping, rocking, head banging, squealing and so on.
 To the person with autism it is a self-regulatory mechanism that calms them down, makes them feel good by blocking out external stimuli which may be overwhelming to them and indeed free up some of their neural space to focus on other cognitive tasks.

The fact is that its not only individuals on the spectrum that stimm. You and I stimm as well! What do you think you are doing when you are tapping your feet incessantly during an interview or flicking your toes at night under your comforters to lull yourself into slumber? Us neurotypicals simply get away with our stimms because they don’t look odd or are not socially inappropriate.

I am all for teaching autistic children socially acceptable behaviour and of course one cannot allow their stimming rituals to compromise their safety and health but before we label them as ‘abnormal’ and ‘retarded’ (yes these words are still in use) let us try and enter their world for a few minutes where the texture of a shirt may perpetually feel like sand paper rubbing against the skin, the sound of the fan  comparable to a running chain close to the ears  or the movement of a swing seem like a roller coaster ride. Would one not be forced to engage in all sorts of ‘stimms”?

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)  the prevalence of autistic children is 1 in 68 in the USA. That is a lot of autistic individuals amongst us. So last year, in response to my nagging him about his stimming, when Mo told me, “ Mama, stimming is a part of who I am,” instead of reprimanding him, I felt a huge pride in my son who had asserted his right to be who he was meant to be. In my eyes, that day my 5 foot 1 inch 17 year old stood a foot taller than me. 

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