I can clearly remember the first time I was cognitively aware of feeling really different than everyone else. I was probably six or seven years old, standing in our backyard, looking at a maple tree. It was almost as though I was looking through binoculars, but instead of using binoculars, I used the outlines of my nose as though they were the curved edges of the sides of the lenses. I lined up the tree exactly in the center of my visual field and purposefully blinked, as though I were taking a picture of the centered tree in my mind.
At that moment, I was fully aware that what I was doing was unusual, and even thought to myself, “I’m pretty sure no one else does this.” Ever since then, I have had the habit of trying to center things in my field of vision and “taking pictures” of objects by blinking, almost as though my eyelids are camera shutters, so as to capture an image in my mind. I am most aware of doing this when I’m sitting in a room trying to center doorways and windows, although most of the time I do it unconsciously.
One of the characteristics of autism is displaying repetitive behavior of some sort. This can be either verbal or bodily movements, such as hand flapping, rocking back and forth, repeating certain words or phrases, counting, pacing, etc. Some of these behaviors are obvious to others and some aren’t. These types of behaviors are called “stimming”, which is short for self-stimulating behavior.
Stimming probably seems useless to the average person, but is used as a way for an autistic person to calm themselves by providing something familiar to focus on, help them cope with stressful situations and the uncertainties of daily life, or simply for enjoyment or pleasure.
Oddly enough, this strange behavior of mine helps me feel calmer, especially in uncomfortable social situations. Aside from taking mental pictures, I have done other types of stimming over the years. When I was very young, my parents told me that I had a favorite blanket with satin trim that I rubbed between my fingers in order to calm myself down before going to sleep. In first grade, I used to suck on my hair until my teacher told me to stop, so I started biting my nails instead. (She didn’t like that, either, by the way.) When I got older, I flipped pens during class and the TV remote control at home.
I took a typing class in sixth grade, and ever since then I “type” out things with my fingers even when not at a keyboard – things I hear people say, thoughts in my head, song lyrics, road signs, license plates, things I read in a book, really anything with words, letters, or numbers. It’s imperceptible to most people; at most it probably just looks like I’m very slightly wiggling my fingers. Most of the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it. When I’m listening to music or have a song running through my head, I also finger the melodies I hear as though I’m playing the flute. It’s not very often that my fingers aren’t moving in some way or another. I also get certain words or phrases stuck in my head, as if there’s a soundtrack playing on a continuous loop. These words or phrases can be something I hear, think, or read, such as a street sign (“Do not enter, do not enter, do not … “) or license plates (GXI 792, GXI 792, GXI …), and of course I type these out, too.
No one has ever said anything about it to me, so I assume no one has ever noticed. As with any of my unusual habits, I have never tried to explain this to someone because I didn’t think that it would make sense to them, and even now it’s hard to describe my actions in words so that others can understand.
Below is a video I took of myself “typing” out the words as I hear them spoken on the radio. Hopefully this will give you a better idea of what I’m trying to explain.
Do many neurotypical (i.e., “normal”) people use some type of self-stimulating behavior, too? I would guess some of them probably do, although simply having some sort of repetitive habit doesn’t necessarily mean a person is autistic. It’s just one of many characteristics of autism. (See my Autism 101 post for the full list.)
Aside from the calming influence they have on me, my stims have other benefits. For one, I’ve always been really good at typing; I can type about 80 words per minute. And I have an excellent memory, partly, I believe, because of repeating things in my mind over and over again. I tend to remember a lot of trivial things that most people forget. Once again, this is where I make the argument for the positive aspects of autism.
So while these behaviors might seem strange or odd to you or others, stimming is very beneficial to autistic people. If it helps us and doesn’t harm anyone else, I can’t see the problem with it on a basic level. The real problem we face is the task of educating others on what it is and its usefulness to us. In that sense, we still have a long way to go on the road to understanding. Autistic people telling their stories and explaining their behaviors is a good first step.