When and Why You Might Want to Control Your Stims

I’m a big believer in stimming.  Even before I knew I was autistic, I was always a big stimmer – constantly fidgeting, bouncing, biting things, etc.  In general, I think everyone should be free to stim as they like.  But I also have a controversial idea: I believe that there are times and situations in which you should control your stims.  Wait, don’t close the window yet!  I absolutely do not condone “quiet hands” or suppressing stims for no reason.  What I mean is that, as an adult, you should be able to choose what stims you use, whether at home, at work, or in public.    

I’m not talking about stopping stims, just redirecting them into a stim that will give the same effect without causing problems or drawing unwanted attention. 

Still with me?  Good, let’s talk about it.  

A Note on Harmful Stims

Some stims like headbanging, scratching, biting oneself or others, etc., need to be addressed in any situation.  Stimming, especially this kind, is communication, so find out why the harmful stim is going on and address the cause.  Then the harmful stim should dissipate or transform into another kind of stimming behavior.

There’s another side to that, though.  Some stims can look harmful without being so.  For example, I love to thump my chest.  When I hit my sternum just right, I get nice big vibrations that resonate through my whole torso and it can be really calming.  I never hit myself hard enough to bruise or anything, but it looks kind of rough – so I choose not to do it in front of people.  Anything that makes people think you’re being violent or out of control is not something you want to do in public, for your own safety.

Socially Inappropriate Stims

I know, I know, we’re all socially inappropriate – but here I mean stims that might frighten people or create a dangerous situation in public.  For instance, a friend of mine is a special education teacher and is on the spectrum herself.  She told me that one of her students stimmed by spinning in circles.  This sounds like fun to me, but it doesn’t go over too well in a school setting and I’ve never seen a job where you could do that.  That said, maybe you could spin in an office chair now and then throughout the workday.  Those things twist really well, too.  What else could give the same kind of vestibular stimulation?    

Another student I heard about stimmed by repeating a phrase – usually something from a movie or video game – and that phrase might be harmless or might be offensive or even violent, depending on the day.  My first thought about this is to create a list of phrases you could use and pick one for each day.  I don’t know much about this kind of stim, myself – anyone have other ideas?

“In Public” Stimming

Here’s my biggest thing: I want to stim all the time, I just don’t want people staring at me or giving me crap for doing it.  I don’t think that’s really so much to ask.  Unfortunately, a lot of the NT world hasn’t figured that out yet.  So, just like I’ve come up with some office-safe stimming options, I have a set of “public” stimming choices. 

If I just want to keep my hands busy, a fidget cube is great, or even a simple hair tie on my wrist.  I do rock in public, but I usually keep it smaller than I would at home.  I’ve even been known to use my headphones (with or without music playing) as a cover for bouncing on the balls of my feet or tapping my feet.

Isn’t That Just Masking, Though?

It’s a good point.  Changing your stimming behavior based on where you are and what you’re doing might be considered masking.  It could also be considered self-preservation, seeing as showing off one’s autism can be a magnet for bad treatment.  Or maybe it’s more like code-switching: speaking and behaving in one way among one group of people and another way around another set of people.  Or perhaps it’s a step on the way to full autism acceptance. 

I don’t mean to imply that any autistic person should completely suppress their stims for any reason.  I don’t even want NT people to feel the need to hide their “weirdness”.  (Come on, NTs, it’s fun to be weird!)  But everyone knows that you act one way with family, and another way with co-workers, and still another way with strangers you interact with during the day.     

Personally, I think choosing your stims intentionally is part of being a well-functioning autistic adult, just like working out how to keep your bills paid and learning to keep yourself fed.  Just as with other aspects of adult life, you don’t need to force your brain into someone else’s mold.  Instead, work with your brain to achieve the same ends in your own way, including using stimming to keep yourself regulated and calm.

What do you think – am I way out of line here?  Do you have thoughts about “public” stimming possibilities?  Do you change your stimming behaviors at work or at school?  Is it a challenge for you to do that?     

When and why you might want to control your stims

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