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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte


Sensory Language

When the realisation that I am autistic sent me whirling along the road of self discovery, one of my major and first realisations was about my stimming. Not just what it is, but how much I stim. And how unaware I had been of all the little actions and behaviours that I had been doing all my life to help me regulate.

The topic came up in a recent peer support group and it was clear I wasn't the only one with a later in life realisation who had wandered down this same side road on the big never ending journey towards greater understanding of self.

It was also clear that due to the narrow definitions and explanations of stimming that dominate literature around this topic many autistic people are unaware of their own stimming needs. Something that could be impacting not just wellbeing, but also feeding that imposter fairy and preventing people from recognising their own autistic identity.

Stimming is short for self-stimulation. I'm not a fan on this term as it feels externally imposed and a little like it doesn't quite sum up the intentions of this behaviour, but it's all I have to work with, so let's stick with it. A stim is the phrase used to describe the individual action, such as hand flapping. Stimming as a behaviour stems from a need to regulate and/or stimulate the sensory and/or mental and physical self. Stimming can be described as repetitive actions, but it isn't always so.

When it comes to our senses, we stim to regulate the 5 well known senses - taste, touch, sight, hearing and smell and also 3 not so well known senses - the vestibular, (movement) proprioceptive (body position) and interoceptive (body sensations) senses

Often we’ve found ways to mask or camouflage our stims, even without conscious thought, to make them seem more socially acceptable/to avoid unwanted attention or censure. Or we don’t realise that what we are doing is stimming and how it is helping to regulate us.

I have flapped my hands all my life, yet I only did it when I went into a toilet or bathroom, when I was guaranteed to be alone. I did it when I had been very busy, or when I was really excited. It would build up as a physical sensation, the need I mean. And letting that energy go was like being able to breathe again after holding my breath. It let out the buzzy energy and processed the feelings that were zooming around inside of me.

I never understood what it was until I saw Chris Packham’s documentary ‘Asperger’s and Me’ and there was video of a young autistic toddler doing the exact movements I do. That was one of those 'THIS IS ME, WHY DID NOBODY SEE THIS' moments. Somewhere, young Charlotte learned or was ‘taught’ to hide that behaviour and only let it out when it was ‘safe’ to do so. A survival skill.

I loved dancing as a teenager and young adult and I loved going to nightclubs. (So different from the stereotype of an autistic person right?) Dancing is made of repeated movements, people dance to feel better. Dancing is a stim, it is one of my longest standing stims.

When I dance within a large crowd, I can move my body and there is no need to stay still, the beat of the music fills my head and quiets the constant rush of thought and anxiety. The best part is - everybody is doing the same thing at the same time, in fact it's expected at a nightclub! For me it's socially accepted stimming.

I often put music on in the house, sometimes through earphones to drown out all other stimulation and dance around to help bring to the surface some stuck emotions, or process a thought, find an answer to something analytical cognitive actions just can't do.

Yet, searching for stimming online brings up too many articles describing the behaviour as a ‘symptom’, filled with deficit based language which speaks of managing this behaviour as well as attempts to place an external judgment on what is considered inappropriate or harmful.

Yes, some of my own stims are harmful to my health, I am a teeth clencher especially when stressed leading to chronic pain and dental problems for example. I hold my muscles tense most of the day. I am clenching my teeth as I write this because it helps me focus and because I'm anxiously rushing to finish before the kids come in from school!

For some autistic people stimming can dominate too much or lead to physical harm and support to understand this and reduce or replace with less harmful stims can help, I need to find a replacement stim for teeth clenching, but being forced to supress stims will likely lead to poor wellbeing for an autistic individual.

If an autistic person is noticeably stimming, this may be their way of expressing feelings or emotions without speaking verbally. When I facilitate our peer support sessions I pay attention to our peers stims, or lack of, and how they are holding their body. It can tell me how okay someone is feeling (but I never assume and I never bring it up other than to reassure people they can move and stim in the session, the need for stimming and stims are as individual as the person).

If I am stimming more in a situation my body and mind is telling me something about the situation or environment I am in. And this can be that I'm feeling positivity or flow, not just negative feedback.

I see stimming as another form of non-verbal language, in effect it’s body language. Stimming is how I experience my world and allows me to feel more connected with my body and in tune with my surroundings and how my body physically processes different experiences. It is how my body and mind talk to me. I now flap my hands whenever I want to at home, I' m still working on feeling okay to do so outside.

For many of us, stims are significantly helpful for both our wellbeing, mental health and ability to navigate our world and do not have any significant impact on other people around us. My flapping hands may distract you slightly when you speak to me, or it may seem just different, but does it really cause you any harm..? I'd like to ask of other people we encounter to learn to both accept and ‘speak’ this language too!

What are your stims?

Why do we stim?

  • Self-soothing and regulation

  • Reaction to understimulation as well as over stimulation and helping us to control our responses

  • Help to concentrate and focus

  • Pleasurable, positive sensory feedback

  • Can help control responses to sensory stimulation

  • Sensing place in relation to surrounding space, sensory feedback. Related to proprioception input and regulating this sense.

  • To process thoughts, to help with decision making.

  • To tune into our bodily state.

Types of stims (just some examples, there are many more!)

  • Rocking.

  • Scratching skin, picking skin.

  • Moving toes - Balling toes, tucking toes under, sitting with feet at tip toe position

  • Holding thumb

  • Clicking noises in throat, tongue clicking

  • Placing tongue on teeth

  • Tensing muscles – holding our body tense.

  • Clenching teeth, grinding teeth

  • Rubbing fingers and thumbs together

  • Walking on tip toe

  • Flapping hands

  • Listening to a well loved song on repeat, often to hear a certain tone of voice or musical beat. (Nightshift by the Commodores, that first few beats- hits lovely parts of my brain!)

  • Blinking

  • Feeling textures

  • Digging finger nails into skin

  • Clearing throat

  • Sniffing repeatedly

  • Certain smells.

  • Dancing

  • Wriggling

  • Rubbing feet together/rubbing hands together

  • Feeling the need to sit in a certain position - such as legs tucked under.

Image attributed to Leah Kelley, please see:

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