In the autism world, something like my squishy green ball is generally referred to as a "stim toy". Stim, of course, is short for "self-stimulatory behavior", and is simply a way of producing a sensation that is pleasant to you. (If you don't know what a toy is, go back to nursery school now. We'll wait.)
So What's a Stim?
The classic stereotype of an autistic kid is somebody who flaps their hands, rocks, spins in circles, or spins the wheels of toy cars (why is it always toy cars? Is this some kind of autistic code?). These are all "stims". Some stims are much more subtle actions, like tapping a foot, pacing, tapping one's fingers, playing with one's hair, and playing with interesting objects like a squishy green rubber ball. One of my most subtle stims so far, which I learned as a child after constant admonition to "stop fidgeting", is to twitch muscles in my torso and legs in various patterns. It's hard to detect, which of course is the point.
While my teachers may have been telling me to "stop fidgeting" without realizing that I was anything more than a misbehaving little girl (I got the "misbehavior" label for many of my autistic traits as a child), these teachers were doing exactly the wrong thing. As you may already have guessed, stimming is something that everybody does; people without even a trace of autism will tap their fingers, jiggle their legs, pace, and play with their hair. Little kids are even more prone to it; most enjoy swinging, bouncing, and running for the sheer joy of running. For an autistic person, stims don't fade out like they do with typical kids, and tend to be much more intense--and much more necessary.
What stims are NOT:
- A stim is not a tic (tics, like those associated with Tourette's, are involuntary movements; stims are voluntary, though they are often automatic).
- It's not misbehavior--it's natural, instinctive, and while it can be deliberately done to annoy someone, it almost always isn't.
- It's not an automatic sign of distress (though specific stims in a specific person may be).
- It's not something that is simply pathological and should be "extinguished"; stims have a useful function.
- It's not a purposeless action just because it would be near-useless for someone who does not need that particular stim.
- They're not seen only in autism--as I've mentioned, typical people stim, too, and many non-autistic but neurodiverse people also stim, notably those with sensory integration disorder and repetitive movement disorder (which consists solely of the need to stim).
Every behavior has a purpose. Stims are no different. However odd they look, they are generally indispensable parts of life as an autistic person. The purposes of stimming are varied, and can be any one of, or more than one of, these:
- Stimming can give useful sensory input if you are hyposensitive. You've probably heard of how autistic people can be hyposensitive to pain, or how we might not notice cold, heat, or other physical sensations. This is common on the spectrum. Personally, I am hyposensitive to my position and movement in space, which makes me clumsy and made it difficult for me to learn how to drive (though computer games like Tetris were helpful for learning the required hand-eye coordination). I am also hyposensitive to some kinds of pain, especially superficial injury to the skin. Some of my stims help "remind" me where I am and how my body is positioned. Among them are rocking, bouncing on a trampoline, and wrapping myself in a blanket.
- Stimming can help manage stress and prevent meltdowns. Many stims are calming actions that help you to manage the high stress level that comes from constantly processing a barrage of sensory information, language and communication input and output, and planning/organization-related information (all of which can be more difficult for autistics to handle). It's not uncommon for an autistic person to go through a normal day with a stress level of eight on a ten-scale, while a neurotypical's stress level on the same day peaks at three. This makes us much more vulnerable to meltdowns, which are what happen when your brain refuses to process any more information. Stims bleed off some of the excess overload. If I'm stressed and I need to prevent a meltdown, I will generally lie down on the floor, or under my weighted blanket; if that's impossible, I will curl up in a ball and rock. (Learning to get somewhere by yourself and do what's necessary to prevent meltdowns is an important autistic life skill.)
- Stimming provides pleasant sensory input for the hypersensitive. Just as many autistics are under-sensitive to some things, they can be over-sensitive to others. Hypersensitivity for me is the more common state of affairs; I am hypersensitive to touch, sound, and light. Hypersensitivity can be extremely frustrating and can drive you all the way up to meltdown levels all by itself. Some stims which are pleasant activities for me are looking at a shiny object, squeezing my squishy ball, holding a smooth rock or glass bead, and walking.
- Stimming may help develop sensory processing ability. Why do babies experiment with physical sensations? Because their sensory systems are still immature, they need to "train" their ability to use their senses; without this "training", the child can't develop the ability to use that sense. For example, kids born with cataracts have to have these removed early, or else the brain will not be able to efficiently process information coming from that eye--even after the cataract is removed--because the brain didn't get the chance to wire itself for visual input from the eye. Similarly, autistic people, especially children, may be "practicing" sensory processing (including filtering, sorting through, and understanding the data).
- Stimming can help you concentrate. Some people think better when they're moving; others think better when they're manipulating something in their hands. The brain can be tied to all sorts of things; and what will work best depends on the person. It can be anything from squeezing a stress ball to studying while bouncing up and down or even running. But, like anything, it's highly individual: What helps one person would annoy or distract many others.
- Stimming can be fun. Yes, it really can be. If you're doubtful, think back to the time when you were a kid, and you liked bouncing on a trampoline, riding a bike fast downhill, playing with clay, or (if you can remember that far back) gazing at a mobile above a crib. Even adults--typical ones--have stims they do just for fun. Think of roller coasters, desk toys, or stroking a sleeping cat.
Various kinds of sensory input can be affected by stimming. Here are examples:
- Visual: Looking at spinning objects, shiny objects, lights, dust in the air, patterns on objects, etc. A neurotypical version of a visual stim would be looking at abstract art, which is beautiful not really for any symbolism, but for its direct sensory qualities. At right is a photo of a glass bead which serves as both visual and tactile input; the shiny surface reflects light, and spinning it on a tabletop produces an interesting flashing effect.
- Auditory: Humming, repeating words over and over, rubbing objects to hear the sound, etc.; also--and this is something that neurotypicals will do, too--listening to music. I don't do a lot of this, except for the music. For me, handling auditory input is mostly a matter of blocking it with earplugs.
- Tactile: Touch-oriented stims are sooo common, probably the single most common stim out there. Rubbing things against your hands or face, holding or squeezing them, wrapping yourself in them... all of these are tactile stims. The shiny glass bead pictured above is something I find interesting to rub, too. Tactile stims can also include things like rubbing your skin, pulling or twirling hair, tapping fingers against something, etc. Swimming can feel wonderful, or the feel of water against your skin can be completely overwhelming. Once again, neurotypicals engage in this too--ever seen somebody rubbing their face in an angora sweater? There you go.
- Olfactory: Smelling things. Personally, I stay the heck away from most smelly things, but some autistics do like various smells and seek them out. The green ball, pictured above, smells of rubber, for example. One smell I can't resist is the smell of a new book. When I say I have my nose in a book, sometimes that's literal! Oh, and the NT version? Perfumes, of course, which are possibly the most annoying, overwhelming thing in the world. One person's stim is another person's overload.
- Taste/Texture: Though the autistic oddities with taste and texture of food are much more commonly seen in the form of taste/texture aversion, leading to restricted diets, some people do have stims having to do with taste and texture. Chewing on things (or even eating things that aren't food) can be totally benign, or it can be a problem that causes anything from a sore jaw to poisoning. If you have a problem with this, or just tend to destroy things by chewing on them, it can be helpful to buy a "chew tube"--a rubber piece that is safe to chew on. Personally, I don't have any issues with taste/texture, either hyper- or hyposensitivity; it's the one sense for me that seems pretty close to NT. But one glance at the aisles of a grocery store will tell you that NTs stim with taste/texture preferences... everything from painfully sweet snack cakes to pickled jalapenos. (Love the jalapenos. Snack cakes, not so much.)
- Proprioception: Okay, here's where we get past the usual "five senses". Proprioception is your sense of where your body is located, and how the different parts of your body are moving. Proprioception is part of what allows you to do something without looking at it; for example, it's what allows me to touch-type, or walk without checking to see where my legs are. Lots of repetitive movements fall into the category of proprioception, such as rocking or bouncing. Twitching muscles falls into that category, too; and possibly tapping fingers and swinging or jiggling one's legs. Sometimes, proprioception can be different for small, precise movements versus large movements; I am a great deal better with fine-motor than gross-motor skills. Proprioception overlaps a great deal with...
- Balance/Movement: I lost this sense at one point when I had what the doctors called "benign positional vertigo". It's simply a way of saying, "You can't keep your balance, and we have no idea what's causing it." I had BPV twice. During that time, I used a cane to get extra input on how I was moving--not really to support myself, but to get more information (through my hand and arm) about whether or not I was standing up straight rather than falling down. A lot of input for this sense comes from the semicircular canals, in your inner ear, which are fluid-filled spaces that help you sense how you're moving--whether you're spinning, moving in some direction, or sitting still. Deliberate stimulation of this sense often comes in the form of bouncing, rocking, spinning, swinging, and jumping. Running, walking, or riding a bicycle also create input into the vestibular system. When I was very little, my mom rocked me in a baby sling constantly; it was often the only way to get me to calm down.And the neurotypical version? Among other things, roller coasters.
- Pressure: Pressure is often conflated with touch; but I think it's a somewhat different thing. Light touch is received by different sensors from deep pressure. It's also been noted that there are quite a few autistics who love pressure, but can't stand light touch because their sensory systems are wired in a way that makes light touch very difficult to process. Weighted blankets and vests are a way to produce deep pressure; so is wrapping oneself in a blanket, or, if one is small enough, crawling under the couch cushions! I have a weighted blanket under which I sleep at night. Pressure is the sense that Temple Grandin was trying to access when she invented a "hug machine" (basically a contraption to produce controllable pressure--you can do a search on it to learn more).
- Pain: A stim for the sense of pain? For some people, yes. Autism and pain are pretty oddly connected to begin with; you can be too sensitive or not sensitive enough, and sometimes both in the same person (which it is usually depends on the kind of pain). And there's also the phenomenon that results in autistics experiencing pain relatively normally, but not experiencing it as negative; or else experiencing it but not expressing it. (It's even possible to be hypersensitive to pain, but not able to express it--and this doesn't just happen to people who can't speak.) Pain-related stims include biting, pinching, hitting oneself or hard surfaces, cutting or scratching oneself, and other various kinds of self-injury.
So why would someone stim in a way that was actually painful? Well, first, it may not be a stim; it could be simple self-injury of the sort seen in distressed people with all sorts of different neurology, including NTs. There are reasons that anyone might have for engaging in self-injury. Pain and injury, as a stimulus, has very interesting effects on the human body, autistic or not; it draws intense attention to itself (breaking you out of dissociation), forces your body to tap into its reserves (increasing stress tolerance), and can sometimes create an "endorphin rush", similar to a runner's high. I used self-injury to create this "tapping into reserves" when I was trying to do more than I was capable of with everyday energy; this is near-universally a maladaptive coping strategy because it will, as it did with me, lead to burnout. But you have to be careful when you see self-injury and autism together: They may not actually be feeling the pain; or may not be interpreting it as negative. Also, it may not be "self-injury" in the sense that it would be for a neurotypical person; it may be more along the lines of a touch, movement, or pressure stim that simply happens to create injury as a side effect. When dealing with a problem of this sort, it's often worth it to investigate: Am I doing this because the effects of injury have some benefit for me? Or is it more of a stim? As with any kind of self-injury, the basic approach tends to be to figure out why you are doing what you are doing, and then either remove the need to do it, or find another way to fill the need.
What's a stim toy? Well, by now, you probably have a pretty good idea. A stim toy is something that someone uses specifically because it provides interesting sensory input. Many of them are sold as children's toys: Koosh balls, squishy or stretchy objects, putty, bubbles, pinwheels, and mobiles. Many are sold as "desk toys" or "fidget toys", such as stress balls, singing magnets, or a Newton's cradle. Others are specialty products produced for occupational and physical therapy use. And many can simply be found in everyday life. The glass bead pictured above was sold as a decorative object for use in fish tanks and vases; I've also found pebbles, keychains, and even coins that have interesting properties. Some people will carry a stim toy with them everywhere they go, and some special ed (and, increasingly, regular) classes will pass out things like stress balls to fidgety students.
When to "Edit" Your Stimming
Stims can be very useful; but sometimes, they get in the way. The question, "How much does a stim have to get in the way to be considered a problem?" The answer is quite personal, and something that has to be investigated for you, in particular, rather than relying on the big "autism" category you happen to be in.
Rule of thumb? When a stim hurts more than it helps, it's time to find another one to replace it. Don't just suppress a stim. That's a bad idea because that stim was performing some kind of function, and if you suppress it, you no longer have access to the function. If you can find out what purpose it serves for you--what kind of sensory input you like, and what you want it to do--then you can often find another way to fill that same function.
Physical injury is one good reason to re-direct a stim; whether it's from repetitive movement injury, deliberate self-injury, ingestion of things that don't agree with you, or the side-effects of a stim that's too vigorous (for example, the problem of head-banging, which is generally a vestibular or occasionally pain-related stim, and can cause retinal damage and occasionally concussions--but banging one's head while wearing a helmet, or against a soft object, can be quite safe). But not all physical injuries are severe; and some are even acceptable. If all you end up with is scratches, minor bruises, or similarly manageable problems (with no potential to accidentally injure yourself worse than that), you may simply decide not to try to re-direct that stim.
More problematic is the issue of time spent. Some stims will be something you do while you're thinking or while you're doing something else; others take up all of your attention, and to many people, they may seem quite useless because you are, for example, "just staring into thin air" (the response many people get when they are looking at dust motes in a sunbeam). But there's the thing: These are not "useless" actions; they are often ways to relax, manage stress, or retreat when one is overwhelmed; and removing them can often result in meltdowns. It's often necessary to have this kind of "down time" during which one can relax. If you are going to tamper with these, make sure you are aware of your own stress levels and relaxation requirements.
Some stims have the problem of distracting or annoying others. Once again, just because it distracts or annoys someone else doesn't mean you necessarily must be rid of it. You may be able to find a compromise, such as sitting out of that person's range of vision, or adjusting the stim itself so that it is no longer so apparent.
And then there's the problem of stims that "look weird". If you're trying to fly under the radar, you may want to suppress stims for some time; but beware of the effect on your stress level, and beware that you may not be able to perform as well, or learn as well, while suppressing stims as you would if you let yourself do what came naturally. This is of course related to all of the problems of "passing" for non-disabled, and the associated issues of prejudice and the many assumptions people make about someone who looks "autistic" to them. Doing this long-term can create a great deal of stress, and can cause you to try to find other, unhealthy coping strategies. Don't fall into the trap of assuming that "looking normal" is your first priority. There are many things that are more important. Sometimes, you have to look a little weird. But if you are bound and determined to look as normal as possible, remember that stimming is not just the province of autistic people, and that NTs have many "acceptable" ways of stimming which you can probably adopt.
So how do you actually replace one stim with another? It's pretty much like changing a habit: It takes time, and you probably won't get it right on the first try. But replacing it is a great deal easier than just trying to stop; you do it for a reason, and whatever reason that is, you've got to find a way to either not need it, or else to find another way to do it: That is, either remove the reason, or find another way to act on it. Some stims, the stress-related ones, can be phased out if the source of the stress is removed (but may still be useful in periods of unusually high stress). Others are simply there because they're fun, because they're what you naturally do, or because you're using them to deal with the simple stress of being alive and conscious and trying to process even the most comfortable surroundings. In that case, if you have to replace them, find out why you do what you do, and then find another way to do it. Simple (and complicated) as that.