Saturday, May 19, 2012

Self-Stimming vs "Acting Normal"

As long as I can remember, I've had a strong urge to do certain things when I'm tense. For example: rock back and forth, flap my hands, clutch my head with both hands, and make all sorts of vocal noises ranging from moaning to screeching. It relieves a lot of the tension. At some point before I was full-grown, I don't remember exactly when, I noticed that other people seemed to consider this behavior weird, and so I stopped doing it unless I was alone. I kept doing it, I just would always go off by myself first, away from everybody else, including my siblings and parents. On rare occasions the need to rock or screech or flap, or what have you, was so powerful that I would run off in the middle of a class or a date or away from a workplace. If I was asked later why I ran off, I would lie, saying it was a bathroom emergency or a sudden attack of nausea or something like that.

Then a few years ago I found out that I'm autistic, and that all of those behaviors are very typical for autistics who are wound up. Collectively they're referred to as self-stimmimg.

I don't try to hide the fact that I'm autistic -- actually, I'm diagnosed as an Asperger, but it seems to me, and apparently to a growing number of professionals in the field, that Asperger's and high-functioning autism are one and the same -- but I still generally don't do the self-stimming behaviors in front of other people. More than generally. The only exception I can think of at the moment, when I deliberately let someone see and hear the whole thing, without holding back, has been with a psychotherapist who specializes in treating autistic adults.

But I'm wondering whether I should bother to try to hide this anymore. I thought about it a lot yesterday. It was a long difficult day, and late in the day I was in a crowded public place and I felt an urgent need to rock or screech or something. Actually I couldn't stop myself from making a few unusual noises, and I clutched my head a little bit. But before I let loose completely with the self-stimmimg behavior, I got off by myself first, as usual.

If people see and hear me doing those things, they definitely will find it weird. There's no question about that. A couple of other questions occur to me, though: Does it matter if they find it weird? and: Do I already seem weird to them anyway, trying as hard as I can to "act normal"? Am I actually fooling anybody?

If a parent or caregiver of an autistic is reading this and has been wondering what to do about moaning, rocking, whooping, spinning, screeching, head-clutching, hand-rubbing and so forth, my advice is, one, let them do it, as long as it's not something that hurts them like banging their head against something hard, and two, try to find out what is stressing them, because they're doing all of those things because they're stressed. Oh, and three, don't worry if the behaviors don't stop altogether after you've addressed the sources of stress. A certain amount of it is normal even when everything is pretty much hunky-dory. Autistic, neurologically-typical or none of the above, nobody has a totally stress-free life.

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