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Why We Stim: An Homage to Spinning, Rocking and Autistic Worldview


I once took an online class taught by a spiritual teacher and discovered that people pay him a fortune to attend retreats in South America where he shows them- how to stim. Students learn to vibrate their voices and rock and spin their bodies. The process looks and sounds a lot like a bunch of autistic people gathered together doing what comes naturally. Part of me was delighted and somewhat amused to see the normalization of blatant stimming as a pathway to spiritual exploration.  But another part of me felt a wave of sadness thinking of all the people throughout modern history forced to stop stimming and the shame associated with the natural urge to use their bodies in this way. Through time, spiritual traditions have sanctioned stimming as a pathway to the “divine”:  The Sufis spin, indigenous groups around the world entrain their heartbeats with the rhythm of drums and watch smoke prayers swirl to the heavens. Pentecostals wave their hands in the air and sway. Tibetans deep throat chant. . .

Aside from this longstanding tradition of stimming as a bridge to spiritual dimensions, people stim for many reasons. Stimming can:

  • Ease pain. Even self-harming stims like chewing on skin or headbanging often serve the function of overriding other painful physical or emotional sensations that are deemed to be less desirable than any pain resulting from the chosen stim.

  • Alleviate anxiety. Some stims can shift brain waves from beta into a peaceful alpha or theta state.

  • Help one feel more in tune with the body. Some experiences such as trauma and differences in proprioceptive regulation that cause numbness or an "out of body" sensation can be modulated through stimming.

  • Shut out external stimuli and reduce sensory overload. Stimming can help tune out overwhelming and unwanted sensory input.

  • Aid in concentration. Some people with executive function challenges rely on stimming to focus. This can include listening to loud music or fidgeting back and forth.

  • Process emotions. Stimming can help shift the focus from an overwhelming internal emotion to an external physical sensation, bridging the gap between the two to assist with emotional regulation and alexithymia (the struggle to identify and describe one's feelings).

  • Manage impulsivity. Like a pressure valve, stimming can provide an outlet for energy that would otherwise build up. This can prevent people from acting out on larger impulses that might have negative consequences.

  • Maintain a sense of safe and predictable routine when things get hectic. Stimming creates a rhythm that is controlled by the stimmer so that the person knows what to expect.

  • Cope with lack of mental and sensory stimulation. When the brain is not processing adequate physical or emotional input from the environment, stimming can provide this needed feedback to the person.

  • Be a form of communication.  When a person lacks the verbal ability to express, stimming can be an excellent non-verbal tool to express the range of human emotions.

  • Assist in the learning process. Stimming is a valid way to explore the world through the senses. Sniffing and touching for example, give more dimension to the exploration of an object than visual perception alone. Even objects not typically thought to warrant this level of exploration, such as books or cans, have subtle textures and smells that some people are sensitive enough to pick up on.

  • "Feel good" or “satisfying”. Stimming provides tremendous enjoyment to the stimmer. Many neurodivergent people report a preference for stimming as a primary form of entertainment.

Stimming is Linked to Perspective

The medical definition of autism focuses on how people on the spectrum are socially and perceptually disconnected (i.e. avoiding eye contact, missing social cues, focusing on inanimate objects). So, the notion that autistic people are highly connected to the world around us may seem counterintuitive, but it is true. I would argue that this misunderstanding in the medical model rests in the difference between autistic and non-autistic perceptual experiences, that result in very different priorities and worldviews.

The western, neurotypical worldview is highly anthropocentric- placing humans front and center. Neurotypicals expect the focus of engagement to be on people or a primary "character" in the scene with the surrounding environment and objects fading into a background that has less importance and is therefore largely filtered out. This is a meso (mid level) view of the environment and focuses heavily on human behaviors such as verbal and non-verbal language.

In contrast, autistic people tend to look at the macro or micro details and therefore tend to be ecocentric. We focus on the whole environment at once, perceiving a vast interconnected web of movement, color, sound and textures in which we and all other humans are interwoven. Object and background hold equal importance in the autistic mind. This means that the autistic brain will likely have significantly more data points to consider at any given time, often to a point of overwhelm. And when the autistic brain chooses to hyperfocus on one aspect, it may be an inanimate object, a vibration or other sensory input that is not deemed important according to neurotypical rules but has a perfectly valid importance from this ecocentric perspective where everything is interconnected rather than highlighted or filtered out.

If a truck drives by, I don't just hear it. The vibration of the engine courses through my body. Because I feel the sensation deep in my organs, the noise isn't separate from me, it's inside me as part of me. When a sensation is pleasurable this can be a wonderful thing, but if the sensation causes pain, the experience can be traumatizing as there is no escaping it- a dilemma all too familiar to autistic people.

So, what does all of this have to do with stimming? Stimming isn’t just a noticeable isolated action like lining up objects, rocking back and forth or spinning. For those of us on the spectrum, stimming is the primary way we relate to, explore, perceive and interact with our ecocentric world. Stimming connects us deeply to this rich sensory landscape and allows us to process it effectively day in and out.

For example, I often stim on my breathe. I am aware of the vibration that travels cooling the tip of my nose, through my throat and into the lungs mixing with the hint of moisture residing along the way. The sound of air feels safe and satisfying as my abdomen rises and falls. I’m reminded of a ravine in the Rocky Mountains where the sound of wind mirrors the air I breathe and I’m aware of how the tiny particles have swirled through the atmosphere connecting me to the life and inert matter that existed on Earth millions of years ago. 

This isn’t to say that other autistic people are busy thinking about breathing prehistoric air, but this process of sustained focus can give insights into how others might make their own unique connections and then feel grief for example over something like the loss of a rubber band collection being thrown away or become mesmerized as a ceiling fan goes round and round. There is a valid reason someone might develop a strong emotional attachment to objects.

Regardless of function, stimming can clearly ground us in space and time in a way that is distinctly different from the neurotypical perception of the world in which people are clearly defined as separate and distinct. It results in a specific state of being and therefore plays a fundamental role in our identity. And that identity is often more malleable, impermanent and integrated with the things and people around us precisely because it is so stim dependent. 

It' important to acknowledge stimming as an integral part of the autistic life in both its subtle and overt forms. Not just because of the functions it can serve, but because stimming helps to define us and our perception of the world.

Both neurotypical and neurodivergent outlooks serve unique and important functions and the more adept all humans are at utilizing the range of perceptive tools and strategies available, the better we can get along and solve our collective challenges.


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