70: Don’t Sweat the Stimmies

70: Don’t Sweat the Stimmies

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum

Don’t Sweat the Stimmies

What we see depends mainly on what we look for.

~John Lubbock

I would venture to guess that every spectrum parent has, at one point or another, looked for the autism in themselves — perhaps even questioned their own neurotypical-ness. For myself, I didn’t have to look very far.

From the time I was an infant, I hand flapped. Not with a gentle motion, but with a powerful intensity that engages my entire person. My body tenses, I take a deep breath, my mouth opens, my head cocks to the side and my hands flap wildly at the wrists. Anyone who saw me in full flap mode, without knowing me in any other context, would probably think I was mentally handicapped, certainly not capable of doing all of the things that I do on a daily basis.

As a young child, I didn’t realize that there was anything strange about it. My family found it endearing, and no one made me feel weird until I started first grade. I clearly remember a little girl asking me, “Why do you do this?” while simultaneously mimicking the behavior. She wasn’t teasing me. It was a genuine question, but it was the first time that I understood that it wasn’t considered “normal.”

After that day I started trying to suppress it. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. You see, hand flapping wasn’t something I decided to do. It was the natural outflow of what I was feeling in the moment. Often I wasn’t even aware I was doing it for several seconds. With practice, I learned to catch myself sooner and sooner, until eventually, I could stop before it started without consciously thinking about it.

However, the feelings attached to it never went away. I still felt the rush of excitement and my body tensing. I needed some type of release for that. So subconsciously, a new, more socially acceptable option emerged. I started tightly squeezing my thumbs inside my fists. I was able to keep my arms at my sides and do this very subtly without drawing attention. Still, though I never consciously thought about it, the hand flapping would always resurface whenever I was alone — even to this day. The thumb squeezing is never quite as satisfying as the flapping. It helps to suppress the urge, but it doesn’t truly replace it. It’s kind of like when you have to sneeze. You can hold it in, but it doesn’t produce the same relief as actually sneezing.

My husband Nick was the first person who ever mentioned the thumb squeezing to me, but it was clear to me that he found it as precious as my family had found the hand flapping when I was a child. One night when we were out on a date he said, “You’re happy.” I asked how he knew. He gestured toward my hands, clenched into white-knuckled fists with my thumbs tucked under the pointer fingers. “You do that when you’re happy.” Yes, this guy was a keeper. He paid attention, and he loved me for every last morsel of who I was — quirks and all.

Fast forward to motherhood. I was teaching Luke to play with a racecar toy he had just gotten as a present. He was seven months old. He finally got it and I started yelling with glee: “Yay! You did it!” Immediately I saw Luke’s eyes widen and light up, and his whole body tensed until it shook with excitement. I knew that face and smiled. He got that from me.

Stimming is a very positive experience. It’s the ability to feel joy and excitement and satisfaction beyond what most people do. The word in the English language that best describes it is euphoric. It’s enjoyment on a whole new level. For me, the urge to flap is most closely linked to feelings of pride and accomplishment. I can’t manufacture the sensation. I can’t tell myself, “Okay, I’m going to hand flap now.” If I did, it would be no more satisfying to me than it is to anyone else. It has to be spontaneous, based on the circumstances of the moment. As a teenager, I most often flapped while doing homework. Type a sentence. Flap, flap, flap. Type again. Flap. Reread it to see how it sounds. Flap, flap. In case you’re wondering, I’m flapping as I write this story. Flap, flap.

Today, it most frequently happens while watching my children. For some reason, I have never suppressed it in front of them. I suppose because I don’t feel the need to keep up appearances. I’m sure we are quite the sight to behold. Luke is tensing with excitement while playing with his iPad. I’m flapping away while watching him. Faith is doing it too, although it is clear that she is only copying us. She doesn’t have the hand-flapping gene, and I’m sure that as Luke gets older and becomes more socially aware, he’ll learn ways to mitigate his stimming just like I did.

I was uniquely designed to be Luke’s mom, and I’m thankful to have an extra special glimpse into his psyche — to feel what he feels, and to be able to tell others about stimming from first-hand experience.

~Joyce Rohe

More stories from our partners