Aspergers and Stimming: Hair-Pulling

I have a question for my Aspie readers: How many of you regularly engage in something called “stimming,” which means repetitive, self-stimulating activities? I’m talking about things such as foot-tapping, finger-biting, playing with pens, making noises with your mouth, bouncing up and down, messing with your hair – stuff that you find yourself doing impulsively, usually when you’re really bored or nervous.

Come on guys, be honest. I’m willing to bet that most of you with Asperger Syndrome do at least a little bit of stimming every once in a while. Don’t worry about though, it’s nothing to really be ashamed of. I confess that I engage those sorts of activities almost constantly, even to this very day. I am unwilling, however, to describe in full detail the kinds of things that I usually do. Yeah, I know that I said it’s nothing to be ashamed of, but it can still be very embarrassing, and I think you understand why I’d prefer to keep it to myself.

I will, however, share a past instance of stimming that ultimately resulted in a pretty big change in my life. Starting in early middle school, I believe, I began impulsively pulling hair out of my head. This would usually occur during classes or when I was feeling particularly bored or anxious. I would either pluck individual strands of hair one by one, or I would twirl a bunch of strands at once and then pull them all out. Please do not ask why I did this. I honestly have no idea why I thought this was a good way to calm myself down or pass the time. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I knew at the time that I shouldn’t pull my hair like that.

It didn’t take too long before a bald spot started forming somewhere on my scalp. To make matters worse: for some reason, I kept pulling more and more hair from that particular area. As soon as my mom noticed this, she got quite upset and went out of her way to stop me from making the bald spot worse. She attempted to make it hard for me to pull any more strands from that spot by applying lotion to the area every day. This solution didn’t work too well, as I took every single opportunity that I could to pluck more hair from that spot when the lotion wasn’t there.

Eventually my mom lost her patience and decided that the only way to resolve this issue was to cut my hair very short. So after a year or so of having this bald spot, she took me to a barber shop and had them give me a buzz cut. This was meant to be temporary, and I was supposed to let my hair grow back until it was about even all over. My mom probably thought this might teach me a lesson and convince me to find other ways to stim when I’m bored or nervous. Ironically, however, I actually grew to like this new hairstyle, and I insisted that I be allowed to keep it from now on. And that is essentially why I have short hair.

Of course, I do not want to suggest that it was a good thing that I pulled my hair to the point where my mom had it cut short. I certainly wasn’t happy having that bald spot, and I hated having to come up with a story about a barber “messing up my haircut” to explain it to other kids at school. Plus, I certainly do not recommend it to others who have Aspergers or similar mental disorders. I will say, however, that I can fully relate to people who find it extremely hard to avoid doing things like that on a regular basis.

Speaking from personal experience, the main problem with stimming as a whole is that it’s sort of like an addiction, a compulsive behavior that is extremely difficult to refrain from. For those who do not have this problem, the best way I can describe it is like this: imagine if you have a constant severe itch somewhere you probably shouldn’t scratch in public (e.g. feet, armpits, belly, butt). If the itch is REALLY bad, you might end up end up scratching anyway it even if it looks weird or rude to other people. Over time, it will come to a point where you don’t think about it when you scratch that spot – you just do it impulsively whenever the itch comes up. This may not be the very best illustration of why people on the autism spectrum stim, but I think it’s fairly accurate.

This is… uh… my p-post… about… y’know… t-t-talking… and stuff

I really do not want to come across as arrogant or self-congratulatory here, but I must say that I am an exceptionally skilled writer. Despite what I said in “It’s not good enough. I’m not good enough” about rarely feeling 100% satisfied with my work, I will admit that, from an objective point of view, I can write some rather commendable pieces. This is at least what I’ve been told countless times by family members, professors, and other people who have seen my academic essays and blog posts. Additionally, I believe that I’m rather good at writing emails, personal letters, and even simple text messages. The bottom line here is that when it comes to written communication, I am usually able to get my points across effectively and express my thoughts eloquently.

Verbal communication, however, is a completely different story for me. Oh boy, if you think I can speak about as well as I can write, then you are dead wrong. When I try to express myself verbally, it hardly ever comes out precisely how I’d like it to. I could practically go on forever describing how poor I am at oral communication, so I will try my best to give a sufficient explanation of the issue without going too overboard.

To start with, it seems like I have profound difficulty getting the exact words that I want to say to come out of my mouth. It’s hard to fully explain what I mean by this, but I guess you could say it’s very similar to what tends to happen when you’re trying to talk to someone while extremely nervous. Consequently, whenever I’m trying to share a certain idea with or make a specific statement to someone else, what I end up actually saying to them does a poor job at articulating that sentiment. In most cases, my speech suffers from terrible diction, very flawed grammar, incomplete sentences, unclear phrasing, constant repetition, misuse of certain words, and tons of “um’s” and “eh’s.”

Allow me to illustrate what this can look like in daily life. Let’s say that I’m having a casual conversation with a friend, and we are talking about the most recent Pixar film, Inside Out. A one point, I wish to comment on how I adore the movie’s ability to make the audience experience sorts of emotions, putting them on a sort of “roller coaster of emotions” as it progresses. Now the statement that I would want to come out of my mouth looks something like this: “Yeah, what I enjoyed most about this movie is just how emotionally powerful it is; how it is able to make us feel all these different sentiments depending on what the characters are going through. There are moments when you are genuinely happy and cheerful when watching it, as well as moments when you seriously just want to cry your eyes out. That is simply amazing!” Unfortunately, the actual words that come out of my mouth will most likely sound like this: “Uh yeah, I r-r-really liked how that movie… y’know… makes you feel and… feel all these feelings. There are m-moments when you’re really happy and moments when really you want to cry. I mean… uh… y’know… it’s just… so moving!” As hard as I try to articulate the former statement, for some reason, I cannot help but speak the latter statement.

This issue is prevalent whenever I am engaged in nearly any sort of dialogue with one or more other people, regardless of who they are. It occurs when talking to my parents, friends, other family members, bosses at work, academic professors, or complete strangers. The only time when I can speak much more fluently is when I’m talking to myself (yeah, I do that a lot, and I’ll cover it in a future blog post). Unsurprisingly, verbal communication becomes even more problematic for me when I’m trying to be formal and respectful with the other person – e.g., meeting new people at a party or answering questions during job interview. Indeed, the very first thing people tend to notice about me is how awkward I sound when talking to them.

Expressing myself in words is even more difficult in situations when I’m feeling very stressed or under a ton of pressure. My speech is then filled with even more “um’s” and “eh’s,” and I can hardly get any of the words that I want to speak to come out right. On top of this, I can’t help but stutter a little every couple of seconds, and take long pauses to process my thinking before I continue speaking. It’ll essentially sound like I’m about to have panic attack, even if what’s happening at the moment doesn’t warrant it in the least. This most likely connects to my struggles with anxiety (See “Not allowing myself peace: Anxiety and Me”), since it tends to affect me a bit more harshly than it does most other people.

What is most interesting about this whole situation is that, as mentioned in my post “Tim, please… keep it to yourself”, I actually really like to talk to other people. Despite how challenging it can be to express myself verbally, I still like to engage in conversation with other people (predominately family and friends) whenever I can. To make matters worse (again, as I explained in “Tim, please… keep it to yourself), I cannot help but open my mouth a bit more frequently than I should, often dominating the conversation and going into lengthy rants. As a result, I sometimes end up making a bit of an ass of myself, chattering on and on while sounding like a blend of Jeff Goldblum, a political talk show host, and a nervous 7-year-old (yeah that’s the best description I could think of).

I realize that problems with verbal communication aren’t exactly uncommon among Aspies or people on the autism spectrum, so I’ll bet there are plenty of people out there who can identify with what I’m saying in this post. I have already mentioned before that knowing how to properly converse with other individuals simply doesn’t come naturally to us as it does for most neuro-typicals. So I do understand why there are many people with Asperger Syndrome who prefer not to engage in verbal dialogue with others at all. I think I can speak for all of us when I say that it really sucks not being able to express oneself as fluently or clearly as most others can. It is my hope that we each eventually find a way to make oral communication much simpler for us, as it would be especially helpful in matters such as getting a steady job and expanding our social lives.

Girls, girls, girls!

Before I start this entry, I have something very happy to announce: I am currently in a relationship! Yep, for the first time in my life, I have managed to form an intimate, romantic bond with another person, and so far it looks like things are going really well. Her name is Heather, and she is a tremendously sweet, intelligent, fun-loving girl who relates to many of my issues with anxiety and socializing. We came across each other on the online dating service OkCupid, and she was the only person on that site that showed any interest in my profile. My relationship with Heather has significantly brightened me up in general, giving me a great deal of optimism for a much more gratifying, less stressful future!

With that said, I will now discuss my personal history with females and romance. As you guys are probably expecting, many of my past interactions with girls from early childhood onward have involved certain complications. Especially during my teenage years, I had a pretty hard time managing casual relationships with females my age and knowing how to behave when I had certain affections for them. To make things more difficult, I almost always developed crushes on girls that I became acquainted with, frequently hoping deep down that they would eventually become my girlfriend. Yeah, I have to admit that I was a little bit… um… how shall I put it… lovesick and desirous as a kid. Of course, I made every attempt I could to hide my affections and pretend I had no interest in those girls whatsoever.

Unfortunately, I don’t think I was very good at hiding these feelings as a kid or teenager. At school, I would regularly stare or keep glancing at girls that I found attractive or was already acquainted with. I actually knew at the time that this behavior was inappropriate and a little creepy, but it was very hard for me to avoid doing it. In addition, I struggled quite a bit when trying to talk with girls, and sometimes I ended up unwittingly revealing my affections for them. It wasn’t so bad that I had to avoid girls as much as possible, or that I never had any female friends at all, as I did hang out with females quite a bit in school and elsewhere. Nonetheless, for the most part, it was much simpler for me to socialize with boys, and when I had even the slightest crush on a girl, I wasn’t usually successful in concealing this fact from her.

I would like to share two instances from my youth that demonstrate this trend. Quick note: just like with my post about friendships, I’ve changed names for the sake of privacy.

The first instance took place in middle school and involved a girl named Jessie, whom I always thought was extremely cute. I became closely acquainted with her at one point, though we never spent time with each other outside of school. Plus, I’m not sure exactly how much Jessie and I actually talked to one another and how our relationship progressed. All I know is that we personally knew each other, she was very friendly towards me, and I had a massive crush on her. As a result, whenever Jessie was in the same class as me, I couldn’t help but glance over at her every couple of minutes. This quickly made her rather uneasy, and she told me a couple of times not to do this, which I did my very best to comply (with mixed results). Fortunately, our acquaintanceship faded away before too long, and I hardly saw Jessie at all during high school. So I guess I managed to dodge a bullet with that relationship.

However, there was another girl that I became friends with later on, and I screwed up with her BIG TIME. Her name was Lily, and our friendship started after I noticed how often she was saying hi to me and acting so nice towards me. Thinking that this may be an opportunity for a date or even future relationship, I asked her if she wanted to see a movie with me. We ended up seeing a film at her place, and that’s where I found out that Lily was already in a relationship with another guy. I was immensely jealous, which of course I did my very best to hide, and I kept spending time with her afterwards. Surrounded by media depictions of romance and knowing a couple of friends with girlfriends, it became increasingly difficult to let go of Lily and shove aside my crush toward her. So at one point, I made probably one of the biggest mistakes of my life and wrote her a letter confessing my feelings for her. Our friendship faded away rather quickly afterwards, and I don’t think I saw much else of her after the summer. On the bright side, I suppose that I learned a powerful lesson about inappropriate behavior and how to maintain friendships with girls.

There are several other experiences with girls from my elementary, middle, and high school that I could point to, but I will not include them for the sake of keeping this post as brief as possible. Besides, I think you guys should have a pretty good understanding of what I’m talking about, and as always, I expect that some of you out there may be able to relate. While I don’t necessarily have any statistics or research to back up anything, I assume that many individuals with Aspergers or autism spectrum disorders have serious difficulties with dating and finding romance. I say this because, at least from my experience, forming an intimate relationship is a rather big step above forming normal friendships, and it usually requires a lot more patience and confidence.

This isn’t to say that Aspies aren’t at all capable of having intimate relationships, as I have shown in the beginning of this post to not be the case. It certainly is very frustrating for a lot of us given our complications with social interaction and unfamiliarity with various social cues, not to mention our need for alone time and other things that may potentially interfere with a relationship. Nonetheless, for each of us, there is definitely someone out there not too far away who is fully able to see past our problems and admire us for who we truly are, which is precisely the case with my new girlfriend Heather. Moreover, we are never alone and are surrounded with other people with similar mental and social disorders, many of whom are also wishing to form an intimate connection with someone else. In my honest opinion, just about any Aspie has the ability to find a romantic partner if they keep themselves open to it and try reaching out as much as they can.

Asperger Syndrome and Executive Functioning

Ok, I have to return to the topic that was first brought up in “What do I do? What ‘should’ I do?” one more time. There is something that I forgot to discuss in the related series of posts that helps explain the whole situation even better. This will probably be the last time, at least for a long time, that I submit an entry related to this particular topic. Also, this post isn’t as long as many of the others I’ve been uploading lately because I honestly don’t have that much information to offer on this issue.

Anyway, so if you’ve already read the aforementioned post, you know that I will sometimes freak out and have a little mental breakdown if I have a particularly large number of responsibilities that need to be addressed. When this happens, I spend so much time worrying and stressing myself out that I can hardly get anything done at first. In many instances I will need the help of my parents or a counselor to help me calm down and get productive. I also explained that two important sources for this problem are my difficulties with time management, and my perfectionist tendencies – which includes a false belief that I’m never “good enough.”

There is yet another element to this topic that I neglected to mention in that first post. It actually explains to a considerable degree why I get overwhelmed so easily with schoolwork and other things. You see, my mother has told me that, since I have Asperger Syndrome, I struggle quite a bit with executive functions, which makes it more difficult for me to handle multiple responsibilities efficiently. What exactly are executive functions, you may ask? According to an article by Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child*, executive functions denotes the management of important cognitive processes that allow us to fulfill a variety of tasks. These processes include planning, short-term memory, problem-solving, reasoning, and self-control. So basically, they are the kinds of skills that facilitate multitasking.

In short, it appears that my mind sometimes has a bit difficulty engaging in these sorts of mental processes. This definitely sheds some light on many of my problems with stress, time management, social interaction, concentration, and even reading. Additionally, I have been able to verify from several sources** that many individuals with Asperger Syndrome suffer from a slight deficit in executive functioning, among other mental areas. Therefore, I can safely say that my brain might simply be setup so that it’s harder for me to manage many responsibilities at once without stressing out.

I’m afraid that I don’t really have much else to say about my issues with executive functions. I’m fairly certain my story isn’t really that different from other people who have Asperger Syndrome and suffer from deficits in executive functioning. It’s pretty much how our brains work, and there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it. After all, this is why Aspergers and Autism are called disorders.

Of course, I do not wish to imply that we are helpless victims or that there isn’t any way to cope with this issue. Far, FAR from it. There exists a vast multitude of ways in which children as well as adults with Aspergers or Autism can deal with their complications and be able to manage numerous tasks at once. I have already mentioned several tools that I use to help with ADD and anxiety, such as meditation, exercise, and audiobooks. I know of several other methods that individuals with Aspergers or Autism can improve their executive functions to some degree.

For instance, it can extremely helpful for Aspie students to have a checklist that breaks down each of their schoolwork assignments – dividing them into small, much more manageable parts. Some people also recommend having a sort of personal organizational system set up in their living space: with colored labels for where different items should go, reminders and checklists for various chores and tasks, and photos of what clean bedrooms and kitchens should look like. If you look online you should find dozens of recommended techniques, services, books, and iPhone apps to help children and adults on the Autism spectrum deal with their deficits in executive functions.

* http://developingchild.harvard.edu/key_concepts/executive_function/

** http://cirpstudents.com/Research%20Library/assets/another-advanced-test-of-theory-of- mind–evidence-from-very-high-functioning-adults–with-autism-or-asperger-syndrome-.pdfm, http://www.du.edu/psychology/dnrl/Executive%20function%20deficits%20in%20high-functioning%20autistic.pdf, http://www.sacramentoasis.com/docs/8-22-03/core_deficits.pdf, http://aut.sagepub.com/content/3/3/213.full.pdf, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7610.1991.tb00352.x/abstract