Asperger’s 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, picking your nose, messing with your hair – stuff that you find yourself doing impulsively on a regular basis, usually when you’re bored, nervous, or excited.

Come on guys, be honest. I’m willing to wager that many of you with Asperger Syndrome or ASD (or possibly without any disorder) do at least a small bit of stimming every once in a while. No need to feel bad about it, though. It’s honestly nothing to be ashamed of and in most cases it’s perfectly harmless, healthy behavior. I personally do it nearly every single day, typically whenever I’m not doing anything else with my hands or not engaged in any other busy activity.  A few examples of my stimming activities that I’m willing to share include tapping my face with my fingers, fooling around with whatever small objects I have near me, speaking meaningless gibberish, folding up or breaking pieces of plastic or paper, and picking at my teeth. There are tons of other forms of stimming I engage in regularly that I choose not to share since many of them are honestly somewhat embarrassing to share. I think a few of my fellow “stimmers” might understand what I’m talking about here.

For those of you who don’t stim and don’t understand why people like me do it so compulsively, allow me to explain. The best way I can describe it to people unfamiliar with the concept is like this: imagine that you have this really painful itch that comes up frequently during certain times of the day, such as at work or while watching television. Let’s say that this itch usually occurs when you feel stressed, nervous, or not doing anything interesting. Unfortunately, there is no available remedy to make the itch completely go away so the only thing you can do to subdue the pain is to scratch the itch. You may not want to scratch this itch, especially in front of other people, but the pain is just way too overwhelming for you to ignore it. Over time, you will probably end up scratching this itch as soon as it comes up without even thinking about it – you just do it on a normal basis as part of your daily routine. This may not be the very best illustration of why people on the autism spectrum stim, but I think it’s fairly accurate.

In any case, I believe most people reading this article can agree that, for the most part, stimming isn’t something that people should have to completely avoid doing or that can cause harmful side effects. The reason I say “for the most part” is because there are instances, although relatively rare, where an instance of stimming can lead to unwanted consequences to one’s body or other important parts of the person. I say this from personal experience, having once engaged form of stimming that was quite unhealthy and had some negative repercussions.

Starting in early middle school, I began impulsively pulling hair out of my head. This would usually occur during classes or when I was feeling 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 instead of something much less damaging to myself. I honestly have no idea why I thought pulling my hair was an appropriate way to calm myself down or pass time. Plus I knew fully well at the time that it wasn’t good for me to do, so I’m guessing it must have been really effective at alleviating my “itch”, so to speak.

It didn’t take too long before a visible bald spot started forming on my scalp. To make things even worse: I continued to pluck hair from that area, making the bald spot increasingly noticeable to others (again, don’t ask why, I don’t know). As soon as my mom detected this issue, she became upset and tried her hardest to stop me from making it any worse. She attempted to stop me pulling any more strands from that area of my scalp by applying lotion to it every day. This solution wasn’t very effective, as I took every single opportunity that I could to yank 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 super short so that it would be extremely ha. 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 the bald spot was no longer visible. My mom likely thought this would teach me a lesson and convince me to find other ways to stim when I’m bored or nervous. Ironically, I actually grew to like this new hairstyle, and I insisted that I be allowed to keep it from now on. That is essentially why I have short hair today – because I couldn’t stop pulling my hair so I was given a haircut that prevented me from doing it anymore. If I’m honest, I prefer having this hairstyle more than having the bowl cut I used to have.

Of course, I do not want to suggest in any way that it was good that I pulled my hair to the point where my mom had it cut short. It was absolutely terrible having that bald spot, and I hated having to come up with a story about a barber “messing up my haircut” whenever someone at school asked about it. Also, what if I ended up not liking the hairstyle, and I had to find a way to grow back my hair without letting myself pluck it out again? That’s why I strongly discourage people who stim from doing things that can potentially damage their image or bodily/mental health in some way.

There are plenty of better ways to “alleviate the itch” that don’t involve hurting yourself at all, most notably through the use of stimming toys. Stimming toys are small trinkets designed specifically to allow people with Asperger’s, ASD, and other issues to emit tension in a healthy, non-distracting manner. If you are interested in buying these toys, simply look up “stimming toys” on Google or Yahoo and you’ll find countless results. I own more than a few of them myself and they have proven extremely effective in keeping me relaxed and subduing that painful itch – that is, when I have them with me. The rest of the time I do things like tap my face, play with pens, and make annoying sounds with my mouth.

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