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.