I’ve been thinking a great deal about “stimming” which was the topic of yesterday’s post. Stimming or self-stimulation is the word used for what many children and adults do who have been diagnosed with autism. It is the repetitive behavior, often as varied as the personalities of the person engaged in it, used to self-regulate or calm oneself. Many people with autism suffer from a wide range of sensory issues. Emma may well experience light and sound differently than I do, for example. I know she experiences physical pain differently. A small, seemingly incidental scratch causes her to howl in pain, clutching the injured body part, scratching at it or rubbing it vigorously. Yet a fall, that looks extremely painful, will be ignored. Days later a large bruise might appear or swelling, which only makes one that much more aware of how it must have hurt and yet she didn’t seem to notice.
Sometimes Emma will plug her ears with her fingers when someone is speaking, often it is when one of us join her in singing a song. I’ve noticed she does this when her air conditioner is on as well. The low hum it makes is something she is unable to tolerate. All of these examples are specific to Emma. And it makes me wonder whether there are many other things I cannot know about; does she see certain colors in a way that is painful? Are some colors brighter to her, even garish and therefore hurt her eyes to look at? I know certain sounds hurt her ears, sounds like that hum of her air conditioner, does it merely bother her or is it actually painful? I can’t know. What I do know is that if one was bombarded with images, noise, sensations that I could not verbalize, would I not seek refuge in something I could control? I don’t know, but I think I would. Is Emma, when she twirls the plastic backing to the velcro strip around and around, soothing herself from an overload of external senses? It seems likely.
Yet how is this so different from addictive behavior? Is it not somewhat similar or in the same general ball park? If someone engages in hours of video game playing or round after round of Solitaire on their computer or Spider (my particular favorite), how is this not also a kind of stimming? At the very least it is certainly perseverative behavior. If the game was just played once or for a few minutes that would be one thing, but what of the person(s) who plays endless games, one after the other? A friend of mine said to me a few months ago, “Sometimes I ask myself – how many times do I have to win before I’ll stop and say that’s enough? Because when I win there’s no real satisfaction or feeling that – okay now I’m won, it’s time to stop. I mean how many hours have I wasted playing a really stupid game on the computer over and over again?” I’m guessing many people can relate to this. Even if they aren’t into computer generated games, there are other things many of us engage in, mindless “games” or habits we do that we wish we didn’t. Consider all the games, video games, obsessive exercising, compulsive eating, compulsive dieting, any and all obsessions, compulsions or habits that get in the way of our lives or health, all the things we do while knowing they aren’t good for us and yet we can’t help ourselves from doing them anyway?
When I watch Emma twirling her strip of plastic, while jumping up and down and singing I am reminded of my own perseverative behaviors, the hours I’ve spent doing mindless activities, all to what end? Am I too, calming myself? Is this my own brand of self soothing? I have harsher judgements about my activities, particularly computer games, than I do of Emma’s activities. I have even, periodically deleted all games from my computer or mechanical device, only to reinstall at a later date. Certainly there is a compulsiveness to my behavior and I would even go so far as to say an obsessiveness. I do not mean to suggest my OCD tendencies are remotely the same as what Emma must go through on a daily basis, that would be insensitive and dismissive of her very serious sensory and neurological issues, but I throw this out as something I’ve noticed and can relate to in a very superficial way. Of course I could be completely wrong about all of this and anyway I have to hurry so that I can finish today’s crossword before starting my day.
For more on Emma’s journey through a childhood of autism and obsessive behavior go to: www.Emmashopebook.com