March 14th, 2011

Stimming the Day Away

Becca Sanders

Here’s the autism vocabulary word of the day: stimming. It’s a short-hand for “self-stimulatory behavior” but that has a connotation that doesn’t quite fit when we’re talking a 7-year old with a piece of ribbon. Our son H. is extremely stimmy. As a toddler, he was obsessed with a spinning gear toy that he would play with for hours on end. We kept it on a high shelf so that he had to ask for it when he wanted it (our way of getting him to communicate). After a few short months, the motor of the toy burned out and we didn’t replace it.

This ability of his to be entertained by one thing for such a long stretch was one of the earliest signs of there being something amiss regarding his development. What toddler can be so focused, for so long? Answer: kids with autism. So many parents I’ve talked to share stories of kids obsessed with ceiling fans, the wheels on Matchbox cars, and a variety of other spinning, oscillating, gyrating, waving objects.

Our son H. has gone through different phases of preferred stims. A length of ribbon was his long-time favorite. He would hold it in one hand and flutter it in the air, squinting up at it and waving his other hand in and out of the ribbon’s trajectory. Ribbons were ubiquitous items at our house. We kept them in our pockets and in the car, coiled in drawers and in the medicine cabinet, tucked into the diaper bag along with sippy cups, a change of clothes, and baby wipes. Stimming with a ribbon often calmed him in stressful situations — in grocery stores, restaurants or friends’ houses – but as he gets older, stimming is just as likely to ramp him up as calm him down.

His most recent stim-love is anything that sparkles or shines in light. Not long ago, on a visit to the community center pool kiddie pool, he watched as water from a fountain, shot-through with sunlight, splashed into the pool. He waved his hand in and out of the streams of water with a look of utter contentment on his face. Soon after, he discovered how to recreate this same effect at home: he stands in front of a sunny window or in the light of a lamp and flicks spit into the air, where it sparkles like diamonds.

What a blessing and curse is stimming! It obviously brings him pleasure, but when he is deep into it, it is very difficult to get his attention – to engage with him. He would stim the day away, if we let him. And the current spit phase has me longing for the less unsanitary days of ribbons and strings. What is it about stimming that so satisfies something in him? Like so many things about H., it’s a mystery.

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