a few words about stimming – part one

[image description: colour-enhanced pre-dawn sky tones overlaid with texture from a broccoli head close-up. Text: a few words about STIMMING in white and purple]
[image description: colour-enhanced pre-dawn sky tones overlaid with texture from a broccoli head close-up. Text: a few words about STIMMING in white and purple]

What are stims? Actually no, let me ask this: What are stims for?

Not a question that gets asked very often.

Seriously though, what are they actually for, because when we look at the kinds of things people talk about, a lot of it focuses on Regulation and Communication. How can one kind of activity do both those thing, because if you give it a moment’s thought, they are not exactly similar. To start with, communication is all about interacting with the environment, and in particular the other humans in that environment – it is all about reaching out, sending signals. But regulation is the opposite, being focused in on internal states and maybe also on sensory experiences – the environment entering your thoughts, not your thoughts entering the environment.

So, what’s going on? As is often the case when we are faced with a problem like this, it might be that we’re looking at things on the wrong level, and there isn’t really a problem at all. Or perhaps what we call stims just look similar but are two or more totally different things. It may be that both those possibilities are true.

First, I’m going to look closer at those two ideas: Stims are Communication, and Stims are Regulation.

Regulation involves rebalancing internal states that have been overloaded or understimulated, generating some kind of emotions that are uncomfortable or unpleasant, if not outright distressing. When we get upset or distressed, it is not just a feeling arising from emotions of discomfort, anxiety, sorrow and so on somewhere up in our brains. It is a change in what’s going on in our brains certainly, but our brains are connected to the rest of our body by vast networks of nerves, and what we’re thinking or feeling ripples across our bodies just as signals from around our bodies travel to our brain.

So, yes, when we ‘feel’ a certain emotion, we also ‘feel’ different physically. Obvious examples are how our bodies react to extreme fear – dilation of pupils, muscle tension, raised heart rate, change in breathing and so on. The idea that emotion is separate from cognition just does not make sense, and the idea of the mind separate from the body makes even less sense.

Great, but what about stims then? Well, we do know things like pacing, jigging your leg, doodling, clenching your hands and so on are common ways of responding to stress for example, and we understand those very activities as types of stim. Which means everyone stims. Yep. In this sense, stims act as a way to transfer ‘emotional energy’ into something physical, sort of like a pressure release valve if you like. By doing that, they… you guessed it, they regulate our emotional (and by extension, mental) state.

This is why we say ‘everybody stims’ and call out the artificial distinction between ‘normal’ human activities and this allegedly functionless and aberrant Autistic activity called stimming. Stimming is very, very functional. It is something everyone does, and patterns of stimming are found to be very consistent all across the globe, which tells us it is a basic human strategy that is pretty optimal in its functionality… and its function in that sense is to maintain homeostasis – balance – in our state of being. We know stims often do this by transferring ‘pressure’ or ‘energy’ from our emotional state into physical actions, and by so doing help restore balance and a sense of control.

If you like, that release of ‘negative’ energy is the most basic form of stim, Foundation Level Stimming. But humans act out their emotional state when they are elated or excited or just happy too. Just watch a crowd at a football match when their team scores. Nothing more need be said – jumping, hugging, cheering, clapping, waving hands, dancing… and yes, that list looks a lot like a list of ‘aberrant and dysfunctional’ Autistic stims.

And you now know why. Autistics are humans, and Autistic stims are just human stims, and human stims are very consistent across cultures.

The big difference is Autistics tend to stim more, more often, and with more fluency. Given we know emotional states are the key driver behind stims, that suggests Autistic people are driven more by emotions or feel emotions more. So, why would that be?

Emotions are essentially a translation of how experiences ‘feel’ into (not always accurately) labelled categories. Any review of categorisations of emotions will reveal quickly that experts still struggle to define the fuzzy edges of emotions, and these can vary from culture to culture. In this sense emotions are not unlike colours – the ‘edges’ between one and the next are fuzzy, somewhat arbitrary, and also somewhat culturally defined… and we can, with practice, manage and regulate them and how we respond to them.

What we can say is that they emanate from broad feelings along the lines of ‘this is a bit bad’, ‘this is very bad’, ‘this is a bit good’, ‘this is the best’, ‘this is the worst’ and clearly even those can be generalised as degrees of ‘feels yum’ and ‘feels yuck.’

What regulation seeks to do is release excess to bring those ‘yum’ and ‘yuck’ feelings within the boundaries of comfort. So, we have a sort of ‘comfortable zone’ and the edges are like thresholds past which emotions can start overpowering us.

Now definitely if you are enjoying overloading on happy feels you will want to enhance that and we could view that as a decision to temporarily shift the ‘happy threshold,’ but that can be just as distracting as anything else if you are trying to focus on something complex that requires a calm state of mind.

Where stims work best really is in restoring balance and calm. That’s why they tend to get associated with negative states, as ways to manage that state and prevent overload. Actually, if you look closer at that football crowd, they are not really stimming to release their joy as releasing tension, stress, anxiety that had built up during the match. The goal provides a trigger event allowing them transfer that excited tension into physical release.

And here’s a little curiosity. If you release ‘negative energy’ by stimming, and keep going… can you cross the ‘comfort zone’ and even pass the ‘positive energy’ threshold?

Pause a minute and consider that.

So, I just told you the big secret about stimming. This is how ‘happy stims’ work, and Autistics have become masters of this art. You can generate emotional states by using stims that are designed to pull you back from negative overload, and use them to push into strongly positive states of being.

Is that a revelation? If you are Autistic, it may not be.

Actually, I’ve already noted that as Autistics are human and humans stim, we should expect similar tricks to appear in how all humans act. And we do. Anyone who has got caught up in dancing, or jumping and clapping at a concert, or jumping and clapping at that football match too… you are using ‘anti-negativity’ tools to push through emotionally to overload on happy emotions.

I’m going to leave that just sit there for now. Time to mention communication.

This bit is actually easier to discuss especially if you are familiar with the idea ‘behaviour is communication.’ By behaviour we mean basically any activity people (or other animals) do. It is communication because we do stuff because we are motivated by a desire to meet a certain goal. That might be to find a more comfortable sitting position, or make it to the bus stop, or focus on a difficult textbook, to feel warmer or to address hunger.

So what’s that motivation feel like? The word ‘feel’ here is a massive clue because we’ve been using it from the start. What motivates us is a state of being that feels positive or, more often, negative. We can translate that feeling into an ‘emotion’ by reviewing how our bodies are experiencing it, and how automatic processes are shaping our actions.

Exhibit 1: the word ‘hangry’ which is designed to capture the irritability we feel when hungry. Anger + Hunger. Irritability and anger are emotional states. We know when someone is angry or irritated by how they act. In other words, they communicate their emotion through their behaviour… and that is how behaviour is a form of communication. Humans use this regularly – this is what we’re talking about when we discuss body language and micro gestures that add nuance to what a person might be saying. We also know we can sometimes just look at a person and know what their emotional state likely is, by how they stand, how they move, the way they move their face muscles.

So, if stims are basically a kind of ‘behaviour’ that is motivated by emotions, they are essentially like body language, and act as communication channels just like facial expression or posture or hand gestures can.

We still need to think about why Autistic people would be more driven by emotions, because there’s a reason for that. It is a separate discussion entirely though and I’m not going to try keep you here for another 3000 words. Relax!

What I will say in finishing is that managing emotional states is a normal everyday activity for all humans and fundamental to wellbeing. Humans as a whole have a lot to gain from sitting at the feet of the experts. I’d also mention that when we think about how we can focus on a task, get engrossed in it, maintain concentration over extended periods, even enter a ‘flow state’… at the heart of that is an ongoing process of subtle regulation of emotional balance.

That’s something to discuss in the second blog in this mini-series. Keep your eyes peeled, it’ll pop up in a couple of days.

For now, be good, enjoy your feels, and remember: respect the stimmer, respect the stim!


This blog was brought to you with the (emotional regulation) support of:

Myrkur: ‘Mareridt’ [2017]

Myrkur: ‘Folkesange Folk’ [2020]

Aphrodite’s Child: ‘666’ [1971]