If you want to support autistic people, stop demanding that they act less autistic (and start by letting them stim)

An autistic person faces a number of challenges- especially in the areas of language difficulties and sensory processing difficulties. An autistic person also faces a number of challenges which are primarily due to most non-autistic people not understanding autism. Some of this is general ignorance but a lot of it is leftover from this idea that autism is a thing that needs to be cured and autistic characteristics are “symptoms” of a “disorder” and therefore need to be “treated.” They’re “challenging behaviors” that need to be “extinguished.” 

So a big one that we need to leave them the heck alone about is “stimming.” 

“Stim” is short for “self-stimulatory” behaviors we see autistic people do. It’s part of the DSM criteria for an autism diagnosis- “restricted, repetitive behavior”. This can look like hand flapping, rocking, repeating words/phrases/song lyrics, vocalizations, shaking/wiggling toys or other objects, or other repetitive tinkering with things… The description of these behaviors can significantly differ depending on who’s doing the describing. Here we have an ABA therapist who justifies targeting repetitive behavior because it keeps kids from learning. Here we have a person who surveyed 31 actually autistic people about stimming and, spoiler alert, they don’t think it’s something that needs to be eradicated. Autistic people describe their stimming as something they do to release anxiety, something they do out of joy or excitement and also as a coping mechanism for boredom. Maxfield Sparrow writes “The number one reason we stim is simply because it feels really good.”  He goes on to write “Why is it so important to let a person keep their stims? You might as well ask why it is so important to let a person keep breathing. Stims are the way our bodies interact with the world. We need our stims, and we will suffer without them.” Please click that link and read the whole article- it’s important information but it’s also a joy to read- a window into how autistic people experience the world in an incredibly positive way. 

But for those who don’t understand what it is, stimming looks “weird.” A woman in this trailer for a project called “Stim Your Heart Out” talks about how knitting on the bus causes people to want to talk to her and be around her- but if she does knitting-like movements with her hands and no yarn, it does the exact opposite. People are freaked out by her. And that’s another reason people cite to try and stop their autistic loved ones from stimming- it looks weird and they don’t want them to be bullied, misunderstood or made fun of. It’s a legitimate concern- not just because of the social ramifications but because of safety reasons in a country that routinely kills black people in stops that happen because someone says they’re “acting suspiciously.” I think specifically of Elijah McClain- but there are other examples. This study looks at the media coverage of police killings and shows that the word “disability” is often left out of reporting- and also that a victim’s “mental illness” (a term that an uneducated or deliberately manipulative person might use in place of “autism”) is included in a justification for use of force. The study suggests that 30-50% of those killed by police have a disability. 

So- if our autistic community members have this thing they do- that they need to do- that doesn’t hurt anybody in and of itself**… do we force them to stop so they appear normal? Do we insist that they just sit down and be quiet because our school system requires them to do that in order to “learn”? Do we just accept that law enforcement will forever think that “looking suspicious” is grounds for the use of force? Or can we instead inform the general public of what stimming is and make our community a place that accepts autistic people’s needs? Can we celebrate stimming? Can we imagine a classroom that includes time and space for stimming? Can we educate law enforcement about stimming? Expecting autistic people to suppress a normal biological/physiological/psychological process is both unfair and unnecessary. 

**That said- there ARE some good reasons to redirect or change a stim. Maxfield Sparrow lists three: 1. when the person’s stim could cause injury to themselves or others, 2. When the person’s stim is keeping them from doing something THEY want to do or 3. When the person’s stim might cause a police officer to shoot them or another temporary environmental reason that puts them in immediate danger. “Because it looks weird” or “Because we refuse to make accommodations” are not good reasons. We need to know better and do better. Autism Acceptance includes making space for the needs of our autistic community members. Stimming is a fundamental need.

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