#TakeTheMaskOff Week 2: Unstillness In An Unstill World (Stimming And Its Relation To Masking)

I wrote a fairly extensive post about stimming during Autistic Acceptance Month in April (I apologize for the reminder that April exists…but there are some good things that happen in the autism world during that month, I promise!).

“Stimming” is a natural and inevitable bodily response to both the world inside of us and the world around us. Everyone stims. The body generally does not do well with stillness; there is motion in our blood flow, in our respiration, in the zinging of electricity between nerves, in the sloshing of stomach juices, in every cell going about its duty. The world around us is also unstill with its constant motions and sounds and energies and demands. And even less still is the mind, always trying to process all of it. So it makes sense, then, that the body would join in the unstill around and abound it.

But autism tends to amplify certain natural tendencies. Autistic people may have more “obvious” stims — whole-body rocking instead of foot-swaying, hand-flapping instead of finger-tapping, pacing around or running forward in a sudden dash instead of twirling hair (although there are autistic people who also foot-sway and finger-tap and hair-twirl, and there are autistic people who, say, tongue-click or squeeze their eyes open and shut or sit on their legs/feet in certain position or one of the thousands of ways that a body may stim). The autistic brain seems to expend more energy in processing the unstillness of the world, so it would make sense for the autistic body to need to output more unstillness to counteract it. Autistic people may also find it harder to stop stimming when we’re directed to do so — the body does not give up its coping strategies easily.

But rocking and hand-flapping and jumping and running make one “stand out”, and people, especially adults, tend to be frowned upon, if not worse, for “standing out.” Though I’m not sure if the overall awareness of autism is yet such that someone would look at a person exhibiting “obvious” stims and always think “Oh, this person is autistic”(though some might), the “abnormal” behavior (at least “abnormal” in the breadth of what everyone else seems to do in the company of everyone else) marks one as “abnormal.” And we, unfortunately, live in a society where the “abnormal” are not always treated kindly or with due respect.

So many autistic people try not to have “obvious” stims. Maybe a therapist or parent along the way “coached” them into repressing the stims (“Quiet Hands!”, many of us are told at some point in our lives); maybe they learned through life experience and observation that they’d rather not deal with the weird looks and the snide comments.

So we still ourselves in an unstill world.

This takes energy, of course, as do all forms of “masking.” The dissonance between the unstillness of the world and the stillness that we are expected to hold ourselves to is especially draining.

Some of us “take the mask off” in regards to stimming when we’re in private. Sometimes, this is voluntary; sometimes, we’re just too out of resources to keep the mask up.

I’m a fidgeter in public–I may twiddle with my snake twist or with one of the hooks and clasps on my purse — but I’m much more stimmy at home — I pace, flap, bolt, sometimes bounce. I especially like to run to our fence, stand on my toes, and look over at the field, our small little prairie (which is about to get turned into apartment complexes. Regretable, but the increasing number of people have to live somewhere). My parents get on me a lot about “running in the house”– there have been times when I’ve bolted into something or someone. But, at these moments, the bolting isn’t a conscious, deliberate action–it’s my body releasing pent-up unstillness (especially if that unstillness is in the mind).

Some people can’t unstill even in their own homes. In some cases, the people they live with would react with stronger condemnation than my parents, maybe even bullying in violence. Or maybe they live with someone who doesn’t know that they’re neurodivergent.

In some cases, the stigma around stimming, around acting “obviously abnormal”, runs so deep that they can’t shake off that fear of repercussions even in private.

Of course, not every autistic person is a stimmer, or at least not one that manifests any differently from the general population. Some people unstill different, be it mentally, artistically/creatively, with electronic entertainment, or even with working out. And maybe some people, autistic or otherwise, have less of a need to unstill than others.

But for those that are, having to repress these stims can cause the unstill to build up inside of them. Anxiety, restlessness, general overwhelming discomfort, maybe even sliding into burnout and depression.

I think that society as a whole is benefitting from the commercialism of the fidget industry–I can find stim toys like squish balls, putties, and fidget cubes at almost any Hot Topic or department store nowdays, often even gas stations, and there are many people, be they autistic, ADHD, anxious, or just an unstill human, who fidget with them.

I think that we can take it further.

I’m not sure how to get society to be accepting of the bouncing, the rocking, the flapping. I think that maybe the likes of Julia from Sesame Street is doing a good job.

[Image description: A twitter post, white text on a black background. In the upper-right corner, there is a profile image of what appears to be a black-and-white drawing of a person in a black coat with an open book as a face. The text reads:  ship |#spnborders | see pinned @shiphitsthefan Swim class: “He’s silly!” the little girl says, pointing at my kid. “I want to play with him.”  “Be gentle,” says her grandmother. “I saw on Sesame Street,” and she jumps beside my spinning son. There’s an autistic, nonverbal Muppet. Don’t tell me representation doesn’t matter. 7/18/18, 12:31 PM]

I suspect that if we have more characters in media who stim in a variety of ways, society will come to take more kindly to stimming.

I also suspect that the growing Autistic Acceptance movement, and the move towards acceptance for neurodiverse individuals in general, will bring about an awareness of what stimming is, what purpose it serves, and why certain people do so in a manner that may look different than how other people do it.

Of course, as things are now, it may be dangerous to rock, spin, flap, pace, or bounce in the workplace, classroom, at a restaurant, or in the company of the potentially hostile. No one should put themselves in danger of serious harm or loss of position for the sake of a movement…though I can’t say that I’d blame them if they did so for the sake of their own well being. Maybe it’s safer for most of us to let the fictional characters do the ice-breaking (which means that we need more artists, writers, animators, and storyboarders making more stimming characters).

But if we can stim and not suffer serious grievance for it, we absolutely should. If only in private, if only when no one is looking. But if your body needs to unstill itself in this unstill world that we live in, then you should absolutely be at liberty to do so. Because stillness in an unstill world is an unfair and unnatural standard to hold anyone to.

(And if you can only stim vicariously, there are many stim dances/videos out there [Agony Autie has several of these.] There are people who post under #embracethestim , #stimfreely , and #takebackthestim .)


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