OPINION: Loud hands are proud hands: The joy, freedom, and pain of stimming

Graphic by Anikka Sophia Villegas

CW: Anti-autistic ableism and mentions of self-harm

There’s a beauty in my hands moving in front of me: short, jerking motions that remind me of my brief foray into conducting music in middle school band. As my hands move back and forth, I begin to rock forward in the same internal rhythm. Maybe it’s the beat of the music I’m listening to; maybe it’s the tick of the clock.

I stim: performing repetitive motions as a form of sensory-seeking and self-grounding. Stimming is incredibly common among autistic people — to the point that it is one of the key diagnostic criteria for autism.

For as long as I can remember, I have had to move in some way to keep myself calm. I tap my fingers against my face, bounce my leg up and down, make random noises with my mouth, and fidget with small toys I keep with me.

I can’t describe how exactly stimming feels but I can describe what it feels like to not be able to stim. Holding still makes my skin crawl and makes me feel like there’s lead in my bones. It’s unnatural to me.

I’ve had people assume that stimming means I am anxious or that I am upset over something. Quite the opposite: It’s a normal, healthy, automatic action for me. I don’t notice I’m stimming most of the time unless someone points it out to me.

Being forced to hold still makes me more anxious than stimming ever will.

The way stimming is often treated as a distraction and as unacceptable simply for existing, though, hurts me. I am fully aware of competing access needs — the idea that what one person needs to function in a space interferes with what another person needs — but the situation is never presented as one of access needs.

Instead, it’s presented as one of professionalism. Being professional means I need to make eye contact, hold still, communicate using spoken language, be relaxed (but not overly relaxed), and adhere to a flexible (but not too flexible) schedule.

Negotiating these boundaries, especially when they’re a hidden curriculum, is difficult for me. Then, when faced with the difficulty of navigating a world that doesn’t make space for people like me, I fall back on stimming as a way to relax and calm myself. But stimming is “unprofessional,” and the cycle begins again.

The controversy that non-autistic people kick up around stimming (despite the fact that everyone stims) is emblematic of how disabled people’s coping mechanisms are often treated by non-disabled people. The methods we use to keep ourselves calm and interact with a world that isn’t built for our needs are dismissed as unsuitable and immature.

In almost every case, there isn’t the option of “Just have different coping mechanisms.” For me, as an adult who has spent years testing the limits of which coping mechanisms actually help me and which ones are too noticeable for comfort (mine or others), the stims and other coping skills I have worked out are the only ones I can use.

If criticism of stimming was only “Please tone it down in professional situations,” I might be able to tolerate it (although that disadvantages autistic and disabled adults). It’s not, though.

Many autistic children are taught from a young age that they need “quiet hands” in order to participate in class. Quiet hands don’t fidget; they don’t tap; they don’t move; they don’t skim their fingers over surfaces to feel the textures and take in the world. Quiet hands sit, silently, and autistic children with quiet hands appear as non-autistic as possible.

Which, frankly, is bullshit. I have yet to meet a child who didn’t run around, flailing wildly, and touch everything they could if given the chance. All children stim, all children have loud hands, all children act out because they’re children and don’t have the most developed self-control.

But if you’re autistic, excess energy is a pathology. Cue “quiet hands” and cue being held down, lectured, denied breaks, slapped, and possibly shocked with electricity for doing something that comes as naturally and as necessary as breathing.

People often bring up questions like, “But what if a child is stabbing themselves with scissors?” Take away the scissors and try and redirect their attention and sensory-seeking to something less dangerous! This is the same advice often given for people looking to redirect self-harm urges; yet it feels like people who work with autistic children are painfully unaware of it.

My work as an autistic and disabled self-advocate centers around radical change of oppressive social structures, including the idea that stimming is wrong or needs to be fixed.

I believe that nobody is too disabled for self-advocacy and that everyone deserves a chance at the life they want. When stimming is called “disruptive” or “improper” simply for existing, so are autistic people who stim.

I can, if I want to, put together a passable non-autistic work persona. I’ve taught myself to feign eye contact, to speak as naturally and relaxed as I can, to be available as much as possible even when I’m burnt out from social interaction. It takes a toll on me, though, and that’s where stimming comes in.

To be “professional,” I give up so much of what is natural for me. To give up stimming as well would leave me unable to function.

As Julia Bascom, the director of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, puts it in her poem “Quiet Hands”: “[Until] I move 97 percent of the way in your direction you can’t even see that’s there’s a 3 percent for you to move towards me.” Autistic people are so often asked to “meet in the middle,” when in reality, it’s not really the middle at all. It’s 95 percent or 97 percent or 100 percent of the way to where non-autistic people are.

There are no perfect solutions here, but a start is to be more understanding. Don’t assume someone is not trying to be professional or is trying to be a distraction. Accept people for who they are, stimming, fidgeting, and all.

Stimming is a way of processing and being that is core to the autistic experience. Autistic people cannot stop it, and in many cases we cannot “turn it down.” I guarantee we are trying to be as unobtrusive and quiet as possible. The world has already taught us to be that way.

Donnie TC Denome PZ ’20, CGU ’21 is a 4+1 Bachelors/Masters public health major from Sunnyvale, California, and one of the TSL Opinions editors. Their favorite thing about the winter holidays is the availability of peppermint-flavored beverages.

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