My seven-year-old son likes to stim. Crudely explained, it’s repetitive actions that seem to soothe him. Some are barely noticeable while some echo through the house. Whether a loud clap over and over or the flicking of a board book’s page, the act of stimming is a big issue for parents to children with Autism.
It’s the earliest sign for many that their children might be on the spectrum. If life was Family Feud and the question was, “Name something that makes new parents freak out”, “stimming” would be the number one answer.
I know because I freaked out. I’d watch as my little boy would take his light up toys and hold them one inch from his eyeball. He’d press the on and off buttons repeatedly and gaze at the ceiling with this deep look of happiness that should have left me, his parent, with a smile on my face.
It didn’t. At the time, it left me terrified.
Keep in mind, this wasn’t now. This was then. This isn’t nearly a decade later where I’ve learned to appreciate everything that makes my son who he is and how Autism isn’t an evil ailment that will rob him from me. It’s before we had our bonding moments or funny stories together. It predates back-to-school nights and Autism walks. To put it frankly, it’s before we had gotten to know each other.
He was pretty much a baby. I had no idea what made this kid tick. I knew he liked to eat baby food and bounce in his playpen. I knew little about him and he knew even less about me. And now, here we were. Finally, I was learning one of the first things about who my child was as a person. That thing was a suspicion of Autism…the one word that every professional had conditioned us to fear in the time leading up to this.
As a parent with little knowledge of how Autism would affect my family, I wanted to somehow “fix” things. We’d try to hold his hands when he’d clap or redirect him from bouncing his plastic ball on the floor rhythmically. In my head, it made sense that if I stopped his stimming, I’d stop his Autism. It sounds completely insane now, but my rationale then was that if I took away these repetitive behaviors, then he’d just start playing chess or doing physics or something.
Making matters worse was the fact that I had some professionals reinforcing these whacked out thoughts. Our infamous in-home speech teacher from hell insisted we get rid of any toys that we feel he might use for these behaviors. Because of her, we gave away some of his favorite things and – no surprise – the stimming didn’t stop. It just continued on objects like windows and coffee tables. The only difference now was that while I watched him stim, I also had gut-wrenching guilt about taking away the toys that he loved. Thanks, Teach.
It took a few years, but eventually I bought back those items that I mistakenly ripped from his little hands. I also came to understand what stimming is, how it affects my son, and the right approach for my family to take to it. As always, it’s not that different than raising any other child.
Today, Lucas will typically stim with his iPad. While watching Sesame Street videos, he will begin starting and stopping the clip at certain points. He will hold it up to his ear, listening for one particular sound, and then clap before doing it again. That’s just one of a few others, but it’s an activity that, when he’s doing it, makes him happier than I see him at any other point in the day.
So, I let him do it. Start, stop, listen, clap, as much as he wants. The only caveat is that if I call to him or try to get his attention and he’s too mesmerized to respond, I take it away. It’s when he gets so sucked into his stimming that he can’t look up or take part in his daily tasks, that it becomes too much and I insist on giving him a break.
This is the part where I usually present a similar story about my ten year old daughter who isn’t on the spectrum to illustrate how this isn’t exclusive to Autism. This time, though, I won’t. I won’t because she doesn’t do something similar to this.
She does the exact same thing as this.
Olivia can play on her iPad, but the moment she stops responding to those around her or doesn’t come when called to do a task, it gets taken away. It is literally the same rule that her brother has to follow. Only we call what he does “stimming” and what she does “playing.” Honestly, though, they’re identical.
Stimming doesn’t give a child Autism. In fact, “stimming” isn’t even exclusive to Autism. I know because I too have done things that you can refer to as “stimming”. We all do. We call it “humming part of a song stuck in my head” or “clicking my pen incessantly to help me think better.” In reality, they all are actions we use to soothe ourselves. Whether it’s Roblox, pen clicking, or flicking a light on and off. If it calms you, you do it. Why can’t my son?
Lucas deserves to enjoy life just like the rest of us. Just because I don’t understand why he’s doing something, doesn’t mean I should stop him, especially if he’s not hurting anyone. People don’t always get why I do some of the things I do to relax either. I wouldn’t want someone coming over and ripping my video game controller from my hand, so I don’t rip the talking dog toy from his. It’s only fair. After all, how can I ever ask him to take part in my world, if I don’t learn to respect his?