One of the biggest concerns of parents, the biggest focuses of therapy and the biggest points of contention between autistic people and medical professionals, is variously called “stereotyped movements”, “self-stimulation” or just “stimming”.
Outside the domain of psychologists, people call it fidgeting.
Autistic people tend to fidget a lot, and in ways that are unusual or socially unacceptable (although we may also do common “normal” fidgets like nail biting, tapping our feet, playing with our hair, etc.) Medical professionals used to believe that autistic people’s stimming was involuntary, or something like the tics involved in Tourette’s Syndrome. Because of this, a lot of autism treatments have focused on “curing” stimming. Instead of viewing stimming as the visible sign of something going on inside our minds, many medical professionals thought that autistic people’s strange behaviors were meaningless and that we could simply be trained out of doing them. Some even considered behaviors to be the entiretly of autism, and thought that getting an autistic person to behave normally would mean they were no longer autistic.
(I put this in past tense, but these views haven’t entirely gone away. Although there is a consensus nowadays that autism is some kind of physical difference in the brain, which probably can’t be changed or cured, plenty of doctors still want to treat autistic people by training us to act in a more “correct” or “normal” way.)
But stimming is not an involuntary muscle twitch, nor is it an uncontrollable urge that makes us do things we don’t want to do. It is not a meaningless behavior. It is a natural part of our body language, an expression of our emotions, and a way of coping with stress.
If these sound like the same reasons that anyone fidgets—they are. Autistic stimming is not fundamentally different from anyone else’s fidgeting. We just do it more, and sometimes in different ways. (And people with other disabilities or mental illnesses, like anxiety and ADHD, can also fidget more than the average person.) For more information about this, I recommend this video by Amythest Schaber, and this post about stimming and executive function by Cynthia Kim.
Personally, I stim a lot, although it isn’t necessarily obvious to someone watching me. Since I wasn’t diagnosed as a child, I was never explicitly told that stimming was bad, but being teased and treated as weird was more than enough to get the message across. I have some specific stims that I avoid in public but do when I’m alone or around people I know well, like rocking back and forth. I try not to stim too obviously in public in general, although sometimes I don’t realize what I’m doing right away. It’s like reading something funny in a library and accidentally laughing out loud, even though you know you need to be quiet. It’s not a matter of resisting a desire to do something, but of noticing something my body does naturally and then making myself stop.
I pretty much can’t completely stop stimming, though, especially not while I’m trying to think. Almost any time I have a face-to-face conversation, I’m stimming in some way— rubbing my fingers together, fiddling with my jewelry, clothes, or hair. When I’m holding still, it’s because I’m clasping my hands together tightly, or tucking them under my legs while I’m sitting down, or crossing my arms and holding on to my elbows with my hands— the pressure takes the place of movement. These things (I hope) don’t make me look too strange, and aren’t disruptive for other people, which is something I worry about. I know what it’s like to be easily distracted by small noises, so I try not to do noisy things (e.g. clicking my retractable pens over and over) in public.