Recently circulating in a Facebook group I follow is the topic of stimming and special interests as self-soothing behavior. I’d never before considered my core behavior, that practice I’ve called “movement meditation” or whatever you want to call it, as a stimming behavior, but it certainly fits the criteria and what we know about the phenomena in terms of being a “self-stimulating” or “self-soothing” behavior when feeling overstimulated. Through personal observation, I’ve recognized that I’m a rocker when in social group situations where I’m required to keep track of fast-moving conversations that often lead to multiple strains and to be ready at any time to respond should I be directly addressed. I have the feeling of “falling behind” or being just a few seconds behind everyone as I try to process everything that is going on, while also stressing out about not being ready if someone asks me a question or I am expected to participate in some way.
Luckily, I’ve downloaded plenty of standby remarks that work in a wide variety of situations because the group of friends my husband and I spend time with is constantly jabbing at each other with sarcastic remarks or making fun of each other in a funny, light-hearted, don’t-actually-mean-it-in-a-mean-way kind of way, if that makes sense. It didn’t to me for a long time. There are times when I feel like their words go too far and I can’t imagine someone hearing them and thinking, Oh, they are just being funny. Sometimes it is difficult to hide my surprise or disgust or confusion, but along the way I’ve also learned that just about anything goes with these people, and most of the time, it is just fun.
I rock side to side or forward to back. It’s been noticed once or twice, but I no longer worry about hiding it, as it does serve a purpose for me as a means to stay calm and continue processing all of the words flying around me. I do have other habits that I’m pretty sure are a direct result of anxiety, like incessantly biting my nails. Although I do this even when I am alone and not stressed. I also talk to myself and rehash social interactions, almost like a review to comb through and see if I made any mistakes, or sometimes to appreciate how well I did in a tricky social encounter.
But this question of special interest as stimming is interesting to me. My most profound special interest is based in music and is triggered whenever I hear examples of the few elements I first fell in love with as a child. I’ve tried for years to describe these elements, but the words elude me, and I guess I kind of prefer it that way. The only way to describe it is to offer examples. The first trigger occurred when I was very young, maybe 9 or 10, and the song is “Return to Innocence” by Enigma, which I’ve discussed in previous posts. In the following few years, I became obsessed with Ireland and Irish dancing after being exposed to the music from the show Lord of the Dance. I was fascinated by the music and also by the perfect, intricate rhythms of the hard shoe dances. The dance is rhythmically soothing and exact and follows a perfect order that is pleasurable. It became a lifelong love, and I continue to practice Irish dancing to this day, 20 years later.
After a period of reflection, I do believe that the music I heard was at the core of that particular trigger, and has continued to feed every subsequent musical obsession as my ears recognize a familiar quality to the Enigma and Ronan Hardiman sounds. Even though the musical styles have differed greatly, there is always something in the music I become obsessed with that recalls directly to those original obsessions.
The dancing that follows is certainly something I would term “self-stimulating” in the sense that I feel like I’m almost tapping into extra-sensory perceptions in a way that only seems to be adequately described as “spiritual,” though I’m not a huge fan of the term. It is a place of absolute calm and present-ness, thus in my mind I’ve always considered it meditation. Yet it also functions as a sort of escape and follows from a great need to order everything around me into something that makes sense and simmers down in times when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Music itself is soothing, but I’ve never been able to just sit and listen to calming music for the sake of meditation or to calm myself. I must move, similar to the need to rock back and forth in order to keep up with the world around me, like putting things one by one in a line to be able to go through the single, narrow opening in my mind that is asked to process everything, where most people have many processors working at a time.
I’d love to hear from other autistic women and what they think of their own stimming behaviors as well as how their special interests inform their lives in the comments.
I also wanted to share a recent Ted Talk video I found on YouTube. The talk was filmed in Dublin, Ireland this past December, 2018 and was given by a young autistic girl named Niamh McCann. She explains how her brother was diagnosed when he was young, and how her own autism was missed as a young girl, as her characteristic Asperger traits were not recognized as autism.
This second video is one of the most powerful talks I’ve ever heard. This talk by a woman named Sarai Pahla in 2017 discusses candidly her fears as an autistic woman of never finding romantic love. I could not believe how honest and incredibly brave she is. She is one of the most amazing women I’ve ever listened to. I think it will definitely strike a nerve with many, many autistic women who listen to her. I hope you enjoy. Thanks for reading, as always!
5 thoughts on “Special Interests as Stimming, and My Favorite TED Talk of All Time”
I agree about Sarai Pahla’s talk. I was blown away by her courage when I saw it! I relate to your musings about stimming and obsessive interests. In fact, that was going to be my next blog post… : ) For me, I am only now realizing after recent AS self-diagnosis that my lifelong need to move my fingers first with piano, typing for a living, and knitting, are all self-soothing stimming. When I can’t move my hands in some activity, I am only now more aware that I start to clasp them or press fingers together in a nonobvious way. Literally every human self-stims in certain ways, but it’s just a more exaggerated coping/calming mechanism with autism spectrum. I reach the out-of-body state you mention in dance while knitting. Literally hours can pass and I’m not aware of time passing. One other aspect to knitting in public spaces or with other knitters – it allows socializing without eye contact.
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Ah, interesting! I’ve read about being in a state of flow while creating, which certainly applies to making music or knitting. An almost out of body experience where time is different.
I can empathise with Niamh McCann. I’m a man,but I’ve never officially been diagnosed as autistic (trying for the third time…) and I’m sure it’s because I’ve always been good at masking and finding superficial workarounds for my autistic traits. I began struggling in my teens, (I’m still in the mental health system) but when I was eventually sent for assessment I was told I had a lot of autism traits, but not autism. Hopefully I will get diagnosed one day… I wish she had said how she did get diagnosed in the end.
Sarai Pahla’s talk is also very good and I hope she finds who she’s looking for. I’m also thirty-five with limited dating experience and I also worry about not finding love; for me it’s autism, but also related issues of depression, social anxiety and low income. Plus I want to meet someone who shares my religious outlook, which is a very small minority. It’s worrying.
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Thank you for your thoughts. It seems to me that women have an advantage in that area just because we are women. I did not have to try and actively pursue my now husband. It is more acceptable for a woman to be courted than the other way around, but what does that mean for a man who struggles with social anxiety? I wish i could say depression goes away once you find a partner, but i am still incredibly lonely and suffer from depression on a regular basis. I hope you’ve found some coping strategies. I’m curious about your religious beliefs? Wishing you the best.
Yes, it is hard trying to be more assertive romantically, particularly with poor social skills and limited ability to read the other person’s subtext and body language. It has got me into trouble in the past.
Yes, sadly I know from experience that one can be in a relationship and still be lonely.
I’m an Orthodox Jew, which is a minority (Orthodox out of Jewish) of a tiny minority (Jewish out of world population, or even UK population (where I live)).