Being overwhelmed: Autistic version

Today I want to talk about one of the behaviours associated with ASD which is often quite noticeable to others: stimming.

What is stimming?

Stimming stands for “self-stimulation” and as weird as that may sound (it sounded weird to me at first too), it basically refers to repetitive behaviours shown by autistic people in response to stress.

There is a huge variety of behaviours that can be examples of this, for example tapping or hitting yourself, making specific sounds or other repetitive actions. In my case, I squeeze my nose with both hands. I have done this since I was a toddler and always explained it as a sign of excitement or nervousness when people asked about it. I was right in that sense, but I never really considered that it could be a sign of autism.

Is stimming a bad thing?

Stimming is not generally a harmful behaviour. It is an unconscious response to stress, but this can be happy or sad stress. For example, when I found out I had been accepted into university I squeezed my nose, but I also did it right before going into exams. I tend to explain this by associating my behaviour with “high-energy” emotions or situations, and I do not associate it with solely negative experiences.

Now that I understand more about why stimming happens, I see it as a positive behaviour. It lets me know if a situation is becoming too much for me, which is useful because I am horrendous at identifying my emotions in the present. I can notice it, and take it as a warning sign that I may be getting overwhelmed.

How to react to stimming

It may be useful for friends and family members of autistic people to learn their stimming behaviours and watch out for them. I am not saying to assume that they are upset or stressed, but if you see an autistic person stimming then perhaps ask if something is bothering them or if they would like to leave that area.

I have close friends that have learned to notice if I squeeze my nose very frequently because this tend to mean that I am stressing about something. This helps me to open up about what I am feeling, which I find difficult at times due to my autism.

Luckily, I haven’t experienced any negative side-effects of my stimming except that my nose gets a little squished sometimes. I think that it’s worth it to give myself and others a little insight into how I am feeling. It is often hard to read autistic people and so this is valuable information to know about your autistic loved ones.

And in my opinion, if everyone squeezed their nose when they got stressed instead of shouting at loved ones or being rude, things might be a little better.

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