In her seminal book “The Autistic Spectrum” (1996), Lorna Wing, OBE, FRCPsych, described what she identified as Repetitive Stereotyped Activities, to be “the other side of the coin of impairment of imagination” (pg. 45). The Autistic community has come to embrace the term stimming (as the shortened form for self-stimulation), which unfortunately acknowledges only one of Wing’s identified types, the simple ones, as these activities were further categorized as simple and elaborate. As she explains, “the simplest forms of these activities involve repetitive sensations” such as:
-feeling or tapping or scratching different surfaces
-listening to mechanical noises
-staring at lights or shiny things
-twisting and turning hands or objects near the eyes
-staring at things from different angles
-switching lights on and off
-watching things spinning or self-spinning
Sometimes, especially when “someone has no other way of occupying themselves“, self-injury can become a repetitive behaviour.
As I mentioned in one of my previous articles, Stimming vs Fidgeting… I believe there is a fundamental difference between fidgeting and stimming, with stimming as a mainly autism-specific Repetitive Stereotyped Activity.
In an attempt to make this article more ‘user friendly’ I’ve photographed some of my favourite stimmers (a term I use and suggest instead of stim-toys), a small American-football and two different hand strengtheners, one of rubber and the other as a small mechanical contraption, with a fountain pen as a dimension guide.
First of all, allow me to explain why I suggest stimmers. One of the reasons is the unnecessary association with toys in general which automatically follows the use of stim-toys, and the other being an even more unnecessary association with ‘toys’ of a more ‘adult’ nature…
Secondly and probably unknown to many, the word stimmer means in German amongst others tuner, used to tune musical instruments.
Now, as I explained in my Stimming vs Fidgeting… post, stimming is fundamentally different from fidgeting because it requires the individual’s dedicated attention, and somewhat similar to a tuner, it seems to help the individual tune their sensory, cognitive and behavioural functionality.
For example, you may notice in the picture of my stimmers, that due to their material structure, they have particular surfaces, some smooth and soft such as blue rubber strengthener, rough and soft such as the small brown ball, cold and smooth such as the metal coil, strong smooth such as some parts of the mechanical strengthener or strong and rough such as other parts of it.
One may think that these differences are negligible, which may be the case for fidgeting, but not for stimming, because -at least in my case- the surface structure follows a typical need which cannot be met by any structure, but only specific ones. When I use for example, the blue rubber stimmer, my four thumb opposing fingers automatically seek the comforting ‘feeling’ provided by the four small velvety depressions found on one of its sides, and while the thumb provides support, the other four fingers are becoming anything in between trumpet key dancers and Morse code transmitters, and the choreography is endless.
In an autistic’s hand, an object becomes an objective, an instrument which tunes the complex functionality of the autistic brain, with its unusual capacity to process sensory stimuli in more areas than the specialised neurotypical brains.
A next post will cover the Elaborate Repetitive Stereotyped Activity, or stimming…