Let’s All Jump-Clap for the Titanic: Part 1 of an Essay Series on Autism Stimming
One weekend evening, we were at Akbar Restaurant for dinner.
Don’t you love a story that begins with a good dinner?
Those were the pre-therapy days, when A would never sit down and eat a meal, but would wander around looking for things to visually stim on, and soak in the clean lines of a well laid out commercial establishment. He loves to study the place where the wall meets the floor, the vista where one room opens out to another. When the visual is rendered perfect, he steps back and leaps up toward it, clapping. We used to make it through those outings by taking turns to sit with our daughter and eat. The other parent would follow behind A, heading off the escape routes and minimizing heedless running.
This evening, he had already walked into the dining area and knocked every single diner’s jacket off the chairs. Clean lines. He wanted no compromise. We apologized to each diner, and rehung their jackets. Disgruntled, A headed outside to take in the night air, so I followed.
Akbar has a few banquet halls, and there were a couple of wedding receptions in progress. A bride was about to make her grand exit from the building, and her limo idled outside, while a videographer waited to film the special moment.
By A’s rules of living, doors need to be shut. He paused by the open doors, disapproving of the girl in the twinkly clothing who was delaying the inevitable.
The videographer began to video. The bride began to smile as brides do. And A began to head towards the unfinished task.
It was one of those moments when your feet need wings. I batted ineffectually at the smokers who lined the outside of the building, doing the silent scream in my head, and trying to reach A before he could ruin the moment. He was already way ahead of me, and I still had smoke and unmoving clumps of wedding guests in my path.
Somewhere in New Jersey, there is a married woman who occasionally watches her wedding video and thinks, “This video would be perfect if not for the moment I left Akbar.”
A dashed towards the doors, and managed to shut one partway, just as I lifted him up, yanking the door open again with my foot. I held him sideways, his arms out like Superman, he still trying to fix the problem, but thwarted by me holding him just a bit too far away. The bride’s smile had frozen into a rictus, and she kept her eyes fixed on the camera, while I prayed that A either wouldn’t screech and ruin the moment, or the videographer would cover it up with some soothing music. Thank the universe, he writhed silently in my arms, the bride exited, and when I put him down, he shut the doors with a whomp! and a reproachful glance at the lazy adults who had allowed such a long lapse in judgment. Then he stepped back and jump-clapped. Perfect.
Stimming takes on different forms for various autistic people. I’ve heard A’s preferred method referred to as line stimming. Just based on my observation, asking an autistic person to stop all stims appears to be as oppressive as if, every time we started to speak a sentence, someone shut us down. Repeatedly. I feel frustrated just imagining that, and if stimming is so intrinsic to who A is, then we cannot ask him to censor all his tics.
Those moments when the Titanic of everyday life intersects with the iceberg that is stimming have ranged from the minor to the operatic for us. A has liberated many an unsuspecting person’s iPhone from its case. Lines, after all. We’ve had to step in firmly and ban him from trying to peer under the bathroom door because he enjoys the view of people framed by the shower door. He’ll happily step in there himself to stim, but we don’t allow it after we found him showering fully dressed, transfixed by the water drops hitting the glass. He once threw himself on the ground screaming at a party because another boy left the bathroom door ajar, and we wouldn’t let him disturb someone in the loo. The person is irrelevant. It’s the visual perspective. The world according to A would be a lot neater than what he’s being asked to tolerate!
Now that he is older, A can regulate it a little better, but it’s a work in progress. He uses his speech device to say “I want to close the door,” a small step in a more social direction. But he evades the social policing in his own stealthy way, transferring the stim from sense to sense. If his limbs are momentarily quiet, his eyes are stimming. If the eyes take a break, he is making noises deep in his throat. If there are no clean lines to move back and forth to stim on, he stims on faces. The handle of a mop will do, so will the moon in the sky. A headstand on the bed or couch also feels good. Endless possibilities.
It’s pretty clear that stimming is part of the reason it’s harder for autistic kids to make friends (because, what can you do, it can be perceived as unpredictable and socially inappropriate), so we are highly motivated to learn to mitigate its effects on bystanders. But we also have to laugh at some of these memories. And we acknowledge the precious subtlety with which A gathers up and treasures the fine grained details and the overarching motifs we have forgotten to notice.
Viewing the world through his camera lens, so many of these perfect social moments are revealed to be quite messy, really. A melange of crooked, obscuring jackets. The broken symmetry of open doors. A bride who stalls. We can’t unsee it now. We have been tutored by the most demanding videographer, and his vision of how a scene should look has altered us irrevocably. We sheepishly admit how many things we do his way–clean lines everywhere! We could all work for interior design magazines to stage photographs at this point, except we have no actual talent. And A would leave a ladder in the photo because, well, it has fascinating straight lines.
Autism leaves its mark, I tell you. Or line.
–The above link leads to a sensitive, first person explanation of the whats and whys of stimming. I really cannot say it better than someone who experiences it firsthand.
–Also, my thanks to Jessica Kaado, our home therapist, for helping me clarify my thoughts, and for sharing her perspective and observations.