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Learning to stim

A slightly weird insight into my sensory world

The adventures of a newly diagnosed and slightly confused autistic woman...

Once upon a time, there was a woman. A few months ago, that woman was diagnosed as autistic.

As part of her diagnosis, the woman discovered that she has magical powers.

Lots of her senses are ✵supercharged✵ She can hear and smell and see and feel every tiny detail of the world around her. She can notice things that most people do not, without even trying!

Unfortunately, while she is so aware of the world around her, something else happens too. Her brain forgets to notice what is happening inside her body.

This can make things very, very strange.

The woman sometimes cannot tell where her arms and legs are, or how they feel, without looking at them. She sometimes does not notice feeling too hungry or too hot. And she sometimes gets dizzy or lost while walking, because her brain cannot work out why it is moving.

This is a story about the woman learning to balance noticing everything outside her body, with not noticing anything inside her body.


Noticing everything

One day the woman was sitting in her chair, minding her own business, trying to read a book.

She noticed that the washing up liquid by the sink was turned around the wrong way. She couldn’t stop glancing at it. It made her feel uncomfortable that this detail was out of place. She got up and turned it back the right way. “That’s better”, she said.

She noticed that the seam on her socks was pressing against her toes, so she fiddled with them until they felt better. Then she felt it again. She went and changed into some softer socks. She changed out of her jeans and hoodie into some leggings and a softer jumper as well, just for good measure. “That’s better”, she said.

She noticed that the neighbour’s children were playing slightly louder than usual. Once she had noticed this, she could not stop listening to them. The sound of their distant chattering filled her brain and stopped her from taking in any of the words on the pages of her book. She put some piano music on in her headphones. “That’s better”, she said.

She noticed that the smell of what she cooked for dinner last night was lingering in the hallway. Once she noticed it, it made her feel slightly nauseous. It did not smell bad, but it was out of place. It was not what she expected or wanted her hallway to smell like. She shut the door to the hallway and lit a scented candle. “That’s better”, she said.

She noticed that there were more cars passing than there had been a few minutes ago, and there were a couple of crumbs on the counter, and the sound of her own mouth moving was too loud, and her long hair was slightly itching her neck, and the infuriating feeling of her own breath on her hand as she rested her head on it, and the heating was making that strange noise, and WHY is someone shouting in the street again!?

Please. Stop.

She did not read her book that day.


Not noticing anything

One day the woman was sitting in her chair, minding her own business, trying to read a book.

She did not notice that her brain wasn’t sure where her limbs were. Or that this was making her anxious. She found herself tensing up different parts of her body, without knowing why. Left thigh. Shoulders. Right side of her back. Stomach. Right calf. Left thigh again. She felt very disconnected from her body, as if she wasn’t really there. “Something feels wrong”, she said.

She did not notice that her soft jumper without-too-many-seams had made her feel hot. Or that she was very hungry. She felt a bit sick, but she was not sure why. She was feeling more and more on edge as time went by. She eventually tried taking off her jumper, which helped a bit. “Something feels wrong”, she said.

She did not notice that her brain needed extra movement to organise its other inputs. She felt a restless feeling building up, but did not know why. She felt annoyed. She did not move, though, because she did not realise that she needed to. The restless and annoyed feeling kept on increasing. “Something feels wrong”, she said.

WHAT. Is. Wrong.

She did not read her book that day.


Balancing out: learning to stim

You guessed it, the woman was me all along! Goodness. You clever thing, you…

“Sensory stuff” has been the single biggest eye-opener since my autism diagnosis. I had no clue how much background anxiety this was creating.

I have learnt a few things since trying and failing to read that hypothetical book. These are them.

Stimming is a thing. Stimming, or “self-stimulating behaviours, usually involving repetitive movements or sounds”, is something that everybody does to a degree. For autistic people especially, it can help address sensory imbalances, calm, and distract from becoming overwhelmed. Apparently, I’ve been fighting my natural instincts to do this, to appear “normal”. Now that I am aware of it, I have found myself instinctively moving or fidgeting in ways that I had not before. This is a bit scary. It feels like getting to know a version of me that I have never met before.

I need more proprioceptive (where your limbs are) and vestibular (movement) input. When these things are low, giving myself extra input makes a HUGE difference to my anxiety levels. I had no idea that I — like lots of autistic people — was missing this, until my diagnosis. It has been a very confusing relief. If I find myself continually tensing different muscles, I now know this gets better if I: lie under a weighted blanket, stretch, press down on my shoulders, put a weight in my rucksack while out and about, have a massage or a hug, walk on tiptoes. If I am feeling agitated and restless, I now know that this gets better if I: jump up and down, bounce my feet on a balance pad, rock, spin around, pace up and down very quickly.

I need to consciously manage my sensory diet. The outside world is a sensory onslaught. For neurotypical people, most of this gets flagged as “not important” and filtered out. That doesn’t happen for me. I need to be mindful of this so that I can adjust, and avoid getting overwhelmed. So far that has meant: changing some of the things I wear, tying my hair back away from my face at night, having things around me that feel nice to fiddle with, changing my diet to avoid textures and tastes that I was almost force-feeding myself, wearing more perfume and burning nice smelling oils, buying some noise-cancelling headphones, keeping things (even more) tidy, and saying no to going out at busy times or in busy places.

There are good things that I can lean into more. Being very sensitive to sensory input also means that some things are disproportionately enjoyable or calming. Experimenting with different smelling oils to burn, investing in some nice soft jumpers, generally leaning into anything that feels good, all help me to go beyond just “managing” into actually “enjoying” every now and then.

There are still a million things to figure out. There are so many things that I’d never noticed before, and I am still realising more each day. There has been a lot of trial and error, and I don’t see that ending any time soon.

Lauren x


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