When I got married last year, the first line of my vows was “We are all a bit weird.” Amazingly, the ceremony still went ahead and we are still married. But we really are all a bit weird, as in we all do things that seem unusual or strange to others.
Many autistic people do something known as stimming in one form or another. This is some form of physical habit that we do repeatedly, usually when we are anxious or stressed. For me, it tends to be to bounce one of my legs up and down while I am sitting down, but in the past I have also squinted out the corner of my eye, rolled my bottom lip and chewed the inside of my mouth. Other stims could be flapping hands, rocking or repeating certain words.
The reasons for this behaviour are varied and there is much research available on the web if you want to know more. The explanations that make most sense to me are that it is a distraction from a difficult situation, and the repetition is a way of bringing some regularity to an unpredictable time. It gives me something else to focus on away from things I am worrying about.
It really does help too. I can say without any doubt that stimming in a stressful situation definitely keeps me calmer and helps me to get through the difficult time. But it often can look weird to people that don’t understand.
The thing is, many autistic people find we already come across as weird. Not being sociable, not making eye contact and unpredictable thoughts and responses set you well on the road to being known as a weirdo in many contexts. These days, as I get older, I often describe myself as the weirdo in the corner and am proud to be that, but for many people being seen as weird is hugely difficult. When I was at school I certainly wanted to fit in and be like the others, and I never could. I was always different, and stimming is often one of the more obvious differences.
It takes a lot of confidence to be comfortable being different, and many autistic people have spent years having their confidence knocked out of them. But is flapping your hands or pulling a few funny faces really enough of a reason to ostracise people? We all have our ways of coping, it is just that stimming is often more visible.
The answer, as is often the case, is a need for greater tolerance, acceptance and understanding. We are all different, but some differences are seen as positive, like being stunningly beautiful by whatever standard that is measured, while needing to fidget constantly is considered weird. But they are both just differences that the person concerned has little control over, and both of them do no harm to anyone else.
We need to embrace differences. Stimming may seem odd if you don’t do it yourself, but to me making small talk endlessly seems much more weird than rocking my leg! We all need to try and understand a little more and judge a little less. It might just make a huge difference in the long run.