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Self-Stimulation

  • Posted on July 28, 2014 at 10:20 AM

From the outside looking in, perseveration can look upsetting. Imagine Alex, a fourteen year old boy, waking himself up at 5 in the morning so he can get the first crack at the computer. For two or three hours—however long it takes for someone else to wake up and take a turn—he’ll sit, stand, bounce, and jump in front of the computer to the sound of the VeggieTales theme song. The clip lasts from one to three minutes, depending on the version he finds on YouTube, and he watches it over and over and over again. Occasionally, he’ll move to different versions of it. Sometimes he’ll even move on to different songs, like “The Hairbrush Song.” Rarely, he’ll watch a whole episode.

Alex “stims” on VeggieTales. “Stim” refers to self-stimulation, which is an outside-looking-in coinage of autistic behavior. Basically, the implication is that the person is providing him or herself with stimulation, and that this is somehow unusual.

Think about that for a moment. When I was growing up, all the parents—not just mine—were always encouraging us kids to “amuse ourselves.” You’d hear parents of typically developing children encourage the same thing now, except that it’s so much easier to do when we provide our kids with technological devices like Wiis and smartphones, so “amuse yourself” barely takes any encouragement at all. Instead, we hear parents complain that their children are too connected.

Therefore, one must conclude that self-stimulation isn’t the problem. This leads to the obvious assumption that the unusual nature of autistic self-stimulation is the perceived problem and that, because it’s unusual, it is somehow damaging or destructive.

So, let’s go back to Alex. If you interrupt him before he gets it all out of his system, he gets upset. When upset, he may bite his wrist. He may pinch others. He may pull at others, especially the person who displaces him in front of the computer. The problem here isn’t that his self-stimulation is atypical, nor even that he’s compulsive about it. The problem is his inability to cope constructively with being upset.

The thing that gets me is that it’s supposed to be self-stimulation. We all do it. It’s a normal behavior. But since autistic people aren’t “normal” people, the way they choose to stimulate themselves isn’t “normal,” either. And the point is…? They’re not trying to stimulate “normal” people, they’re trying to stimulate themselves, so why not just let them get on with it?

Let’s do some contrast. Mark is a compulsive Facebook user. He’s in groups. He even started his own group. He plays games. He chats with friends and strangers alike. He’s more social on Facebook than he is in “real” life. And, from the people I’ve seen out in the “real” world, these are perfectly normal behaviors. But they’re not behaviors I do, nor am I particularly empathetic to Mark’s compulsivity with Facebook. I just don’t get the attraction.

On the other hand, I like to watch television shows and movies on my computer. I’ll start and stop them in between doing my work. I’ll compulsively run through an entire television series in a matter of weeks, depending on how long the show lasted. Considering that Netflix and Hulu thrive on this trend, I know I’m not alone. It’s a perfectly normal compulsion. But they’re not Mark’s behaviors, nor is he particularly empathetic to my compulsivity with Netflix. He just doesn’t get the attraction.

We don’t get the attraction for Alex, either. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a “live and let live” thing. It’s self-stimulation!

Review: The Boy Who Could Fly

  • Posted on January 25, 2011 at 12:44 AM

Recently, I came across two movies I watched a long time ago with my cousin in my Netflix recommendations.  One of those movies was The Boy Who Could Fly, which I decided to make a priority when I realized—from reading the Netflix blurb—that it was about a boy with autism.  I hadn’t remembered that.

In retrospect, that’s understandable.  Though the character in question, Eric, is non-verbal and socially aloof, there are no other autistic traits that make him stand out as on the spectrum.  Perhaps that is a failing of the writer or the actor, but the diagnosis of autism is also questioned in the movie itself, so it might have been intentional.

This movie is a surprisingly complicated drama with a popcorn-flick feel.  The story starts with the relocation of a mother and her two children after the death of the father.  The family is struggling and the boy next door proves to be a heart-warming distraction for the girl, Milly.  While the mother struggles with re-entering the workforce and the brother struggles with a neighborhood bully, the girl befriends this boy whose odd behavior sets him apart from his peers.  This is encouraged once it becomes apparent that the boy is willing to connect with her in a way he’s never connected with anyone before.  Of course, the boy has problems of his own, including the looming possibility of forced institutionalization and the semi-neglect of his drunken uncle, who is his legal guardian due to the tragic deaths of both the boy’s parents.

There are things I really liked, like how the teachers made an effort to include Eric, even though it required effort.  I like how they show a balance between the forces that respect Eric and those that do not.  But there was also little resistance to the ablism that persisted throughout the movie, and that I didn’t like so much.

One scene I really like is when Milly, by chance, discovers that connecting with Eric has a lot to do with following his lead, much the same way he connected with her by following her lead.  I don’t know whether this was realized by the movie makers, but it was clear from the story—at least to me, but of course I’ve done that myself with my own children.  This is spoiled, however, when Milly tries to make Eric perform like a trick pony.  When he fails to perform, she tells him “Don’t do this to me, Eric,” as if his unwillingness to perform is an intentional effort to humiliate her.  She never seems to realize that she is doing anything wrong to him.

So, it’s iffy.  I don’t love it.  I don’t hate it.  It has potential that could have been better realized, but it’s also a movie from 1986.  If that seems like an excuse, so be it.

Still, I’m trying hard not to be disappointed.  Is there no place in society for a boy who can re-ignite our ability to dream?  Find out for yourself.  Me, I think there’s room for a sequel.