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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!