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We all do it. So why, asks Alex Lowery, do people get so worked up about stimming?

I feel passionate about autism. I really want everyone in the UK to understand autism and to welcome people with autism, like me, into our society.

Society is far more aware of autism than it was 30 years ago. Due to an increase in diagnosis, most people I speak to seem to know at least one person with autism. However, this doesn’t change the fact that many people still don’t understand autism, or they have a set idea of autism in their head, which doesn’t fit for everyone.

One aspect of autism that is often misunderstood is stimming, which is short for “self-stimulating behaviour”. Stimming is basically a series of movements. Everybody – even those who aren’t affected by autism – stims. Many people tap their feet, twiddle bits of hair or bite their nails. These are all forms of stimming.

This is the same for autistic people, but it’s just far more exaggerated. Many people with autism do things like hand flapping, pacing and rocking back and forth. The general public often misunderstands these movements. They can find them frightening or something to laugh about. Personally, I don’t blame people who stare, because very noticeable stimming is unusual, and I feel that it is human nature to stare at anything that is out of the ordinary.

However, it is clear that people don’t get it. When I was doing work experience in my father’s office at the age of 16, I started stimming in the office and all the staff were very concerned. There was also a time when I stimmed behind a caravan on holiday and a nearby man thought I might have been having a seizure. He came up to me really worried and asked if I was OK.

I’ve heard of cases where people are terrified when someone stims and may even call the Police if the stimming is extreme. Even people who are aware of stimming often view it as something negative. There are behaviourists who believe it should be controlled 24 hours a day.

Changing attitudes

On the very first talk I gave about autism, I asked the audience what they knew about the condition and someone responded with: “I have nephews with autism who always flap their hands. I know that the hand flapping is one of the negative aspects of autism”. This is another example of how stimming is often viewed as a bad thing.

If you ask me, stimming isn’t negative. It has its purpose. Personally, I tend to stim when I’m thinking very hard about something I’m interested in and when I’m processing what’s happened in the day. It’s part of the way I cope with stress and anxiety. I try (with varying degrees of success) to control it in public because I know that society won’t be that accepting of it, and when I’m stimming I may not be aware of safety and can jump and bump into things; just recently, I apparently jumped too close to the edge of a train platform.

It is important to raise awareness to help the public not only to become more aware of stimming, but to learn to accept it as something that people do.

We need to try to make people aware that autism is a hidden disability, and this can mean that our behaviours can be interpreted the wrong way. I’m not just talking about stimming, but social difficulties and all these other difficulties individuals with autism face.

Further information

22-year-old Alex Lowery, who was diagnosed with autism at the age of four, is a public speaker, author, trainer and autism campaigner:

www.alexlowery.co.uk


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