Autism Acceptance Begins with Autism Awareness: Stimming

John Steinbeck once said, “I wonder how many people I’ve looked at all my life and never seen.” How true that statement still is.

Today we discuss autism acceptance. Society often looks at but doesn’t actually understand what autism actually is. I suspect this is because everyone has heard of autism but few can actually explain what it means. This is a problem that this post is designed to ameliorate.

Today I share with you how I came to authentically understand the beauty of neurodiversity.

I hope this piece helps you be an effective ally for any neurodiverse person.

Right now in America, 1 in 5 autistic teens will be stopped and questioned by police before age 21 for suspicious activity. People with disabilities, including autism, are five times more likely to be jailed than those without disabilities. This is a problem that you should care about.

“But what if I don’t know anyone who is autistic?”, you may ask.

I understand that stance because I once had a similar view. Today, I have a big favor to ask: read this like the person you love most in the world was recently diagnosed as autistic.

Today, 1 in 54 people are autistic. Statistically, you’ll know someone who is autistic and it might not look like what you think it should. Because as I noted earlier, most people are familiar with the word, many could not explain what it means, what it looks like, why it happens, or what supports are needed to help people on the spectrum thrive.

The truth is I would not have made this effort if it were not for the sake of my own child who was diagnosed about 6 years ago. I also know I am typical in this way; I don’t generally care until I see how it affects me.

Accepting and harnessing the power of neurodiversity will help solve a lot of society’s problems.  I’ll tell you more about that in another post, but today I need to talk about something more pressing: the safety of autistic people

Before I begin, I must note that I struggle to critique people in positions of power because I know at the end of the day, we are all doing the best we can. I am not anti-police, anti-medicine, anti-teachers, anti-psychologists- I am not anti-anyone. But I am unapologetically pro-safety, especially when it comes to my own child. Lots of people are aware of autism but it’s very obvious many do not accept autism. We need acceptance so parents can help their children thrive, so doctors can authentically support their patients, teachers help empower their students, and law enforcement do a more effective job when working with autistic people.

We need not just autism awareness, but autism acceptance. You cannot accept what you don’t understand, so the point of this post is to help us understand autism a bit better, nothing more, and nothing less.

Autism accetpance would have helped the Utah officers who shot 13-year-old Linden Cameron eleven times. Eleven. Times. I wasn’t there when Linden was shot eleven times, but I bet this 13-year old was stimming in public.

Why was this 13-year-old was shot eleven times? More likely than not, officers didn’t know what they were looking at and felt threatened because of their ignorance. Stimming can seem scary. Especially if you hear lots of sounds and noises and don’t know these are simply a very important way some people need to regulate their senses. I hope you can understand why parents like me, who are also parents of Linden, would want people in positions of power to genuinely understand the autism spectrum.

It’s the same reason Elijah McClain, a young black man who “looked sketchy” (that is an actual quote from an officer involved), was ultimately was killed through events orchestrated by law enforcement. It happened because of Elijah’s unusual appearance.

If we just accept that getting riddled with bullets is simply a part of life, we are doomed. It’s not normal, so don’t act like it. You can be outraged that this happened and still want to work with police so that this never happens again. And by the way, this doesn’t just happen with police. Abuse by parents, caretakers, educators, random people also happen daily.

But of the most pressing importance is that people in positions of power are stressed out when they see neurodiverse people regulate their senses in public (aka stim). A major reason for the stress – which manifests in fear- is because these powerful people are uninformed/miseducated. So let’s inform people properly so that everyone can interpret what they see correctly and help everyone thrive. But you can’t be informed if you judge stimming to be something to be “cured” or deem it rude and something to suppress.

Stimming can look like rocking back and forth, flapping hands, making noises. My son often stims by galloping back and forth and making grunting or squealing noises. The purpose of stimming is to work through a sensory or stimulating experience. That’s what my book The Case of Sensational Stims is about. It is now available on Amazon.

Stimming is a common behavior of many people, especially autistic people. It is often confused for “antisocial” or “suspicious” behavior that needs to be stopped. When adult autistic people stim, it is often interpreted as a person on drugs, which might be one reason why they are more likely to be apprehended by law enforcement.

My own child tends to stim more when he is anxious or excited. He often takes a second to stop or respond if he needs to answer a question, and I can clearly see how someone like him could get in trouble by the police. Depending on the intensity and nature of the stim, it is difficult for him to immediately stop or listen to a verbal command. I wrote The Case of Sensational Stims to address stimming. I did not want my son to have the same fate as Linden or Elijah. That’s the real, selfish reason I wrote this book.

But on a more positive note, it’s a happy book that celebrates stimming for what it is: a way to regulate one’s sensory experience and needs. Special sensory needs are nothing to be ashamed of. They simply need to be understood.

I also don’t believe in the concept that there are “other people’s children”. Linden and Elijah deserved safety. My son will be one of the most vulnerable in society because he is not in the majority class of neurotypical. People in incredible positions of power like the officers who shot Linden did the opposite of creating a safe environment. I don’t think they intentionally set out to harm an autistic child. They didn’t know what they were looking at. We have an education problem that can be fixed. But please, do not waste your time defending these officers. To do so would be to normalize shooting children. That’s lunacy. If you feel the strong urge to do that, this is not the place for you.

I wrote this post and my children’s book to fill the gaping, dangerous abyss that exists because people in positions of power do not understand some basic things that are critically important for the safety of neurodiverse people.

To be an effective advocate I needed to do the painful unlearning of some serious misperceptions, just as I am asking others to do. The Case of Sensational Stims, a children’s book I wrote to educate all of society about the importance of stimming is the result of my unlearning. It’s founded in my new education from resources written by autistic people as well as from my time spent in a classroom and learning about my child’s and my own neurodiversity.

My son’s “mysterious” needs are actually very relatable when I took the time to just listen to those who had similar needs. Typical behaviors of autistic children often begin with a question rooted in dismay (e.g. “why is he lining up his trucks!?”, or “why does she cry when I give her a bath!?”, “why does he keep saying the same words over and over!?”) and these same observations are often problematized by clinicians. Most of this unusual behavior is not harmful, but it certainly is different. And obviously, some stimming can be harmful if a person is banging their head against a wall or picking themselves until they bleed. My son often would bite hard things like bed posts and banisters. Something about the pressure on his teeth felt really good, but I feared he would only have nubs for teeth and all of my wood surfaces would have bite marks. We eventually learned about chewlery, got him a few options, and behold! His teeth are safe and so is my furniture! It was also very encouraging to know that this was a common need and that there were stimming tools to help my child with his unique sensory needs.

This realization took many months of agonizing over what I was doing wrong to make him want to bite hard surfaces. The answer was nothing! His sensory needs had nothing to do with our parenting. Relief!

But many well-meaning people try to “teach” their child how to stop regulating themselves if it is not socially acceptable. Instead of encouraging others to repress their stims, we need to discover what the root of the stim is and if necessary, help replace with healthy, safe behaviors. Stimming is an important means of regulation and supressing it causes burnout and meltdowns.

Before I knew better, I pathologized stimming. “He can’t keep moving around while we are at a restaurant!”, I would proclaim. I viewed my son’s behaviors like a tumor growing on his body, but if I am really honest, this was mainly because I knew others were judging his behavior and I felt ashamed and embarrassed. When I changed where I obtained my information, I gained a newfound perspective that empowered me to become a better parent to my child and teacher of neurodiverse students. I quit caring about judgement because I had clues about why he was behaving certain ways.

I realize now that all forms of behavior from all people, both neurodiverse and neurotypical, are important forms of communication. My son’s “unusual” behaviors serve a very meaningful purpose. For the first time, I saw beauty and wonder at his behavior like most parents of young neurotypical children do (instead of the chronic anxiety and dread I previously experienced when I saw him stim). And certain behaviors like running back and forth incessantly- one of his stims that led me to the path of diagnosis- was an indicator that he was regulating himself due to environmental stress. I was finally able to see it for what it was (for him, this was due to loud noise that hurt his ears). I now could support him appropriately (we use ear plugs/ defenders, or sometimes we just leave if it’s too loud). It was a miraculous yet simple discovery. I didn’t have to judge his behavior nor worry how others would feel about my child “running amuck” in a restaurant when he was really just soothing himself.

Getting information from the right sources is critical. Everything seemed to “fit together” when autism was explained to me by autistic adults (but no, for the record I don’t use the puzzle piece to symbolize autism and here’s why). I no longer hoped my son would “learn better” or “be different”. There was nothing to mourn; he just needed a specific kind of support that I knew nothing about. Everything came into focus, but I wasted critical formative years on a clinical approach to autism. If this post can prevent one parent from the agony or one child from the misery, my effort here will not have been wasted.

My transformational understanding is not overly optimistic nor does it discredit the real challenges and concerns that accompany those with special needs. But caregivers, whenever an “expert” pathologizes an unusual or undesired behavior or says it’s a manipulative, conscious decision made by your neurodiverse child, I tell you without hesitation seek a different advisor: your “expert” is a hack.

Advocating effectively is difficult. I’m not sure I’ll ever get to the final destination of total inclusion and societal harmony. I also know I make mistakes even though I’m trying my best. I’m sure some reader will be offended by something I’ve written here and inform me what a piece of trash I am because of the way I worded something. I’m fully anticipating it and ready to do better once I know better (also I will leave room for the possibility that sometimes keyboard crusaders can be wrong).

If we want a healthy, thriving, conscious society, we need to call things by their proper names and take time to genuinely learn about what we don’t understand. Just because you can “see” something, as Steinbeck noted, does not mean you actually understand what you are looking at.

At the very least, we need to believe people -all people- when they share their experiences. And if you haven’t made yourself uncomfortable by getting to know the person –not the topic– maybe that’s where you should first begin. It’s important to support where we can, and genuinely ask questions with the intent to understand. It takes time to look, see, and interpret. You might have to unlearn some things. That’s ok. This courageous decision is an investment of your precious energy. I can promise you though, the reward is worth it. 

If you would like to pre-order a copy of The Case of Sensational Stims you can do so here until May 1, 2021. After that it will be available on Amazon in May. 

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