At the very start of my autism adventure I noticed that the therapists working with Scub put a lot of pressure on him to not stim and to emulate 'socially appropriate' words and gestures. It didn't work and caused Scub no end of distress and suffering.
In that same time period I went to talk to Dr. Temple Grandin and asked her what I should be doing.
The first of the three things she told me to do, was to 'Follow the Child."
What did that mean?
The first thing was to follow him physically. Literally walk behind him and see what he got into to, observe what his interests were. I did this, following Rowan outside into the woods behind our house and immediately we got into foraging for wild foods together even though he was basically non verbal, and to this day he knows his Texas edible plants and trees backwards. It was also a sneaky way of getting greens into him...
Then there was following the child intellectually - his obsessions like Thomas the Tank Engine, Lion King, Toy Story, animals, horses...this I did diligently and within a few weeks got basic verbal communication on horseback, and within a few months, literacy through the Lion King (painting letters on trees of the main characters and placing little model toys of those characters at the foot of the last tree. I did similar things for numeracy. OK great.
Then there was following the child emotionally. This mostly started, advised Dr. Grandin, with knowing Scub's sensory likes and dislikes. How would I know, I asked. Through his stims, she answered.
Many of the behavioral therapists, she pointed out, were themselves conditioned to think 'stimming equals bad.' The people training these therapists were missing a fundamental point, she said.
A distress stim gave an obvious clue into something that caused the cell danger response in the child, creating cortisol that in turn, shuts down learning - i.e. a physical response causing an emotional response that caused a shut down of intellect.
It was important to know what these were. So I began to observe that Scub did the negative stims (head banging, agitated knocking, sometimes hitting himself) when he was low on protein (we talked about this in the last Autism Tip), when he was under fluorescents, when he hadn't been able to run outside within an hour, and when certain industrial noises were loud and close enough to cause discomfort.
Great, so I began to avoid these environmental things and immediately got less of the negative stims, and more intellectual engagement. Not because I was targeting the stims themselves (I just hugged him when they hit him) but because I had noticed what tended to cause them and addressed that.
But then there were the positive, the 'happy stims'. Dr. Grandin had pointed out to me that we all stim when sad or happy, albeit in a muted way. Think of when something good happens and you go 'Yaaay' and wave your arms ('hands in the air like you just don't care..). And think of when you're sad and you curl into a ball and rock.
So I noticed that when the happy stims happened, we were moving outside in water, in a car, on a train, on my shoulders, running, bouncing on a trampoline, and most especially on a horse. It was noticeable too that the happy stims often happened most when his hips were being rocked (i.e. the horse, the bouncing, a swing etc) and when he was distressed he was rocking his body himself. This in turn caused us to discover the wonderful, wonderful effects of oxytocin which the body produce in bucket-loads when the pelvis is rocked in rhythm, and its effect on neuroplastcity and learning and emotional well being.
And finally there were the quality of the stims themselves. Watch them closely, Dr Grandin told me - if the child is really into a certain rhythm or sound you might be looking at a pattern-brain, math and science thinker. If the banging and knocking is more exploratory, you might be looking at a storytelling, arts oriented brain. This has subsequently been confirmed not just by other adult autists, but also by our own observations with the many many children we now work with at the 30 or more Horse Boy and Movement Method centers dotted around North America, Europe and beyond.
So thank you Dr Grandin, once again, for mentoring me. Stims are your friend. Make friends with them and they might just lead you through the cupboard door to Narnia...