My son Bobby was three when he started stimming. At the playground he would take huge handfuls of wood chips from the ground and let them fall slowly from his hand, all the while emitting a guttural moan. I was already sensitive to people staring at his Down syndrome features, and the animal-like moaning made me even more self-conscious.
Bobby’s behavior while he stimmed also frightened me a bit. I could not divert his attention from the wood chips, no matter what toy or activity I introduced. If I tried to move him, his response was almost desperate; he would contort his body as I lifted him from the ground so that he could claw onto one last handful of chips.
At home he began stimming in the bath tub, scooping water into a cup and pouring it slowly back into his soak, still emitting that low and long moan, repeating the process as many times as I let him.
I hated it. In general I embraced Bobby’s differences, celebrating milestones without obsessing over his delays. But I feared the stimming might prevent him from becoming part of the broader community. The moaning was difficult to sit with as it completely blotted out the potential for interaction.
But I came around.
Finding the Positive
My first reconciliation came during a speech by Temple Grandin. She spoke of how her mother gave her one hour to stim after school each day. The time provided release and gave her focus. For the first time, I saw the value of Bobby’s wood chips and the potential to limit the time he spent pouring them onto the ground.
My second moment of enlightenment came when I was taking mindfulness classes to help with my own depression and anxiety. The therapist set a goal of quieting both outer noise and inner voices to find moments of focus and silence. We meditated, and I sounded out “oms,” not oblivious to the similarity to Bobby’s moaning.
We practiced mindfulness exercises that focused on each sense. We did aromatherapy, sitting quietly in a darkened room, giving ourselves over to the smell of lavender. We held apple slices in our mouth, discovering the intensity of flavor you can experience when the fruit has your full focus. We let beaded necklaces slowly slide from our hands, feeling the texture of the beads in our palms and fingers.
We easily could have done exercises with wood chips.
Mindfulness exercises were a way for me to re-center myself when my thoughts and emotions became overwhelming. Bobby was doing the same, albeit not as a response to negative thinking, but as a cure for the overwhelming sensory input the world threw at him.
I laughed at the irony. I was paying hundreds of dollars to learn the skills that Bobby exhibited naturally. The same skills that made me cringe when he performed them in public.
I don’t wish to minimize the impact of stimming on some individuals by presenting a romanticized view of stimmer-as-yogi. Bobby’s need for re-centering never went past his relatively benign activities. For other people, the drive may be debilitating.
However, within the model presented by Temple Grandin, that of recognizing that stimming can be helpful, I have learned to use Bobby’s stimming as an important tool in keeping my now eight-year-old son emotionally healthy. He takes a bath every day, and we give him the space to pour his water for as long as he needs.
In times of heavy stress, such as this summer when we moved across the country, I seek out a wood chip filled playground on a quiet morning, letting him relax in his ritual. The quality of his life is so much higher when we respect his need to stim—he does better in school and is more interactive with us and friends. We have even gotten to the point where I can successfully ask him not to stim when we are with friends. He knows his bath time will come.
Stimming as a coping mechanism has proven to be an extremely productive tool for Bobby. I am grateful I learned of its usefulness before my discomfort at the public spectacle drove me to stifle my son’s needs.