In my previous blog entry, “Stims,” I wrote about how children with autism often engage in calming behaviors to address sensory needs. Along with the various oral stims Alex had, he also developed various stims with his arms and hands to calm himself. One of Alex’s earliest stims was one I look back upon and realize was probably a red flag that he had autism before we ever suspected he was not typical. Nearly as soon as we brought him home from the hospital after he was born, he liked to sit in his infant chair and wave his arms back and forth. I recognized that movement because I had felt a similar motion within my abdomen when I was pregnant with him and suspected that he was doing his version of the wave. Watching him amuse himself by moving his arms back and forth in a fairly graceful motion for a newborn, we made jokes about this behavior. Someone in the family commented that perhaps Alex was Pentecostal, a reference to a religious group known for waving their arms in the air as they pray.
While we weren’t concerned about this movement, he later developed a stim more commonly associated with autism, hand-flapping. Instead of waving his arms, he would hold his arms fairly rigid but move his hands back and forth. We described this behavior as looking like a baby bird trying to take flight. Alex would often flap his hands when he was really happy and excited, as though he couldn’t contain his enthusiasm. Sometimes he would also jump up and down as he flapped his hands, and he would smile happily. For Alex, this movement seemed to have a calming effect on him as he processed whatever was stirring up his energy. As he grew older, Alex seemed to limit his need for tactile stimulation to movements with his fingers instead of his entire body. For instance, he went through a phase where he would tear up toilet paper as he sat on the commode, and then he would strew the bits of toilet paper throughout the house. While we were pleased that he was toilet trained, we weren’t thrilled to have the house look like a hamster cage, with bits of paper all over the floor. Fortunately, this stage didn’t last long. At times Alex will do a finger flicking motion, which is fairly common in autism, but his has some numerical association, as he counts while moving his fingers. We’ve wondered if he’s developed some sort of calculation method with his fingers, not unlike the Chisenbop method for calculating large numbers by assigning values to specific fingers. Since Alex has amazing natural ability in math, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has some method to this seeming madness of fingers moving up and down as he recites numbers aloud.
A more recent stim that seems to be fading lately is Alex’s tendency to twirl his hair as he’s thinking. While many typical children and adults, although usually female, twirl their hair, Alex’s hair twirling seems to be a replacement for earlier stims. I’m pleased that he’s developed one that is more socially acceptable than earlier ones, but I always have to remember to keep his hair longer on top as I cut it so that he has some hair left to twirl. In addition to leaving him enough hair for twirling, I also make sure he has squishy stress balls to calm his hands when he needs tactile stimulation. This summer I found some bags of small splash balls in the dollar section at Target that he likes to hold and squeeze. Made of nylon material and polyester filling, these balls intended for playing in the swimming pool seem to calm Alex when he’s agitated because they provide an outlet for his need for touch. As I think back on all the various stims Alex has outgrown, I’m thankful to realize how much progress he has made over time and reminded not to fret about any current issues, such as his recent phase of not talking much, because like the stims, they will eventually pass.
“Patient endurance is what you need now, so that you will continue to do God’s will. Then you will receive all that he has promised.” Hebrews 10:36