My Favorite Self-Soothing Behavior (AKA “Stimming”)

blue dude

I’ve been researching autistic “self-stimulatory” behaviors, aka stimming. I began my foray to understand my most salient stim, noisemaking.  I “sing” nonsense songs. I don’t mean your garden variety singing-to yourself sort of singing. I mean hour long sessions of repeating “Blue-dude-blue-dude-blue dude” in a cartoony-resonating voice.

I know my blue-duding is strange. It’s an odd reverberating sound that could never be mistaken for real singing or even speaking.  I don’t blue-dude in public, around friends or houseguests. I keep it private.

During a session, I “blue-dude” one of three songs interminably: Phantom of the Opera, The Imperial March, or the theme song from whatever cartoon my son is obsessing over. The songs may change, but the blue-dudes never do. I have been blue-duding for over 35 years.

To understand myself better, I kept a blue-dude journal.  I blue-dude when I wake up, feel happy or return from a stimulating outing.  Blue-duding is a natural expression of joy and relief. The mouthfeel and resonance is like an everlasting lollipop for my brain. And I never blue-dude when I am sad.

My songs are a consequence of a positive, excitable mood.  This emotion creates acute tension—like a breath held too long. The exhalation of noise is vital to my physical state. Only blue-duding can dissipate internal pressure and return me to equilibrium.

Some psychologists believe “stimming” is a replacement for socializing and other “normal” behavior. For example, while a typical person might receive stimulation from interacting with others, my brain prefers the self- stimulation of blue-duding.

I don’t think so. I am a boiling kettle blowing off steam. Other people do not boil as quickly as me.  Nor do they boil with such vigor. My space on the autism spectrum is a variation of intensity. If everyone bubbled so effusively, we would jiggle the planet with our song.

Self-stimulatory behaviors are self-soothing behaviors. These behaviors are important tools for the intense and overloaded to regulate themselves. As an autistic adult who can control her public bliss, I hope others learn to tolerate and accept self-soothing in others. If another person rocks, spins, or flaps– embrace that novelty as an unexpressed  variation of yourself.

Mall Shopping with #Aspergers

The mall

Yesterday I shopped for my son’s spring clothing. The 90 minute ordeal left me with three bags of awesome, comfortable clothes, and a mild case of exhaustion.

Since the birth of my son five years ago, even little trips to the mall cause a weariness that lingers into the next day.  I once wondered why shopping depleted me. Now, I understand the issues that drain me and what to do about them.

My list of observations:

I could shop forever.  When I was younger, I shopped till I dropped.  The colors, patterns and textures captivated me. I was in special interest heaven!  I had no other responsibilities and afterward indulged myself in an extended rest (or a glass of wine!). Now, I need to be on my toes for my son.  My internal resources don’t have time to regenerate for after school duty if I shop for too long.

Solution: Shop for  1 ½  hours and give myself another 1 ½ hours before the end of the school day.  I’ve followed this formula for the past 7 months, it works wonderfully.

Too many choices.  I like all the shirts. I can’t decide! Anxiety builds. I am stuck in a choice loop. The best option seems to be to buy everything. Not a good idea!  I had a moment like this at the grocery with my husband.  The variety of cake mixes overwhelmed me. Impatient, he paced. This stressed me out more. Finally, I confessed my problem. “Choose chocolate,” he said. Always a fine suggestion!

Solution: Shop with a buddy. Shopping alone,   I use logic to restore order. I select a limiter, like a color palate, to reduce choices. This spring my son wears grey.

Music everywhere. Why would a children’s clothing store blast pop music? I understand the cacophony at Hot Topic, but super-loud music at Gap Kids? Sheesh. I notice mothers with their placid toddlers and realize that, yes, it is just me.

Solution: Sonic defender earplugs or big goofy earphones. Both filter out the background noise well. I am 80% less anxious in seconds. Also, sales associates will not pester you if you wear the earphones—highly recommended in any electronic store!

Perfume everywhere.  I can taste the flowery-citrusy- scent of almost every woman who drifts by at the mall. The cologne drenched men at the technology kiosks seem to be the worst offenders.  I know odor is pleasant for some, but it is inescapable for the sensitive.  Strong perfume is an invasive as an unwanted touch. A person sharing the elevator with me would not seize me by the shoulders and shake me, so why wear so much scent?

Solution: I can only think of one thing—a gasmask. The first time I wore my mega-earphones, I felt self-conscious. No longer.  Maybe   I can learn to be as glib with a gasmask as I am with my Blissum Thunder ear muff!

Emotional Regulation and Asperger’s

Unstable

Before my diagnosis, I worried about having rapid cycling bipolar disorder. Daily, I experienced spells of heightened excitability and mental energy followed by profound boredom and lethargy. The pattern of my cycles troubled me—they lacked regularity.

After my son’s diagnosis, I observed his behavioral patterns and eventually connected them to my own.  Twice exceptional people often have difficulty regulating their emotions.

I wrote this lament the night before I came down ill with the flu a few weeks ago.  This post captures my experience of emotional disregulation.

I feel so unstable, unusable, broken.  I cannot find balance in a life full of ups and downs. Daily glee skyrockets over little things– a cup of coffee or a tender glimpse of a loved one. I am unbound, untethered and out of my mind with bliss.

A moment later, ensnared by stress and the unexpected, I am smashed and hopeless.

I lack self-regulation.  I struggle fiercely. I struggle incessantly. So does my son. We are both untied and colliding, collapsing, crushing each other until we are flat and empty.

I am a cheery person, I insist. This is my identity. I think wonderful thoughts and ask why, why, why, in an exuberant, perky voice.

Yet, when I am not enraptured with questions or drawn into a favorite task, my idle mind grinds in ever tighter circles. It winds in on itself, tighter and tighter until the center coils into a deep dark dot. My life becomes blackness.

I fight.  I bounce, pace, and whirl. It helps.  I float toward the surface again. My buoyancy is tenuous.  Soon I will be lost, spinning away to the tiniest black speck.

Each day unfolds in song and dips in and out of despair and exhaustion. It feels pointless until it feels sacred again. I live the same day, forever.

I read the books and hear the words of what to do, but deep, deep grooves are etched in my brain. Like canyons, like caverns, neurological folds block the light or reveal a brilliance so blinding that I become senseless with joy.

Boredom, A School Memoir

boredom

I used to consider boredom the remote affliction of others. Bored  people lacked imagination and an appreciation for beauty.  In my childhood, I spent hours  tilting and gazing at kaleidoscopes. Plaster patterns on the wall continuously evolved and reshaped into faces, beasts, and foreign geographies.  How could anyone be bored when all they had to do was look?

My assumptions about boredom were misguided. I struggled mightily with boredom, especially in the forced confines of school. I fidgeted and interrupted upon occasion. Usually, though, I traveled in my brain.

I remember Rafaela and her ponytail holders.  Decorated with translucent red balls, the holders fastened tight and close to her scalp.  I mentally traced the smooth channels of her dark braided hair up to the holders and back down again.  Sometimes the light would hit the holders just right and they would glow. Eventually the teacher picked up on my fascination and seated me elsewhere.

High school algebra classes numbed my brain. I digested material instantaneously, making lectures redundant and banal. One day I brought a Phillip’s screwdriver to school and disassembled my desk top.  The mischief makers behind me regarded me with new respect.  I spent the rest of class balancing the desk with my knees while I charted the progress of a rolling pencil.

Not soon afterward, I spoke to my math teacher, Mr. Tigers. “I know all of this, “ I told him, “From chapter one to seven. Test me.”  He didn’t bother and let me go to the library instead, provided I take scheduled exams. I wound up using my free period to tutor the special ed class he taught.

I relished making learning fun for other people.  Math class bored me  because it was too easy. The kids I tutored found math boring for the opposite reason–it was too hard. This irony escaped me at the time.

In my senior year, I took calculus with Mr. Guam, the wrestling coach. The course took place in a big booming room that felt more like an oversized bathroom stall than a classroom.  The ceiling was twenty feet up and small windows seemed to float in the distance.

Uneasy, for  subtle, incomprehensible reasons,  I drifted away during lectures.   I deemed his instruction style bewildering and disorganized.  Furthermore, his homework and assignments did not correspond to the book, impeding my understanding further. He held homework sessions after wrestling practice, too late for my anxious self to attend.   Coincidentally, his exam questions derived from these very  sessions (the wrestlers did quite well).  I hated his strategy and handed in a nasty note in place of my second exam.  He gave me a D-.

A year later, I re-took calculus at a university. My instructor was an unintelligible foreign professor, yet I aced all my exams. He followed the textbook. The next year I became a popular calculus math tutor.

So what happened to me? Why fail in one class and not another?  I’ve asked myself these questions hundreds of times, because my academic career was so mixed.

I succeeded when I worked alone and followed the book. I failed in a distracting and social environment. It is the story of my life.

So how does one with such a brain raise a chatty, precocious boy with autism?

I doodle (above), bounce on a yoga ball, and get excited about teaching my son math.

The Fan

fan

Fans paralyzed me when I was a child.   The whirring-grinding noise sounded like the crushing of helpless little bodies.  Fans breathed and digested.  Every fan ate fairies and devoured small children.

The bathroom fan at the local Fed-Mart pharmacy was the worst.   The aluminum monstrosity engulfed  the entire ceiling. The shiny silver blades looked as carnivorous as my grandmother’s meat grinder. If you flipped the light switch on, the fan gulped to life with an inhalation that threatened to slurp me up by my hair.

I soon realized fans lived everywhere. They circled sluggishly above my head at the grocery store.  Fans ventilated our bathrooms and rattled the window behind our TV set. Even the family Toyota housed a dashboard fan that wheezed  fervently.

Initially, I tolerated fans in their myriad forms.  Soon it seemed as if the fans followed me, bumping and dragging themselves into every possible niche. A humming in the back of the refrigerator clicked on in my presence. The slide projector began to hiss.

Fans lurked and conspired.

One day, my mother decided to cure me of my terror.

She secured a tiny table fan to show me how harmless fans were.  When she turned on the little device, I became panic-stricken.  My father comforted me as I shrieked and shook. Mother turned the fan off and the blades slowed to a lazy pace.  I calmed. “Look, Lori. The fan won’t hurt you. Look, it won’t hurt Mommy. See?” she said sweetly.  “Mommy can even put her hands in!” And she did. I soiled myself and fainted.

Eventually, the sight of a fan, any fan, caused unprecedented hysterics. Window fans, table top fans, ceiling fans were all cut from the same horrid cloth. Fans unhinged me so much that I refused to go into any building with a working fan.  Errands with my mother churned my stomach. I bit my nails raw.

Mother sought another rememdy. Growing up on a farm she learned to observe, respect, and understand animals. She drew on her years of experience training polo ponies to form a plan.  I needed to be treated like a horse.

Nowadays, you’d call it “exposure therapy.”

Mom asked me to put on my favorite pink dress for a special occasion.  She drove us to the Fed-Mart Pharmacy where the original evil fan lived. Once I realized our destination, I wailed. She said, “We are not going inside. We are just going to stand by the door.”

Mom never lied.  I settled down. I walked with her to the glass doors of the pharmacy. I concentrated on the heat of summer concrete as it radiated through the soles of my dress shoes. Mom reached for the door. I began to cry, anew.

She stopped and asked, “Would you like to open the door and wave to the pharmacist, Mr. Brown?” She waited and said, “You have on your prettiest dress.  Let’s open the door and show everyone. Let’s open the door and wave.”

I nodded my assent.   I peeked in and I waved.

Mom tried to convince me to step inside, but I balked. “Okay,” she said. “We can try later.”

The next day we returned.  I held her hand and walked in without tears.  This was the first calm entrance in months.  Mom offered copious big-girl praise.  “Next week,” Mom told me, “You will be brave enough go to the bathroom with Mommy.”

Shocked, I stared at her. Impossible!

She described my future success with such vivid detail; it seemed as if it had already happened to me.

And happen, it did.  I was anxious and fearful, with red ragged nail beds, but I was ready to try. Everyone was so kind. Mom had called ahead to make special arrangements. The pharmacy staff stood to defend us.  Mr. Brown held a big ugly broom for fan-beating. Ms. Emmy had a towel and a bowl of candy.

I hovered outside the bathroom as Mom walked in and sat on the lid of the toilet. I stood nearby and edged as close to the door as I dared. After a minute, Mom declared victory.  The staff congratulated me and Ms. Emmy gave me a grape lollipop.

The next visit, I put one foot into the dreaded bathroom as Mom held out her hands to me. In a few months, the ferocious fan was tamed. I could not tolerate the sound of that particular fan, but fans were no longer a sinister species of child-eaters.  Some fans were actually cheery and helpful.

One spring day, I sauntered into the bathroom alone, and stood staring into the silver blades.  Pride and victory swept through me.  I was stronger than the fan. I could turn it on and off. Its job was to sweep stinky smells away to please my nostrils.  One day, I might even flip that switch.

Thank you, Mom.

My mom takes a strong and logical approach to problems. She has helped me to overcome many fears with her insight and systematic method. I will do the same for my son. She is on my team while I make a plan to help Tyoma fight his impulses to lash out. I will start with small steps.

Digital elements by Tangie Baxter, Google and Know Your Meme.