The sensation feels like fountain soda under my skin. It starts in my shoulders and, by the time it has traveled to my elbows, I’m already moving. My hands become a blur. Loose at the wrists, they move back-and-forth, up-and-down in wide, swooping arcs. After a moment, my arms are still again. The fizz subsides…I exhale.
Be it the hand-flapping frenzy, the rhythmic bounce, the head-bang, or the monotonous hum, the Autistic stim is a vehicle for power. It has a natural and immeasurable value, because to stim is to self-regulate, emote, communicate, or otherwise express. My own stimming can be reactive, reflexive, and both consciously and unconsciously engaged. Yet, it is largely dismissed as a meaningless display of abnormality by those outside neurodiverse circles. Wider non-Autistic society doesn’t understand the essence of the stim. People stare, people mock. And still, I would never trade the ways I feel for neurotypicality.
The environments of most non-Autistic spaces are often too loud, too fast, and too tiring for people with brains like mine. Overhead lights buzz and flicker. The seams in my clothing press and squirm relentlessly against my skin. Crowds of people feel like swarms of giant, hulking insects. Everything is vivid and deeply textured and moving. Stimming switches open the pressure release valve. Stimming is the desperate breath of fresh air.
As an Autistic person, my stims are political. People who jump, flap, and hum like I do may be dismissed as non-persons solely on the basis of our non-normative movement. In the hivemind of an ableist society, humanity becomes conditional. We are called to stand, sit, speak, and move our bodies in particular ways, lest our personhood be called into question or revoked.
So, I often behave neurotypically at great personal cost to my wellbeing, for my own safety. The exhaustion born out of masking my Autisticness eats away at my energy and leaves me feeling false. Still, people remark that I do not “seem” Autistic. I swallow this backwards praise like a poison. I’ve concluded that if I do not “seem” Autistic to someone, it is because that person does not know enough about Autism. Or it is because I simply do not feel like I can be myself when I’m around them. It is not a compliment to be assumed allistic; it is an ignorant testament to a normativity that kills, and not always from the inside out. Sometimes that death is external. For many of the most marginalized of us, that death is literal.
It is impossible to divorce my Autism from other aspects of my being. Autism exists not as its own isolated identity, but through and within Autistic people—many of whom are marginalized (or privileged) on other axes in addition to Autisticness. My disabilities do not in any way put a dent in my privilege as a white person, for example. When I stim in public, statistically I am much less likely to be apprehended by police or suffer other violence, simply because I’m white. In our world, Black, Native, and Brown Autistics experience racist ableism; I do not. It is unsafe for many BIPOC Autistics to unmask and stim freely. Autistic liberation from ableism must not demand, in our current climate, that every masked Autistic person unmask their traits. That is the end goal, but we must live in the present. For Autistic liberation to occur, however, it must happen in tandem with liberation for Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. We should all have the freedom to wield the power within us.
My stims are power I hold deep within my flesh. When I stim, my movements may signal otherness or oddity to the neurotypical behind me in the checkout line. However, to me, they symbolize self-granted permission to be in my body-mind the way that it is. I wish desperately for this form of autonomous existence, both for myself and for all Autistics. I long for Autistic voices—however they manifest—to be paid the right, deserved kind of attention. I hope that someday soon every Autistic person will grow up knowing the collective history and culture of our people. I want all Autistics to feel empowered to embrace the stim as a thing of beauty and strength. In a world that stares down at us, to stim without apology is to stare back.
Devin S. Turk (they/he) is a poet, essayist, and visual artist creating from personal experience about Autism, transness, and Madness in the Mid-Atlantic United States, often with a cat in their lap. Their poetry is published in Short Edition’s quarterly review, Short Circuit. You can find them on Twitter.