Masking stims: What are you Hiding?

“Me?? nothing!” Another Autistic awakening.

I guess it was inevitable. As we grow and change our behavior adapts to pressures surrounding us. Most of us have stopped drinking from a bottle, sucking our thumbs, carrying a blanket, and have become house trained (ok, toilet trained, then) by the time we go to school.
Note: stims are self stimulating behavior which provides sensory input and which autistic individuals instinctively seek to help themselves with self expression, self comfort, or to cope with our world.

I was a thumb sucker. I had a callus over my thumb where my teeth made almost constant contact with it… pressure from parents and grandparents to “stop that, you are not a baby any longer!” eventually had its effect and this form of self comfort was no longer available to me. I longed for approval, and did all I could to avoid disapproval and scolding.

About age 2 I was taught to brush my teeth. By age 4 I was expected to brush my own teeth without help. It was explained that my teeth would fall out and I would not have any if I did not brush them often. I demanded to brush after I ate anything. To this day I brush my teeth immediately after eating unless I am in public and it is impossible to do so promptly. I floss frequently, even to the extent of carrying floss picks everywhere with me, and having them available around the house… I have described this as compulsive behavior in the past.

I went to school at the age of 4, I was not emotionally mature enough, but I was reading, counting, could tie my shoes… what a bright little girl! I began to bite my nails shortly after I started school.

I continued biting my nails until once again social pressure began in middle school. By 7th grade the teacher was inspecting girls’ nails before class every day to see if they were clean and well cared for. Everybody noticed when the teacher shamed me in front of all the class. How humiliating! I learned to compulsively wash my hands and to dig beneath the quick to clean my nails, and I tried desperately to quit chewing those nails and the finger edges until they bled.

I was successful after several months of struggle.

I began to bite and chew pencils and erasers. I demolished several pencils in a week and always had splinters in my gums and between my teeth. This was a short lived experiment on my part, resolving itself in a couple of months. It was painful to brush my teeth then, so I found a useful behavioral substitute in gum chewing.

I chewed gum all day at school, often getting scolded for having gum in my mouth and being punished, but I could not quit. I used all my allowance to purchase gum. Being without gum caused panic and anxiety. I had to have it!

Around that time I discovered jaw breakers. I began to carry and consume jaw breakers, having them in pockets and purse at all times. I could manage to chew up a jaw breaker between classes, ( 3 minutes allowed to pass from one class room to another). I went through many jawbreakers a day.

I had the jawbreaker habit for many many years and eventually my teeth were so stressed I had to get caps put on as I broke teeth off from chewing such hard candies.
I have had to give jaw breakers up now. All that sugar releasing constant endorphins, all that wonderful hard crunchy chewing! It was perfect for me (except of course for the obvious health consequences).

I have always sought out hard pretzels, loved hardtack, hard dry toast, the harder the better, the more chewing experience the better.

I even have a description of words for the foods I like best.

They are foods which provide “chew time”: ( you would think that might have been a clue, if I had been looking!)
I have kept the habit of constant brushing and flossing, but now(today) instead of seeing that as compulsive behavior, I understand it is another way of masking my need for oral stims.

To this day I love hard and dense breads, pretzels, crackers and jawbreakers. I am warned not to have them because of my dental conditions. Caps can’t take the abuse.

I had never put this string of behavior together until thinking today about reasons it seems impossible for me to lose weight. I seem to have to have something in my mouth at all times. Snacking is a constant thing with me.

Suddenly the light went on!

I am one of those people who need lots of “chew time”, oral stims do something I need… I have had inner ear/balance problems all my life. I wonder if chewing hard things somehow provides vestibular stimulation as well?

I am continually uncovering ways in which autism has worked in my life. Truly this has been a surprise and a revelation.

As an older adult I have adapted to social pressures, masking stims such as this need for chewing over and over as social pressures intervened with my favored methods of stimming.

Having finally uncovered the hidden stim, I am making plans to look into finding out more about adult “chewies” . So interesting. I’ll report on my progress at a later date.

Now I am going to sit down and try to search my memories for other hidden stims.

What are you hiding?

5 thoughts on “Masking stims: What are you Hiding?

  1. Fascinating post. As usual, I can relate! After I gave up my blanket at age 4 or 5, I obsessively picked my lips until they bled. Later, I chewed pencils (who knows how much lead I consumed from the paint?), styrofoam cups (who knows how much plastic I consumed?), fingernails, the ends of my hair (for several years) and finally, in adolescence, sunflower seeds (whole). I gradually stopped the stims as I moved into late adolescence and switched my focus to listening to music and boys. I didn’t know until recently that all these things could be qualified as stims. I truly thought stimming was only the hand flapping and rocking and spinning you see in movies about autistics.

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  2. It’s amazing the things we discover about ourselves once we finally know to look for them and how odd little quirks we’ve always had turn out to be attached to this diagnosis. Most of my stims are oral, too. I never sucked my thumb, but I’ve been an incessant nail biter my entire life and was constantly told to get my hands out of my mouth. I actually managed to break the habit at 44, but my nails are so weak from my collagen disorder that I started back just to stop the pain of breaking nails! I’ve also always been a knee shaker, foot bouncer or finger tapper and pick at my face all the time. My mom was constantly telling me to “stop twitching.” Thanks for sharing yours and giving me a chance to think more about mine! xx

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  3. My grandpa would tell the story of how when I was a toddler I would go up and down the porch step.He would say “if you let she will go up and down that step all day long”. I remember doing this and so I brought myself back to grandma and grandpa house in my mind and began to go up and down that step Over and over again and again and then I realized why I went up and down the step. I would get dizzy and that dizziness blured out my surroundings until it was just a a whirl of colors, the noise began to fade away I was in my own little world.I don’t think this is stimming but it did comfort me as a child.

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  4. I’m interested in your connecting balance with the need to chew. I’m not autistic but I’m old and I have a tendency to feel dizzy. A dancer friend advised me to try spinning, Dervish style, in a safe place, for a minute or two at a time. An experienced physiotherapist agreed. So I did, and it works a treat! So you may be on to something here with the chewing. I like that your curiosity brings new insights in maturity.

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