Teacher Professor

October 19, 2010

Retreats: Stimming and Meditation

Filed under: Autism — Teacher Professor @ 12:42 pm

JoyMama raised the issue of stimming the other day- and it got me thinking… and after last night, it got me pondering.

Last night, for some reason, I had an anxiety attack.  Not for anything in particular- just a build up of things.  I didn’t even really realize that I was anxious.  I just knew that I was tired.  Until…. the third hour of  Bejeweled.   For those who are not addicts, Bejeweled is a game on Facebook where you manipulate shapes and colors to form groups of three and when they are formed, they vanish and new combinations become possible. 

  • During the first hour, I knew that I was shutting out the world.  I realized the power of the stim.   I also knew that I was breathing in concert with the jingling, jangling triangles and diamonds and that as they were falling, they were leaving visual trails of light.  I had reached out to the game and got mesmerized by the ability to get away, to release, to stop thinking.
  • During the second hour, I started realizing that it was late.  Very late.  The children had been in bed for two hours, my husband was asleep, and even the dog had given up on me and gone to bed.  But the lure of a state of mind where I could watch the movement, I could control the movement and I didn’t have to process words kept me there.  I could ignore the voice in my head that was watching the clock.  I was starting to see patterns in the movements of the pieces….I was, in all senses of the word, mesmerized.
  • The voice of “me” got really loud during the third hour, and the anxiety rose even higher- anxiety produced by my desire to drown my attention in the shifting lights of the game, and the voice of reason that was looking out for me.  The rational voice in my head was shrieking that it was 1:30 in the morning and I had a presentation today that I would not get through if I didn’t get some sleep.
  • The hypnotic state was cracked when my body slumped at one point and I truly felt the exhaustion I had been keeping at bay crash in on me.  I was now “back in my body”, where words and anxiety and reason were telling me what a horrendous choice I had just made and how I was going to have to pay for it, and… yet… those diamond lured.  I took a deep breath and got up from the computer.

I’m not diagnosed with autism, but I can feel the lure of stimming more often that I would perhaps like to admit.  Watching Amanda’s video “In My Language“, I can relate to her fascination with the things around her- particularly the spring.  Watching the light on the spring gets me every time.  I find myself staring down its length with intensity every time I show the video to my classes.  I feel the lure of “that” place- that place I was last night- where it’s quiet, there are no words that I’m paying attention to and no emotion and no stress and, well, everything, is muted. 

JoyMama raised the question of whether stimming is a form of prayer- a way of connecting to the beyond.  Is twirling  a leaf, watching a spring, or some other form of “stimming” just another way of using an aid to prayer or meditation- similar to lighting candles or clicking prayer beads?  It’s an interesting question…

And I tend to think “no”- there are differences. 

In the Orthodox faith, there is a moment in the liturgy where you kneel and for one minutes or so, you pray- quietly and with no guidance.  It’s my second favorite moment of going to church.  My favorite is lighting the candle as you enter.  You light a candle from the ones that are already lit and add your candle to the multitude already there.  The light grows with your small addition.  In both of these moments- and in so many other small, prayerful moments in this and other faiths, I am taken out of myself.  I am in a place where it is quiet.  I feel love and I feel peace and I feel connected.  It is with reluctance that I get up off my knees and I walk away from the candles.  The immediacy of this world, the stress and the thinking of it are hard to come back to.  There is no language during these moments, either. 

The two look very similar.  Twirling a leaf, lighting a candle and playing Bejeweled are all states of mind where there is no language- there is only sensation.  There is no stress; there is no “me”. 

And yet, I think they’re very different, and I come back from them in very different ways.  When I’m stimming- Bejeweled, staring at springs, etc, I’m shutting out.  I’m NOT interacting; I’m NOT thinking- and there is that voice of consciousness that is trying to get my attention.  Competing with the stim to get my attention, in fact.  It’s an escalating battle of internal will- Do I pay attention to that which does not require anything from me, or do I pay attention to those things that I “should” be paying attention to, but I don’t feel that I have the energy, the reserves, the power to handle?  Can I buy myself some time from those demands so that I can get that power? 

When I “come back” from a stimming moment, I am drained.  Resolved, but tired.  I am ready to engage in battle again, but with the knowledge that I can duck out again if I need to.

In moments of prayer, lighting candles, twirling a leaf, etc., I’m not shutting out, I’m opening up.  I’m listening to that which is more than right now.  I’m paying attention to what’s around me and so much, much more than that.  The voice of consciousness is quiet.  There is no battle of internal will, other than reluctance to leave, but there is no reluctance to rejoin where I am.

When I come back from prayer/meditation, I am coherent.  I am ready to engage, not in battle, but in dialogue.  I feel love and I feel grounded and I feel more prepared to face that which is in front of me.  Everything isn’t muted- everything is clearer. 

The tools may be the same- twirling a leaf, watching the light play on a spring.  But, at least for me, stimming produces anxiety while providing me a place to hide from it.  Meditation/prayer takes away anxiety, but forces me to acknowledge my hold on the anxiety itself. I think there are some folks “stimming” who are achieving a meditative state, and I know for certain that there are some people who use “prayer” as a means of escaping and stimming.  I don’t think the difference lies in the tool, but in the purpose- and the outcome. 

And that’s probably what drove me to Bejeweled last night- not wanting to deal with my own anxiety.  Stimming is an easy escape.  Tonight, you’ll find me walking the beach.  Or back to the labyrinth


  1. Been waiting to see what might spring forth for a Bejeweled post, since you mentioned you felt it coming on — well worth the short wait! I’ve linked this at the bottom of my post, along with links to a couple of other posts on stimming.

    Thank you for providing a perspective on the answer that I’ve been feeling was a “probably so” but don’t have the standing myself to give — that intentionality / purpose can and does make an important difference.

    Comment by JoyMama — October 20, 2010 @ 6:17 am | Reply

  2. “I don’t think the difference lies in the tool, but in the purpose- and the outcome.”

    Exactly, Professor Mother. The purpose and the outcome define whether the behavior is therapeutic – not the method or tool. Thank you for this.

    Comment by Barbara — October 20, 2010 @ 8:58 am | Reply

  3. incredibly insightful. got to chew on this for a while. perhaps over some scramble. 😉

    Comment by jess — October 20, 2010 @ 9:12 am | Reply

    • Scramble is my second favorite “stim”- but it involves language too much when I’m really hiding. JoyMama, on her blog, noted that she stims on Scramble, too! I wonder if bloggers stim out on word combinations more than non-bloggers! 🙂

      Comment by profmother — October 20, 2010 @ 10:57 am | Reply

  4. I’m deliberating the connection between stimming and addictions. Stimming tries to relieve the “itch” but so do alcoholics look for relief for a similar “itch” through another source. Self-medication by another name?

    By the way, my favorite part of the Orthodox experience is the deep, from the diaphragm, “Hallelujiah” with every syllable spoken….

    Comment by Mother — October 20, 2010 @ 5:38 pm | Reply

    • The term “self-medication” occurred to me too in conjunction with the description of the Bejeweled session. But I also think it’s unfortunate that “self-medication” has that association with addiction. After all, isn’t it a form of self-medication when you recognize that your blood sugar is crashing so you go take a swig of orange juice? Or, up north, when you sit yourself under a full-spectrum sunlamp during the short days of winter to combat seasonal affective disorder? We medicate ourselves in positive ways as well as negative — and I have the sense that stimming can go in either direction, depending.

      Another more positive term associated with stimming is “self-regulation”…

      Comment by JoyMama — October 22, 2010 @ 1:23 pm | Reply

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