Wildly spinning, wind blowing through her hair. Spinning for what seems like hours, and giggling uncontrollably. This scenario perfectly describes my youngest daughter’s love of rotating in a circle for undetermined amounts of time. Many people might find this activity completely nauseating. My husband, who hates spinning motions, needs a Dramamine just to watch my little one spin.
Spinning calms my daughter. It grounds her. It is a release of sorts. This brings me to the point of my article, sensory input. People on the autism spectrum have varying needs of sensory input, or lack of input. Just like snowflakes, individuals with autism are all unique.
I will admit, when we visit Walt Disney World, I love to ride the Alice in Wonderland Teacup Ride. With a teacup full of three autistics and one daughter with ADHD, my daughters and I spin like we are willing ourselves to take flight. We laugh and scream “Spin faster!.”
Not everyone with autism likes to spin. Some prefer hand flapping, rocking, swinging, or humming. Others need more subtle input like listening to the same song over and over again. Yes, listening to the same song, hearing the same book, or repeating a phrase can be forms of sensory stimulation/input.
The question for some is, “Is it okay to do these things in public?” I guess that depends on the individual, or the individual’s caregivers. Many people on the autism spectrum become easily overwhelmed in crowded areas such as grocery stores or shopping malls. Just making a short trip to pick up a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk can send some into anxiety overdrive. In these situations, autistic individuals might start sensory stimulatory behaviors to cope with anxiety. In the autism community, this is typically called “stimming”. This is the individual’s way of saying “I’m freaking out right now!.” It could be that the store is too crowded, too loud, too hot, or numerous other factors.
I feel there are appropriate stimming behaviors that are okay for public display. Having autism myself and two daughters with autism, I may have a little more comfort in the area of public stimming. Obviously you don’t want your child to be injured, or to injure anyone else. Spinning might be okay on the playground, but not inside a small cafe. Humming can be great in a mall, but not in school. Depending on your child’s level of understanding, you can help him/her understand appropriate stimming for specific situations.
I have also developed a very thick skin so to speak. I have learned to explain to onlookers why my daughter needs to stim. My whirling dervish is now 9 years old. She still spins, but more often she carries an iPad with her on every outing. She loves to play the same game over and over. I am perfectly happy that she is perfectly happy stimming away!