By Quinn Dexter, Autistamatic
If you are autistic and you don’t stim then you are in a minority. Most people stim in some way or another from bored employees in meetings clicking their pens to Presidents and Prime Ministers scratching their chins in thought. Stimming is not just the preserve of neuro-divergent people, though without doubt we find it more essential to our functioning than most.
Stimming helps us to stimulate our thoughts and regulate emotions or senses.
It helps keep us calm when life is difficult, provides a distraction if we get over-excited, and when we have work to do or deadlines to meet, it’s a filter to tune out distractions that might otherwise tempt us off track.
As important as they are, stims can be distracting to other people and there are times we have to compromise between our own needs and those of the situation. When we’re in school, church or at work, clicking our fingers, blowing raspberries or humming the tune to “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” might attract attention we could do without, so it’s good to know that there are plenty of stim toys and activities that might fill the need for stimming, without disturbing others.
Favorite Stim Toy Categories
Yes, you read it right – fidget spinners can actually be great for secret stimming, you just have to use them differently. Normally we hold the centre disc between finger and thumb and spin the outside. One handed or with two hands, it’s not exactly invisible and a lot of spinners are noisy.
I always have a couple of small spinners with me at work that I take to meetings. Instead of spinning them the regular way, I hold the spinner in my hand and spin the centre disc with the tip of my thumb instead. It takes more coordination than you might think and can fulfil the need of a fidgety-stimmer until the chance to let rip and spin that spinner like it should be comes around. If your hands are out of sight under a desk or in a jacket pocket, no-one need know you’re fidgeting away under their noses.
Silicone is an amazingly versatile material. Its stretchy, rubbery texture has so much stimmy potential for fiddly or tactile stimmers and can be enjoyed silently. These noodles are my favourite application of silicone for stimmers. I got a pack of 5 of them and I have them scattered everywhere I might need them. The ones I have are about 12mm (1/2”) across and 25cm (10”) long. I tie them in knots, squeeze them, stretch them, wrap them round my hands and bounce them off hard surfaces. They never make a sound so if you can’t be seen, nobody is going to notice.
3- Rubber Bands
An inexpensive, or even free alternative to silicone stim toys are rubber bands. Pretty much every office, despatch room and school has them in ready supply so there’s usually some to hand. You can wrap them round your hands, stretch them between your fingers, snap them against your skin and they can even be a good visual stim. Those who like sorting things can take a regular pack of coloured rubber bands and sort them into colours and sizes, they can be stretched around things to create stripes or patterns or built into the classic rubber band ball which can be rolled around, bounced, tossed or just enjoyed as it gets ever larger. A pack of rubber bands is one of the most accessible stim toys available.
It’s easy to get carried away talking about fiddly, tactile stims, but we mustn’t forget about visual stims. The purpose of stimming for most of us is to help us with emotions that may be getting a bit much, or to stimulate our thoughts whilst working or using our imaginations. For a moving visual stim I can use at my desk without drawing attention, I’ve found little that beats a simple timer. I used to use little kitchen timers and watch the grains of sand flow down, piling up and bouncing around, but then I discovered oil timers which are even better.
Nobody is going to look twice when you turn one of these over and watch the different coloured liquids slowly drip and flow downwards. They’re small enough to fit into a shoulder-bag or coat pocket, they make no sound and need no batteries. Many times, I have calmed my agitation or boosted my concentration with one of these.
These are a new take on an old idea that uses modern materials to great effect. They’re remarkably simple but full of possibilities for the stealthy stimmer. The colourful mesh stretches in all directions allowing the marble to move around. Stretching it also creates complex patterns when held up to the light or against a white background so there is a visual satisfaction too. Where the ingenious little toys come into their own is their ability to be used invisibly in public. The sealed mesh tube fits comfortably into the palm of most adult hands so it can be concealed quite effectively whilst you manipulate the marble from one end to the other and back again by clenching your fingers one after another. It’s like a stealthy version of rolling a coin across the knuckles. It’s quiet, barely visible and will get you through situations where being seen to stim might raise more eyebrows than you want it to.
6- Finger Sequencing
A while ago someone autistic asked online what we should call a group of us when we’re together. You get squadrons of soldiers, a chorus of voices, and a gaggle of geese, so how should we refer to ourselves? The most popular suggestion was “a flap of autistics.”
Hand flapping is so common amongst us it’s become an in-joke within the community. It can attract loads of attention, but there are discrete alternatives to use in public.
Finger sequencing is simple, yet takes a little practice for some of us. It’s also a great exercise for improving coordination in our hands. Some people become really good at it and their fingers become a blur….
First you touch the tip of your thumb with your little finger (pinkie), lift it and then do the same with your ring finger, middle finger and finally your index finger. You can either work back in the other direction or start again at your little finger. It sounds so simple, but it requires a little concentration at first for everyone, but before long you may find your fingers flickering in a dazzling display of dexterity.
Finger sequencing helped me to stop grinding my teeth when I had no stim toys to hand and couldn’t get away with flapping or rocking. It’s not invisible, but it’s also not distracting enough for others to comment on. It’s private, silent and doesn’t cost a penny.
Before purpose-made stim toys were around, I used to buy soft foam rubber balls that were sold as cat toys, which I would squash and roll about between my palms. In recent years new materials and the recognition that stimming is an important aspect of life have brought some fun, purpose-built alternatives. Now we have balls which are specially textured for added fascination and even ones which change colour with the heat of the hand. There’s fluid filled silicone balls that when squeezed bulge in improbable looking bubbles and slow rising memory-foam balls which can be squashed down to a fraction of their size and slowly return to their original shape.
The main thing to look out for when choosing a ball for stealth stimming is its size – try to find one that’s not too big to fit in your palm if you want an ultra-secret stim, but even bigger ones won’t attract unwanted attention.
Chewable stims are nothing new but they have certainly improved immensely in recent years. Many stimmers find chewing extremely therapeutic, particularly when nervous or excited. New materials and designs have allowed manufacturers to come up with ever more inventive non-toxic chewable toys and jewellery. Whilst not an invisible stim, they are very quiet, so whilst people can see you chewing, they won’t think much of it if you’re nibbling away on a chewable topper on the end of your pen or pencil, nor will they hear you or be disturbed by it.
Much of the chewable jewellery that’s on the market now is made in bright colours and looks like any other modern costume jewellery, so it’s an easy stim to carry with you everywhere.
These are a personal favourite and are my number one choice for a portable stim – even my wedding ring is a spinner ring. A spinner ring is like any other you wear on a finger, except it’s always made of a least two parts – an inner ring which fits on a finger, and a secure outer ring which can spin around the other. Most spinner rings are bands like the plain one I wear as a wedding ring, but they are available with all sorts of extras to make them more interesting. There are ones with stones set into them at regular intervals, ones with inlaid materials like abalone, horn or rare wood and engraved ones.
They don’t have to be made of precious metals either. Happy Hands Toys offers a range of rings which are made of polished stainless steel and are really cost effective. I have theirs with gold and black bands with roman numerals engraved onto them. It suits me because it’s chunky and doesn’t look out of place on my sausage fingers, but it’s also quiet, doesn’t attract attention, and is always there when I need something to fiddle with. For a portable fiddly stim that will never look out of place, you can’t get much better than a spinner ring.
Some people say that autistic people lack imagination, but I doubt they’d say that if they realised the immense range of everyday natural or household objects we use to stim. I have seen and heard of so many unexpected things used by autistic people for stimming. I know I’m not the only one to have found a particular pebble that has lived in my pockets as a stim for decades. Pencil erasers, matchsticks, pocket tools, carabiners, pencils, straws, magnets and spoons are all household items which have been used as stim toys by thousands of us. Someone I know of used to peel and reseal a plastic airtight container whenever they needed to stim and would flip its corners when they were excited or happy. Often, we don’t choose our stims, we’re drawn to them because of their colour, shape or texture.
What Matters Most
It doesn’t matter if you use a purpose-made stim toy or something as simple as a pebble to fill your stealth stimming needs. What’s important is that you get to stim whenever you need to, when it matters to you, not just when it seems socially acceptable. Your needs are as important as anyone else’s but finding ways to meet them discretely helps the world run just that little bit sweeter.
Quinn Dexter is the chief creator and driving force behind Autistamatic, a blog that explores the lives, challenges, and potential of autistic people in today’s society.
Happy Hands Toys is a family-run, autism-friendly business offering fidgets and sensory toys that are “fun, fashionable and functional” at a fair price. All links to stim toy examples in this article are from Happy Hands Toys website.
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