When I was young, around the right age for elementary school, I used to chew on straws. Chewing on straws was a solution to a problem that had been vexing my mother to no end. She used to buy me rugby shirts with soft plastic buttons. I would chew on them in class until they became flat disks under the repeated pressure of my jaw, losing the ability to keep my shirt in place. She tried to get me to stop chewing on my clothes by giving me shirts without the plastic buttons, but I only moved my attention farther up the shirt, chewing on the collar instead. Eventually she found a solution in plastic straws. They were cheap to buy in bulk, and served the same purpose that my shirts did.

When I have something with which to occupy myself, something to fidget in my hands or something to roll around in my mouth, I am better able to focus on tasks and feel calmer than I would otherwise. I only later learned that these and other behaviors of mine are widely practiced by other autistic people and are a common way that we autistics manage our anxiety and self-regulate. The clinical literature refers to these as “self-stimulatory behaviors,” but that is a long and cumbersome phrase, so it has been shortened by many to simply “stim behavior” or “stimming.”

For me, stimming serves best as a way of self-regulating. In the morning I wake up early, shower, brush my teeth and go through a stim-based systems check to get ready for the day. Sometimes my systems check consists of me wiggling around a bit to get an idea of how my body is feeling. Sometimes I circumambulate through my room. The regular and predictable laps around the small space free my mind up to plan for the day. On other days, I just make babbling, nonsensical noises­—not so loud as to wake my neighbors—that give little jolts to my body that feel nice and help bring down my anxiety when I’m feeling stressed. All of this I do alone. This piece is probably the first time I have ever discussed my morning routine in a public way.

The only stim behaviors I ever engage in publicly are those that I can explain away as just a need to fidget. At a young age, I, like many autistic children, was taught not to stim, though not in so many words. I was taught that stimming was distracting, embarrassing or inappropriate and, in particular, that it was bad. Though there are certainly stim behaviors that have obvious drawbacks—such as self-injurious stims like pounding one’s chest—stimming is one of the best ways that we as autistic individuals have of self-regulating. In a world that we find overwhelming, stimming provides comforting and predictable sensory input. One day, I hope to see stimming more widely understood and accepted.