Monday, May 28, 2012

"Stimming" and our family

Soren has developed a new behavior of wiggling his fingers near his eyes, almost like sign language. Many family and friends have asked me what it means, so I thought I'd use this space to explain it generally (as best I can) and describe how we approach it in our family.

This type of behavior is a common one among people with autism. It's is called self-stimulatory behavior, or "stimming." These fidgeting or fiddling behaviors, like hand-flapping, which you've probably seen, might address a variety of needs: anxiety, fear, boredom, overstimulation, understimulation.

My guess is that Soren's various stims, like finger-wiggling, or excited jumping with thigh-slapping, serve different purposes. Finger-wiggling is a calming activity that we see at night or when there's not much going on. Jumping is often a response to positive stimuli, like music or a video, but there may be an element of dealing with overstimulation there, too.

There is a history of working with kiddos in therapy to extinguish this self-stimulatory behavior, rationalizing that stims draw attention to the child as different, may get in the way of attending, encourage zoning out, make learning and school in general challenging, and so on. When I think of the "Quiet Hands" goal, I picture those English-only boarding schools (run by Christian missionaries!) for Native Americans in our country, where using native language was forbidden. (Captain Richard Pratt, who started the first Indian boarding school, famously used the motto, "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." Wow--the parallels to the autism community are striking.)

The rationale about fitting in is always a red flag for me when it comes to dealing with autistic behavior. It points more to my insecurities and society's awkwardness and need for homogeneity than being anything related to my child. That this is a red flag for me is pretty ironic, because one of my main challenges (even pre-children) has always been hating to stand out. Honestly, I'd love for our family to fit in. Be perfectly average. But that's not going to happen.

My whole outlook on stimming was changed when I read this post. (Please read it!). This passage in particular rocked my perspective:
My hands are one of the few places on my body that I usually recognize as my own, can feel, and can occasionally control. I am fascinated by them. I could study them for hours. They’re beautiful in a way that makes me understand what beautiful means.
What rich meaning is behind those "noisy" hands. And how one-dimensional we can be when we judge the flapping.

So for the time being, while Soren's stims seem not to harm himself or others and don't get in the way of learning or having fun, we are fine with them. There's something almost dance-like in the graceful movement of his fingers. I wonder what that's like for him. If the stims increase in frequency or intensity, we may need to address them, but in a gentle way. I like the Floortime approach to trying to figure out what is the (most likely, sensory or emotional) need that the stims express, and channeling that energy into interactions with a parent or teacher that meet that need.

Honestly, the presence of stims still can be distracting, annoying, and embarrassing for me, especially when we're out and about in the community. They can broadcast our boy's autism diagnosis without that being anyone's business. But this week, at least, I'm trying to see what purpose those stims serve for Soren.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

An Altar in the World

“To make bread or love, to dig in the earth, to feed an animal or cook for a stranger—these activities require no extensive commentary, no lucid theology. All they require is someone willing to bend, reach, chop, stir. Most of these tasks are so full of pleasure that there is no need to complicate things by calling them holy. And yet these are the same activities that change lives, sometimes all at once and sometimes more slowly, the way dripping water changes stone. In a world where faith is often construed as a way of thinking, bodily practices remind the willing that faith is a way of life.” 
   --Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith
Go get this book, if you don't own it already. It's a great read on slowing down and noticing how even the most mundane tasks can be holy. It's a nice reminder when I'm in the midst of taxiing Soren around for appointments, wading through Costco lines, and cleaning up dog barf. How do you invite the holy--or even the silence--into your quotidian?

Wednesday, May 9, 2012


I don't know why I didn't think of taking Soren to the high school track before. It's the perfect location for our little sprinting boy: fenced, huge open space, few other people. La Conner High School, near our little cabin, has the added benefit of an adjacent elementary school with play equipment. (And you can't beat this view.) Soren loves us to chase him, and he'll frequently peek behind him to make sure you're still playing the game. It's a great interaction.

I spend a lot of time chasing Soren around parking lots and stores and sidewalks, worrying about his safety and trying to juggle doing everything with one hand while I try to corral him with the other. And there have been a few scary times that Soren has "escaped" and just ran (away) like it's something he needed viscerally. I'm trying to remember to just harness that energy in a safe place rather than trying to extinguish that sprinting behavior. We'll be seeing that high school track more in our future.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Poem It Out

This month I've been lucky enough to take a wonderful online class, Poem It Out, led by Liz Lamoreux. It's a stress-free introduction (or re-introduction) to reading and writing poetry. I don't know how I missed connecting with poetry during high school and college (liberal arts FAIL?), but I'm making up for lost time. (Oh dear, you should see the new Moleskines and fancypancy pens that I now have the excuse to buy.)

I'm loving how poetry can hold the non-linear, illogical parts of life. It's been a way for me to process the big events and emotions of the past year. And of course I love to play with words. I feel a little like I'm revisiting my junior-high angst-y self when I'm writing my own poems, but I figure I need to pass through that developmental stage that I missed.

I'll share a less serious little ditty I wrote on the theme of "eavesdropping."

I don't think the toddler could open
his bird-mouth any wider
He calls upon
to stuff in the bran muffin.
"Hold the milk down here, so it
doesn't spill," warns the mama.
And I think,
your two-year-old is eating a whole
bran muffin;
I think
spilled milk
will be the least of your

I'm really loving the poets Tony Hoagland, Christian Wiman, and Naomi Shihab Nye. You can find a bunch of their examples on the Poetry Foundation and Writer's Almanac websites. Here's one of my favorites from Naomi Shihab Nye:


Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
it is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you every where
like a shadow or a friend.

I'd love to hear what poets and poems you love.


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