Saturday, October 16, 2010

Twirling the Stem

When I was young, I remember my father, Joy's GrandpaJ, eating apples in their entirety. Core and all, nothing left but the stem. Then he'd take that stem and twirl it thoughtfully between his thumb and forefinger. This ritual, he told me, was a token of membership in the Stem Twirlers Club -- those who consume the apple core (whether in hunger or in solidarity with the hungry) and then twirl the stem while thinking on one's brethren worldwide in the Stem Twirlers Club.

Joy twirls stems -- of fall leaves. And she eats the entire apple, core and all. (Her school staff recently asked us if that was OK, and we have no objections!) It wouldn't be that big a step to twirling the apple stem. The Stem Twirlers Club strikes me as a delightfully stimmy meditation!

So-called neurotypical folk use other sensory-intense aids to meditation/prayer and remembrance as well...
  • lighting the Advent candles
  • walking the labyrinth
  • footwashing
  • praying the rosary
  • communion
  • and many more, in many traditions

I got an extra nudge to contemplate these things from a post at Both Hands and a Flashlight this week, called Autism Beatitudes. It's a thought-provoking and lovely piece. Several of my favorites in the list:
Blessed are those who do not speak, for they shall teach us what lies beyond the limits of words.

Blessed are the spinners, for they shall experience life from every angle.

Blessed are the stimmers, for they shall grow their wings and fly.

Blessed are those who are faithful to their rituals, for to them all the world can be a holy liturgy.
The author acknowledged in his post that he is not on the spectrum himself, and solicited feedback from readers who are. I feel a little hesitant myself, as I stand on the outside of Joy's twirling and stimming, at the prospect of assigning meaning to it. What is happening in her mind as she spins the stems or spins herself? Is there a fundamental difference between her quiet leaf-stem twirling, and her teeth-gritting intensity as she stims on a set of car keys? Is it over-romanticizing to think of these things as a potential meditation or liturgy? How similar, and how far apart, are the intense stim-experiencing of a set of Mardi Gras beads and the deliberate, specific prayer experience mediated by the counted beads on the rosary? What level of intentionality does it take for an experience to belong in the realm of prayer/meditation?

I'll likely contemplate these things further next time I find myself with an apple or a leaf in my hands. Meanwhile, I'd love to hear any responses from you!

UPDATE re: responses -- In addition to the thoughtful discussion in the comments, Professor Mother has posted an insightful reflection on stimming and meditation from her own experience. Well worth checking out. See also (don't know why I didn't link this before) the piece I co-wrote earlier this year with Barbara of TherExtras -- not addressing meditation specifically, but lots of thoughts on stimming. And, a detailed insider-perspective on stimming at Reports from a Resident Alien from last month.


Professor Mother said...

I'm not on the spectrum, but my two are- and I can't, in all honesty, say that I'm completely "typical" either... :) I can sometimes completely feel the lure and the pull when a stim happens- a twirl, a clacking of spoons together, rocking, and even computer games- when everything else blurs into a background buzz and the world has a rhythm to it. I can feel it when I'm particularly tired or anxious and the lack of language of the stim is pretty powerful. There's a wonderful hypnotic feel to it.

I also would love to hear from someone who is diagnosed...I feel like I can pull back from the abyss most of the time, but I can feel its pull...

Nice thought, JoyMama! I feel a blog myself coming on! Later, when I'm not so fixated on the computer and stimming on Bejeweled. :)

JoyMama said...

PM -- looking forward to your post! My Facebook stim is Scramble -- no lack of language there, but addictive to be sure.

K- floortime lite mama said...

Oooh how I loved the beatitudes - especially the first one
I am running to finish R's bedtime routine right now but I wanted to say that now i even think the term stimming is not accurate for its not necessarily stimulating - but in fact soothing
There are two other things I think about stimming - which is that its a way into R's world
And another thing is that stims cannot be removed -they must be replaced
Apologies for the disjointed thoughts but in a hurry and so many thoughts on this

JoyMama said...

K - maybe we need a new word? "Perseverating" doesn't do it for me either -- one think I like about stimming/stim/stimmy is that it lends itself to verb/noun/adjective so well.

bbsmum said...

I'd never thought of stimming as meditation, but it's truly beautiful thought. I'd like to hear what people on the spectrum think of this idea. If nothing else, it might stop parents and therapists spending time and effort trying to extinguish harmless stims. I like K's approach: replace if necessary, rather than remove.

Anonymous said...

What level of intentionality does it take for an experience to belong in the realm of prayer/meditation?

for me, the moments when i am able to feel - truly feel - God's presence are in the quiet - the rare moments when i can close out the rest of the world and simply be. it is when i am the most authentic version of myself that i can let HIm in.

and really? when we watch our kids perseverating (persevering!) on something that allows them to shut down the overwhelming chaos and be exactly who they are, well, i don't doubt for a second that they are closer to God than ill ever be.

Anonymous said...

You've probably read this little ditty from my blog:

An old Arab, whose tent was pitched next to a company of whirling dervishes was asked, “Don’t they bother you?” “No!” he said. “What do you do about them?” “I let ‘em whirl!” - Acceptance, by Vincent P. Collins

I saw a movie with a scene of whirling dervishes that explained the spiritual aspect of the activity.

I've read more than few autistics write about their 'soothing' habits - if you are not able to find any - drop another response here and I will leave names of some adult bloggers on your blog.

K's idea for a different word really struck me - I'll be thinking on that for a while.

Alas, JM, while you have gone fb-addictive I have gone in a similar direction on twitter. Guess we'll just have to keep meeting here in blogland, eh?

Love how Joy shows characteristics that are similar to members of her family. Love how you notice, JM, and share with us. Blessed are the parents who reflect on their child's behavior, for they shall know God in them.


JoyMama said...

Does it change how folks view the meditative/prayerful qualities of stimming if that stim involves -- well, as we call it in Joy's case, "making friends with the pillow"?

Tim said...

Glad you all are enjoying the post.

I'm uncertain about the term 'stimming' too, but decided to use it in the beatitudes post because I don't think it has negative connotations, but I do think we could use a better word.

If you've seen Orthodox Jews praying by rocking back and forth (called 'shuckeling' depending on your spelling), you might see the point of expanding our idea of what we call repetitive 'stimming' behaviors. It looks like what we call stimming, but it serves a much greater purpose. While I'm neither Orthodox nor Jewish, I did an exercise a long time ago where we did this in a prayer group, and it's really quite interesting.

Anonymous said...

i've picked up a spaghetti noodle or a leaf and flapped it in my front of my eyes, trying to experience what rhema experiences. i fall short.

facebook scrabble with blackknightsbrood is my current stim.

JoyMama said...

Tim - good to see you here, so I can thank you again for your Beatitudes post! Your example of the "shuckeling" and Barbara's example of the whirling dervish make me want to add the swaying and upraised hands during singing or prayer in some Christian churches. Or liturgical dance! It's interesting to experiment with prayer traditions not in our own regular practice. Can learn a lot that way!

Rhemashope - I haven't tried the Facebook Scrabble yet - 3-way game sometime, perhaps? :-)

dolphinhugger said...

I was at a church retreat this weekend at a Benedictine monastery for women and was struck by the rhythm and routine of the lifestyle there. The structured schedule of prayer services seemed like it would appeal to those toward one end of the OCD spectrum, who might find the repetition soothing in their own way.

One practice that would work well for the nonverbal—we were asked to eat our lunch in silence, choosing not to speak. The sisters there used to spend much of their day in silence. I wonder what Joy’s brain is free to focus on without the distraction of talking.

JoyMama said...

dolphinhugger - I have a post waiting to be written about the intentional strategy of minimizing language when interacting with Joy. Thanks for reminding me.

I wonder how many people on the autism spectrum have sought their place in monastic or contemplative orders over the years?

Anonymous said...

I'm certain if I were to undergo as intensive psych and behavioral evaluations as our girl has I'd be declared 'stimmy' in a whole manner of ways. Heck they'd probably tack on a diagnosis or two to boot. We've moved through a variety of stimming behaviors here, most seem to come and go and haven't been disruptive to the point of concern. Sometimes we let them go and sometimes we subtly redirect. Though I'm sure that those who are dealing with intensive stimming have a different outlook and approach to managing. Gotta go Scrabble.

Lynn said...

I still live by something I learned when my daughter was first diagnosed: stimming is only of concern when it is keeping her from a learning situation or a social situation from which she could benefit. Other than that, I let her have at it.

Talk about liturgical should see her twirl to the light of the full moon tonight! She never misses one...

Casdok said...

Shuckeling is a term i have never heard before - C does this for hours!

Tim said...

I got to thinking about verbally-repetitive prayer as a sort of 'verbal stimming', which makes you realize how common repeated things are in spiritual practices. Certainly casts off any negative connotations to 'stimming' when you think that these religions have been practicing these things for millennia.

Went to a Taize service a long time ago, and basically we just sang the same few words over and over again for who knows how long. It was quite nice actually.

Monastic chant, Hail Marys or praying the rosary for that matter, Dhikr in Islam (repetition of the names of God), chanting mantras in Buddhism, and who knows what else. If you think about it, it's everywhere.

(FYI - I didn't know what some of these things were called either until I looked them up. I just knew of them. )