This piece of writing illuminates the role of stimming in my research and the development of my neurodivergent movement practice. I began writing it to explore my personal relationship with stimming and my pathway into working with it.. My research and thinking have led me to explore the value of stimming as “a political, aesthetic and metacommunicative act of embodied semiosis” (Nolan, & McBride. 2015, 1074), considering it within the context of the social model of disability.
My relationship with Stimming
When, at 25, I received my dyspraxia diagnosis. I, like my family and friends, was surprised. Dyspraxia (DCD) is a developmental disorder that affects coordination and movement, spatial awareness, visual processing and balance. Movement and dance had always been my way of inhabiting the world and expressing myself. Growing up, I excelled in dance, and when I received my diagnosis, I was studying a Masters degree in movement direction and teaching. My ambition was to spend the rest of my career co-ordinating bodies, relating to the world and creating meaning through movement. To be diagnosed with dyspraxia was a shock.
However, as I begin to learn more about dyspraxia, I am able to make sense of my contradictory relationship with movement. Like autism, dyspraxia affects how sensitive individuals are to sensory stimuli from their environment: the world can be experienced as “too loud, too bright, too fast, and too tight” (ICD-11, 2018).
As Aby Watson quoted “some dyspraxics seem to crave motion as a result of being undersensitive to vestibular input and may seek out extra movement experiences in an effort to fuel their central nervous system with meaningful information.” (Watson, 2020, quoting Patrick 2015: 49)
I find myself constantly moving in order to get through every thought, feeling and task of the day. These fidget movements, known as stimming, are rhythmic and repetitive self-stimulatory and self-regulatory behaviours. They are a universal part of human behaviour, but are associated with neurodivergence, particularly autism, because of the differing sensory needs it creates.
Stimming is the way I rock myself to sleep at night, grinding my pelvis into the mattress in figures of eight. It’s the way I pick at trees, bushes and blades of grass to tear along the fibrous seams; my need to pick off the labels on each bottle I drink from; the way I shred plastic cups, fumble with keys in my pocket and fold my body up like a contortionist, until my limbs tingle. Often they are movements that I carry shame around because I feel that I shouldn’t do them, but I can’t help it. And once I start, I find it hard to stop.
Sitting still can make me feel like my body, and the room with it, is spiralling in on itself, twisting inside out and upside down. In hindsight, this explains why the time I attempted a mindfulness meditation practice, I felt so physically uncomfortable with sitting still, I thought I was going to have a panic attack. As such, my stimming movements ground me, enabling me to make sense of where my body is in three-dimensional space.
As a child, I would take myself off to a quiet corner of the house where I would pour out a jar of beads onto the floor. I would spend hours running these beads through my fingers, whilst I thought up stories, characters, costumes, houses and landscapes. The repetitive movement and tactile sensory input would enable me to focus on these visualisations. I remember feeling a need for it. It calmed me and allowed me to tease out and give space to the ideas forming in my chaotic and creative mind. My family called it “thinking-in-fiddle”. I would seek out this activity in different settings - at my grandparents' house there was a box of buttons, and on beach holidays I would separate myself from the rest of the family to sit quietly, repeatedly sifting sand through my fingers, whilst murmuring through my ideas. As a teenager I became embarrassed of this behaviour and gradually phased it out.
The replacement stim that dominated my adolescent years was that I endlessly combed through my hair with my fingers, tearing away at where I noticed the hairs splitting or breaking. I knew that it was antisocial, causing me to zone out of interaction and conversation with others, creating a curtain of hair over my eyes and in doing so, blocking out the world around me. Not only that, but it was ruining my hair. I did it anyway, I would turn to it during school work when I needed to think through a question or idea, but normally I would be so drawn into the mesmerising movement that my brain would leave the schoolwork behind. It occupied me on train and bus journeys, during family mealtimes, and contended with whatever film or TV programme I was watching. It became a constant battle as I hated myself for doing it but couldn’t stop myself. I knew it was off-putting to watch and it made me feel immature and alienated.
During university, I turned away from dance because although I had loved it, I had struggled to learn the material for my ballet exams so much so that I gave up on it. At the time, I didn’t know I was dyspraxic and accepted it as a lack of talent. However, while studying English and Drama, I felt frustrated and disembodied. I realised that not dancing felt like not fully engaging with the world.
After university, I started to explore contemporary and experimental dance practices in London. I found that in these rooms there was a culture of self-regulating and self-stimulatory movement that I could embrace, where people listened to what their bodies needed and would respond through rocking, tapping, swinging, pressing and bouncing. It taught me new ways to self-regulate and self-stimulate that helped me to leave behind my hair-splitting stim.
The dance class in which I found my footing was facilitated by Candoco Dance Company, a company for disabled and non-disabled dancers. This was a space in which I could enjoy movement without the judgemental and competitive mentality of other classes. New techniques were introduced slowly and broken down into small steps which liberated me to understand the movement fully. There was a huge emphasis on improvisation and opportunities to create our own movement scores individually or with others. It was a class in which I felt I could be in my element and celebrate the joy of moving with others in a way that was supportive and playful. It was a revelation and, of course, when I was diagnosed with dyspraxia a couple of years later, it made perfect sense that this was the environment that worked for me.
Studying movement direction for theatre has fuelled my fascination in observing people moving around me and I now use tube journeys to watch other people’s stimming. It captivates and mesmerises me to watch these repetitive movements in others and, in a way, this has developed into a new visual stim.
Physical Language: discovering stimming within movement practice
While studying movement direction, I noticed that the concepts, processes and values cultivated in this field of practice, reflect notions of heightened sensory awareness and response. As Vanessa Ewan explains in Actor Movement, “the actor must aim for a completely alive body which is sensitive to outside stimuli” (Ewan, 2015, 4). My role as a movement director is to guide the performer into this state of physical awareness.
In the field of psychology, neurodivergent sensory perception is problematised as a sticking point in childhood development: “children are expected to ‘grow out of’ more carnal, sensory and embodied ways of knowing to embrace, instead, the more rational and ‘adult’ world of signs and symbols.” (Nolan & McBride, 2015, 1071)
However, in performance practice, these “carnal, sensory and embodied ways of knowing” are understood and valued as a physical vocabulary, “the human’s original and inherent mechanism of communication”. (Ewan, 2015, 2) This is the language of spatial relationship, touch and the ability to listen and respond to sensory input. In Body, Space, Image, Miranda Tufnell and Chris Crickmay’s guide for improvisation, they instruct:
“Listen to the voices of fingers/ toes/ where they want to go/ offer support from the rest of the body/ hand wrist elbow shoulder whole body… enjoy a dialogue between parts of the body and its surroundings” (Tufnell and Chrickmay, 2014, 63).
Tufnell and Crickmay recognize the importance of sensory communication, a bodily dialogue -this way of seeing movement aligns with how people with autism have described stimming. In her YouTube video, In My Language, Amanda Baggs explains that “my language is… about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment, reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.” She then addresses how “failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit. But failure to learn my language is seen as so natural that people like me are described as mysterious and puzzling.” (Baggs, 2007)Bagg’s statement reveals her aliantation and deep sense of rejection and being misunderstood. However, I see, in this dilemma, an opportunity for artists like myself to overcome this language barrier and to engage creatively with stimming and neurodivergent ways of being in the world.
In Candoco dance classes, practising alongside people with autism and learning disabilities, I have become attuned to a spectrum of different stimming behaviours and practiced how to interact creatively with these through dance improvisation, taking the rhythmic and repetitive qualities of stimming movements, and working with them as choreographic principles on which improvisation can occur. Now I work in different contexts with adults with autism, learning disabilities and complex needs. I am learning how to meet people through their unique ways of engaging with the world, and enter into these sensory dialogues, exploring how these movements can take us through a process of stimulation to communication and connection.
This way of engaging with stimming movements parallels the practice of Intensive Interaction in the field of clinical psychology.In their book, Access to Communication, Nind and Hewitt define Intensive Interaction as an approach developed to open up “fulfilment and joy of human interaction” (Nind and Hewitt, 2005, 1) for students with learning disabilities at Harperbury Hospital School. They describe how “use of interactive games become Intensive Interaction when we give structure and deliberate progression to the interactive processes”. (Nind and Hewitt, 2005, 17)This way of developing an interaction adopts artistic modes of improvisation, working responsively “to excavate layers of experience, sensation… feelings that we normally rush through or suppress - to travel deeper and deeper into an ever enlarging and changing moment.” (Tufnell and Crickmay, 2014, 46)
Now, as I develop a new neurodivergent aesthetic in my choreographic practice, stimming has become both my subject matter and my method of exploration. Shedding the shame I have associated with it in the past, I now am now celebrating all that it is; mesmerising, stimulating, pleasurable, soothing, grounding, challenging and disruptive. I do this in order to integrate my experiences of neurodivergence within my artistic practice, but beyond that, I want to share the sensory dialogues of stimming with others, shifting from a position of stigma to one of curiosity and acceptance. As someone with dyspraxia, my stims are often less socially challenging than those of people with autism and developmental disorders. As such, I hope that my positionality as someone who occupies the space between disabled and non-disabled, I can serve to remind neurotypical people of the universality of stimming and create an appreciation for shared experience, whilst also opening up a greater understanding and tolerance for difference.
Stimming for social change
“The social model demonstrates that the problems disabled people face are the result of social oppression and exclusion, not their individual deficits. This places the moral responsibility on society to remove the burdens which have been imposed, and to enable disabled people to participate.” (Shakespeare, 2010, 5) As such, we have a social responsibility to embrace stimming. As Nolan and McBride argue, “If ‘stimming’ was an acceptable and valued aspect of social and cultural behaviour, how might it be incorporated into design or social practices? Might the expressive and embodied behaviour of stimming benefit non-autistics, who are also similarly conditioned to resist such physical utterance?” (Nolan & McBride, 2015, 1075). They identify that to accept stimming as a semiotic praxis “also involves disrupting narratives of autism as deficit or disease and regarding it, instead, as an opportunity to realise more inclusive visions of sociality imagined by the neurodiverse. If we are to liberate sensory experience from a historicity of normative sensory” (Nolan & McBride, 2015, 1075).
As artists who work with physical and sensory vocabularies, I believe we can lead the way in this change, looking to the neurodivergent and learning disabled community to expand our ways of perceiving the world and expressing ourselves and experiences within it.
Baggs, A. 2007. In My Language. Link. Accessed 28, June 2020.
Ewan, V., & Green, D. (2015). Actor movement: Expression of the physical being: A movement handbook for actors. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.
ICD-11 International Classification of Diseases 11th Revision (2018) 6A04 Developmental motor coordination disorder
Nind, M., & Hewett, D. (1994). Access to communication: Developing the basics of communication with people with severe learning difficulties through intensive interaction. London: D. Fulton.
Nolan, J., & McBride, M. (2015). Embodied Semiosis: Autistic ‘Stimming’ as Sensory Praxis. In P. P. Trifonas (Author), International handbook of semiotics (pp. 1069-1078). Dordrecht: Springer.
Patrick, A. (2015) The Dyspraxic Learner: Strategies for Success, London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Shakespeare, T. “The Social Model Of Disability.” The Disability Studies Reader. Ed. Lennard, J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2010, 266-73. Print
Tufnell, M., & Crickmay, C. (2014). Body Space Image: Notes Toward Improvision and Performance. Binsted, Hampshire: Dance Books.
Watson, A. (2020) Exchange Talk, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.