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Which is it? The distinction between Stimming and Sensory Sensitivity

I want to talk for a moment about something that I think even the autism community is still starting to explore: the difference between stimming, and sensory sensitivity.

is a self-stimulatory behavior, performed in order to create a desired sensation.

Sensory Sensitivity 
is a heightened response to sensory input in the environment. Often, if a sensory sensitivity creates unpleasant feedback, we may perform an action in an attempt to alleviate the effects. This action may resemble a stim, but has the purpose of stopping a negative sensation, rather than creating a positive one.

Let's start with some examples:

Julie, age 15, is constantly touching, rubbing at, or picking at her face. Her rubbing will sometimes cause sores, and her picking will turn minor acne into open wounds. Her mother has tried to help her to redirect to a stim that won't hurt her; she worries that Julie will get infections in the wounds, and doesn't want her child to be in pain. Julie is unable to redirect the picking towards a worry stone, fidget spinner, or other tactile stim. Her mother doesn't want to discourage a needed stim, but wishes she knew how to help Julie to stim in a way that doesn't risk her physical health.

Jennifer, age 18, twirls her hair endlessly, especially when she's anxious. She likes to wrap her hair around one finger to create a circle, then pinch the circle and rub the smooth end of it against her lips. Sometimes the sensation is comforting; other times, the absence of the sensation is distressing, and creating the sensation eases that distress. Her father doesn't try to discourage her, although he does offer other sensory options like a fidget spinner or worry stone; he worries that the hair twirling will create a negative impression during her job interview this Friday, but also would rather his daughter be comfortable being herself than distressed trying to conform to a norm. So long as no medical worries are introduced by the behavior, he knows it needn't be discouraged. 

Are Julie and Jennifer really both stimming?
Although both behaviors are being perceived as stims, Julie's experience is actually an example of sensory sensitivity. In this example, Julie picks her face because she is hyper-aware of every pimple, hair, or small bump on her face. When a pimple starts to develop, she can't think about anything until she relieves the pressure; when she finds a small hair on her face, she rubs at it, trying to get it to stop poking outwards; and when she feels a bump, she can't breath properly again until the foreign thing is off her face. Jennifer, on the other hand, enjoys the sensations produced by playing with her hair. Jennifer is seeking to cause a pleasant sensory input, while Julie is seeking to stop a negative sensory input.

Why does the distinction matter? 

Well, one of these things is generally harmless or even positive, while the other can bring attention to a source of discomfort or distress. A child who is trying to relieve pressure on their face, or picking their hands open because the texture of dry skin feels wrong, is uncomfortable. The discomfort may be a minor annoyance, or a source of significant distress; it may also compound other challenges as energy gets lost to agitation. Sometimes this discomfort can be offset with a skin care routine (keeping in mind that sensory sensitivity may also create an aversion to some products, especially ones that feel thick or oily), a trip to a dermatologist, or another method of targeting the cause of discomfort. I know one man who experiences similar distress when there's anything at all in his nose; allergy medication and a consistent supply of tissues helps him to focus on his work and relax in his free time, though his constant rubbing of his nose may once have been interpreted as a harmless stimming behavior.

Furthermore, the researcher in me is insisting on pointing out that when trying to better understand something, ANY distinction is important: if you group two opposite things together, findings from one negate the findings of the other, and there appears to be no result. It's like adding positive 5 and negative 5: the answer becomes zero. Minimizing error in research helps us to better understand experiences and needs, which in turn helps to improve our quality of life.

The takeaway:
While stimming is usually harmless or even beneficial, sensory sensitivity costs autistic children and adults immeasurable energy every day. Recognizing when a repetitive behavior is an attempt to alleviate sensory discomfort (and, of course, correcting the discomfort) can completely change daily experience. Sometimes it's hard for autistics to recognize our own needs; it can be equally difficult for the parent of an autistic child to interpret these signals. Knowing the difference between a stim and an attempt to alleviate negative sensory input is an important step towards creating a positive environment, for yourself or for your child. 


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