The neuropsychiatric profession is still being unhelpful.

One of my commenters -- whose blog says she's a doctoral student working with linguistic impairments, so she probably ought to know -- has at least taken a stab at explaining what the practical difference between stimming and self-soothing behavior is. It explains some things, but still doesn't make much inherent sense. Why is dope-slapping not an appropriate punishment for persistent, hypocritical intellectual inconsistency?

Starkly repetitive reflex behavior, even in the rigid way Tonia outlines, is characteristic of a lot of people of various levels of both neurotypicality and neuroatypicality. Dermo- and trichotillomaniacs will often pick at the same spot over and over again until there's a scar there, and oneichyophagics gnaw off the same nails over and over. Even the whole-body rocking motion that's used as shorthand for "deeply autistic" by lazy screenwriters is known in allistics -- it's often described as a last-ditch coping mechanism for someone who's undergone a seriously traumatic experience or a PTSD flashback that's rendered them near-catatonic in response.

As far as I can tell, the real difference is that autistic people as a whole are 1. under a lot more, a lot more constant, and a lot more immediate stress than allistics when they have to deal with potential witnesses to the behavior, and 2. are a lot less automatically concerned with what said witnesses think of what they're doing.

Allistic people will usually stop absolutely dead if you point out what they're doing, whether you say anything negative about it or not -- it's an ingrained social reflex born of the sudden realization that other people can see you and think things about what you're doing. Allistic people are also inclined only to note things that break patterns, not things that make them; a comment about something another person is doing is usually taken to mean that the action seems to be either out of character or a transgression of social norms.

I gather that one of the very large social differences in autistic children is that they seem to lack an inherent sense that other people can and will judge what they do. Baron-Cohen -- either of them -- notwithstanding, I have yet to run into an autie or aspie who completely lacks empathy, although the human spectrum being what it is, they probably exist somewhere; the communication difficulties seem almost exclusively centered on whether they are aware of what other people expect them to target with the empathy, and whether they are aware of whether or not they are getting their viewpoint across to others. Autistic children generally don't seem to have a native awareness that other people are watching. (Many allistic children lack it, too, but as they grow older they seem to absorb it from others whether it's explicitly taught or not.) The realization that behavior that doesn't directly physically affect other people may still influence them is a conscious thought, not a looming background threat, and like other conscious behavior, it gets tossed out when the person in question is under sufficient duress.

(Huge amounts of unremitting stress) + (no instinct to criticize the self specifically from the point of view of others) = It's either sit here and play with my fingers or go insane, so fuck you -- don't like it, don't watch.

I think this makes sense, but I'm also unaffected by a lot of the "other people are judging you!" cues. Whatever gene codes for fear of God, expressed in the modern world as gibbering in the presence of celebrities, I don't have it. I had a whacking great case of HPSAS when I was younger, mostly instigated by my mother insisting that I was supposed to psychically sense when other people hated me and wanted me to shut up, even though they would do their best to never let me guess; I clearly remember one day in college, doing something stupid and having the conscious realization, "Well, I could get defensive and freak out over this, or I could just admit that it was so stupid it was kinda funny, and not grind my teeth over it for the next two weeks." I'm well aware that other people think things about me, I'm just also well aware that being me happens to come with sufficient social capital that weird things I do will generally be perceived as eccentric, not spiteful.

I can and do get away with a whole fuckload of strange things IRL, largely because I'm young, female, and generally considered attractive. I think I mentioned before bouncing while I'm thinking about something -- I bounce a lot, both in the sense that me standing there on the train platform rocking onto my toes and then thwop back onto my heels is not really a rare sight, and in the sense that I'm built kind of along the lines of Jessica Rabbit, so the thwop part is going to be fairly noticeable if I'm wearing anything less bulky than an anorak. The bouncing is not particularly normal, but nobody ever says anything, because that would involve admitting they were watching the jiggling.

The visual things I think are just taken as "staring off into space", which normal people also do. I get idly fascinated by my own hair a lot. Keratin is prismatic in sunlight, and since I'm a redhead there's not a lot of pigment in the center of the hair to interrupt the refraction; it also works to stare at a light source obliquely through my own eyelashes, though not if I'm wearing mascara. I try very hard not to do that in front of other people, out of the vague sense that they'd think I was even more vain than they already do.

I have others, mostly classified as repetitive grooming behaviors, that spike hard when I'm under stress. I'm just aware enough of them to mostly keep it to when I'm alone. Because I have admitted -- repeatedly, sometimes very loudly and vehemently when no one seems to be listening -- problems with chronic depression and anxiety, these are generally seen as self-soothing activities. (They fall short of self-harm behaviors because I don't do any of them to the point of OW.) I haven't inquired too far into them; by the time they come up I'm usually trying harder to explain to the medical people that I've been stuck in a looping panic attack over nothing for the past two days and I would really like some Xanax now so I can eat and sleep again.

I've also occasionally gotten down to the point of rocking back and forth on the very VERY bad days, usually sitting alone in the dark in front of a computer because I can't stand talking to anyone in person. I'm always aware of that one, and in fact I usually have the wry thought, "Gee, I'm glad I'm by myself, I probably look really autistic right now and I don't need the shitstorm that would start."

(I feel this is also the appropriate moment to bring up the fact that a certified genius-level IQ does not guard against doing very bonebrained things as much as you think it would. I'm even good at people, and I still fail my Save vs. Obliviousness from time to time.)

My most common one, though, is talking to myself. The reason I write just like I speak is that there is an incessant loop of dictation going on inside my head at all times -- if I don't have a place to write it down, it eventually builds up until it starts to obscure other things, and I begin to go mad. It's sub-vocalic when I remember that others are around, but if I'm by myself I cheerfully monologue to my pets or the television or thin air. The rats get a lot of echolalia; they are self-centered little cusses, and don't care what noises I'm emitting as long as I'm emitting noises at them. There's also a lot of singing involved in being me. I try to keep that to a minimum, since there are other people in the house and I was always the one that they didn't bother putting on-mic when I was in a school choir, but it comes out in force if I'm very upset. Crying was not treated very kindly when I was growing up, and singing requires breath control that short-circuits the unattractive snotty gurgling noises that would have otherwise tipped people off.


  1. I get fascinated by trying to focus on the tiny little particles that float on your eye lenses. It's really pretty fun to watch them float idly by all day. There are also lots of fun things you can do with afterimages to keep yourself distracted, as well as work on all those concentration skills.

    I definitely recognize some of these behaviors, too. I've always done self-soothing, even when I am not upset. It seems like most people find touch from others more meaningful than from themselves, but I've never really gotten that distinction, I think. I will happily massage/stroke my skin as it just feels good and makes me feel happier, so I figure why the hell shouldn't I? But I think most people find that to be really weird behavior, especially if you do it in front of others.
    I also definitely talk to myself. A lot of times if I am thinking over a conversation I can't do it as well if I don't verbalize it, so I just say it out loud. Which gathers *very* strange glances from strangers, let me tell you. It's rather funny, I imagine. At times I will be pontificating on economic theory to myself in public, just because it helps me think things through. Sometimes hearing it out loud just makes me process it slightly differently, and I gain valuable insight. And valuable insight >> strangers disapproving. Who the hell cares what some random person thinks anyway?
    One of my previous advisors in grad school did think it was "crazy behavior", though. Not that that really stopped me, except causing me to think she was being dumb. Talk about associations being extrapolated well beyond reason. Just because crazy people tend to also talk to themselves, doesn't mean everyone who talks to themselves is crazy. Ugh, logic fails.

  2. >>>There's also a lot of singing involved in being me. I try to keep that to a minimum, since there are other people in the house and I was always the one that they didn't bother putting on-mic when I was in a school choir, but it comes out in force if I'm very upset.<<<

    I forget, did you once rate yourself as a competent singer on a previous blog? The above quote implies less than, is all.

    You have mentioned dance a few times, for which I must recommend Trooper6 if you ever require a partner---he's won competitions back in the day! :)

    1. They didn't bother putting me on-mic because I don't need any amplification, particularly in enclosed spaces. Singing is another thing where I blow right past 'competent' into 'why are you not getting paid for this' -- mostly because I have absolutely no idea how to break into cabaret, and was totally uninterested in moving to LA to try and schmooze my way into a record deal.

      I had a professional singer (mother or aunt of someone else in my class, I gather) hunt me down after a choral concert to tell me to never stop singing, and I had a 10-year-old who was attached to someone else entirely once tell me, in tones of awe, that I should be on American Idol. Drunks yell at other people to shut up when I do karaoke. I feel this is enough of a consensus from other people to trust. :)

      I can ballroom dance competently, but the kind of dance I took as a kid was ballet (only until I could wriggle out of it, ballet was boring), jazz, tap, and modern. My mother and her sisters danced when they were children, so it was one of the few extracurriculars we could do where she never once grumbled about money and transport.

    2. Every city's different, but the way I frequently become aware of cabaret and burlesque artists is through my local Dr Sketchy branch. If you've never been, it's an informal life-drawing "class", usually held at a pub or nightclub venue, where with a small fee one gets to see a person do a brief performance and then have them sit and pose for varying lengths of time while everyone draws them. It's fun, I'd recommend checking it out at least once, and see if you could get in on it:

  3. It is also kind of curious to me how many of the 'autistic' behaviors have components of "not really being aware of other people when you do stuff/not giving a shit" to them. Maybe it's just me but I tend to think most people are way too self-conscious, and it would be an awesome testament to being secure in your own being that you can do the stuff you do anyway in front of others.

    Maybe I am sort of missing the point here, but that in particular doesn't seem like any kind of 'disorder' symptom to me. People *should* be mostly consistent in their behavior in the presence or absence of others, barring highly private stuff.

    1. The actual problem point seems not to be the consistency, but a rigidity that lends to an inability to adapt. All people are composed of more thoughts and feelings and traits and behaviors than they can display at any one time; social competence is the ability to select the appropriate subset of thoughts and feelings and traits and behaviors to display in a given situation with a given set of people. Note I don't include attitude here -- you can be socially competent and extremely mean, or the nicest person ever and completely lost.

      Part of the process by which we select the things to display has to do with assessing who is monitoring us and what they likely think of the things we do and say. If you have a good grasp of what other people think, then you can choose to violate their expectations (because you want to surprise thing, because you want to make them uncomfortable, or because your own need to behave a certain way ranks higher than their need to feel like they know what's going on), but if you don't have any instinctive sense that people are watching and developing opinions, it's very difficult to know what parts of yourself to trot out to make things run smoothly.

      If you only have one set of social behaviors you're comfortable using, the message you send to other people is that they are all exactly the same to you, which is highly confusing to allistics and sometimes insulting -- no matter what they mumble about equality and so forth, people expect to be treated differently. It's much of what gives the erroneous impression that the autistic person "isn't paying attention" or "sees people as objects". They probably are and probably don't, but without a varied repertoire of social behavior, allistics see no cues on which they can start to hang a "theory of mind" for the autistic person they're interacting with.

      No theory of mind, no predictability; no predictability, no safe way to interact. Allistics unfamiliar with how a lot of autistic people work steer clear, because they see interactions as this kind of terrifying minefield, where one wrong step can sort of explode you into weird and uncharted territory. It's just as uncomfortable for them to not know what's going on as it is for you, you know.

    2. That makes sense. I can see it being a problem insofar as these patterns are truly rigid as other people lose a lot of social information from interacting with you that they get from anyone else, and can't seem to figure out what to make of what you're doing.
      But I do think that most people can and do learn new behaviors. I mean, in my case most social interaction certainly doesn't come natural to me and I mess up rather frequently. But I do learn, and I am very good at reading people so I can generally tell that they're not happy or confused with something. I may not know what it is, but I can stop doing whatever I was doing, and ask. But over time I can definitely figure out what patterns of behavior work better with different people. Somewhat related to the other comment we had a few weeks ago, I tend to be able to gather a lot of information from people's writing, and that usually gives me a good heads up as to how I can talk to them, and what parts of myself I should emphasize (or diminish) to get along better.

      I do think that like you mentioned a few posts ago, it would help a great deal if people (both allistics and autistics) got into the habit of just explicitly stating how they mean otherwise ambiguous statements. I think that would make it a whole lot easier to communicate. I do know that's hard, though, I certainly am guilty of stating something that is totally clear and neutral(to me) and getting frustrated when someone reads unspoken condemnation into it.


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