Stim suppression, at first glance, may not look abusive. It comes in the form of “whole body listening,” or classroom posters that encourage students to listen with their whole bodies by making eye contact with the speaker, and using “quiet hands.” It looks respectful and it makes a teacher’s job easier when they know students are looking at them, and appears to be paying attention. In reality, any form of stim suppression, including “whole body listening,” can make it harder for students to learn and pay attention and can actually be harmful for neurodiverse and disabled people who learn best by being allowed to stim and fidget in class and are uncomfortable with eye contact.
First of all, what is stimming? Stimming are behaviors that are self-regulating and self-soothing. They can be physical, such as fidgeting, hand flapping, clapping, or rocking, they can be verbal, such as humming or echolalia (repeating words or phrases), visual, such as watching the sparkle of glitter or the rotating motion of a ceiling fan or fidget spinner, or auditory stims, such as listening to the same song or phrases repeatedly, or listening to certain sounds that are soothing (such as ASMR videos on YouTube). They can also be tactile, sensory stims such as running fingers through slime or rolling a ball of clay or flicking a switch. One of my go-to stims is flicking my pens and pencils. I love the movement and feeling and it makes me feel better when I do it. I also love the feeling of typing on my keyboard, which is why I enjoy my current job as a transcriber. Even though I have stimmed since childhood, I never even learned what “stimming” was or why I stimmed until I was in college and connected with the autistic community online who enjoy some of the same stims that I do. But neurodiverse people are not the only people who stim, everybody stims! Whether you tap your fingers on your desk, hum to yourself, or are mesmerized by sparkly, shiny objects, you can happily stim without even knowing it!
Why do we stim and enjoy stimming? Stimming helps us to relieve anxiety, focus, and express ourselves! Stimming helps us to feel safe when in harsh or unfamiliar sensory environments, such as at a loud and bright grocery store or a crowded mall. Stimming also is a form of self-expression, such as when we are excited, we might dance or flap our hands excitedly or sing a familiar song, or when we are scared or nervous, we might stim to distract ourselves from what is bothering us. Stimming also helps us in conversation and in the classroom to focus on people who are talking to us. Instead of being preoccupied and trying to focus on meeting social norms such as eye contact or attempting to use “quiet hands,” if we are free to divert our eyes and move with our hands, we don’t have to focus on suppression and instead focus on the information that is being said.
“Whole body listening” is a classroom technique that tell students to listen with their whole bodies, by keeping their eyes and body on the speaker, their ears listening, their lips shut, and their hands and feet quiet. But these are a lot of instructions, and hard to remember while also trying to listen to the teacher! Stim suppression is why “whole body listening” actually hurts neurodiverse people in class. It is hard for many of us to sit still and have “quiet hands” for long periods of time without being allowed to stim. Being punished for autistic behaviors such as stimming is ableist, because we cannot control these and should not be expected to. Students should not have to worry about forcing eye contact or keeping their hands locked together or in their pockets, they should be learning! When students are free to move around, to use fidget gadgets, to look wherever feels comfortable to them, to flap their hands and arms, or to hum to themselves, they are more likely to retain information than if they keep telling themselves to keep still, look on the teacher, and to keep hands “quiet” all at once. Students should not have to sit on their hands, or keep their hands in their pockets for every class, for an eight hour school day, and teachers should not expect students to do so. “Whole body listening” in itself is a lot of information to take in and remember, and doing that simultaneously and learning is difficult for many neurodiverse students, including myself when I was a student.
Early interventions based on strict compliance, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis, also teaches “quiet hands,” or however else it may be phrased: “safe hands,” “calm hands,” or “table ready.” It also teaches forced eye contact as a “necessary” social skill. It is based on the false premise that autistic behaviors are “bad” or “wrong” behaviors, and that fidgeting or stimming means an inability or unwillingness to learn, or is something that is “inappropriate” and should be stopped. ABA also gives charts that reward positive behaviors, such as using “quiet hands,” and punish negative behaviors, such as not complying and stimming. Applied Behavioral Analysis is harmful for neurodiverse people because it teaches us to socially mask and hide our autistic behaviors, and it may take some of us until adulthood to unlearn the principles and stim suppression techniques that were were taught in ABA and in the classroom. This is how ableism starts early, and why many autistic people are traumatized by ABA, and some may even have PTSD symptoms from ABA practices such as “quiet hands.”
We don’t need “whole body listening” charts or other stim suppression techniques in classrooms. We need to foster an environment in which neurodiverse students feel accepted and the ways they learn are accommodated. Neurodiverse students should not be punished for stimming and behaviors they cannot control, and even neurotypical students may have trouble keeping still in classrooms and following “whole body listening” for long periods of time. Let students move and flap and fidget and hum and rock freely! It is ableist to expect constant eye contact or punish students for not meeting eye contact, and ableism does not belong in the classroom or anywhere else! When we listen to neurodiverse students and respect the ways they learn, then we can learn a lot from them as well.