There are certain epistemological questions that plague only the very young or the very stoned. When I was a kid, before my cognitive development peeled away so noticeably from that of my peers, these questions seemed trivial. Did other people see the same colors or feel the same things in the same way? It didn’t matter, and then it did.
When I was diagnosed with a developmental disorder—a non-specified, “high-functioning” place on the autism spectrum—the things I’d always asked myself seemed, suddenly, to have a very serious dimension. I wasn’t the same as other kids, and the differences felt fundamental, as though the materials and structures that composed me were of an wholly different nature than those of the people I saw every day.
A lot of people perceive autism as being typified by obstinacy and detachment, but for me it’s been sensitivity and immediacy. Perceiving the world often feels like tipping a cup too far back in an attempt to drink from it, or shining a flashlight directly into my eyes. The desire to relieve myself from this suddenness creates the stimming feeling, a pressure that builds in the back of my neck and heightens till the itch to "stim" is unavoidable.
You can understand the sensation if you splay the fingers of your hand and wave them in front of your face until your hand looks like a blur in front of you. You will feel the air resisting your movement as though your fingers were legs kicking through water. Air seems less an empty space as a translucent fluid, an ocean we’re tethered to. The stimming impulse is this feeling, but rather than being external, it's in the fabric of your mind. The stimulus itself—your chosen relief—cancels this noise and rescues you from these confines.
When I was youngest, the stimming impulse was at its strongest, and my life most heavily defined by my stimulus of choice. My oldest memories are of this neck-feeling, like the tingle following a mild electrical shock, and then feeling the desperate urge to move, and then moving. Some people rock in place, some swing limbs. I paced in circles. Or I would repeat the word “if”, drawing the sharp F sound forcefully, the electric sensation traveling from my lips to the back of my neck. Or I’d press a fingernail into the gums of my front teeth, or close my fist and pull my fingers back, one by one. Special education scrubbed the more disruptive behaviors from me, but the thrum in my neck persisted.
Eventually, I learned to self-medicate through sound. Repetitious and regular sound is best for this purpose: laundry machines, police sirens, ticking clocks, ceiling fans. Sometimes I would hide in the dark of the crawlspace behind my bed and hold my enormous Manx cat to my ear as he purred himself to sleep. I liked animals. They seemed more concerned with immediate stimulus than people; they seemed more like me.
The eventual value that music’s comforting loops would have for me wasn’t apparent until my country-and-classic-rock-loving mother allowed herself a single vice: the music of Prince Rogers Nelson. She bought a greatest hits CD, and I stole it in short order, and started listening to "When Doves Cry" on repeat—or at least the first 30 seconds, before the vocals took the song to places I couldn’t follow. I loved that intro; it was spare and uncluttered and looping and clean, all teeth.
Since that time my most beloved music has been characterized by revolving motifs and pointillism, from Can and kosmische to the rigid corners of dance music to its strains that felt more pure. Disabused of its human elements and compartmentalized into patterns, music presented itself as bare scaffolding that I could drape myself over. This music is what I’d been waiting to hear in that crawlspace, the order I'd been seeking all my life.
It was like this that I discovered there was a socially acceptable side to stimming, that I wouldn't always have to pace, or torture my fists. Sound in a certain orderly placement exerts the same curtailing force on my mind that movement used to, and my headphones are a leash that keeps me in check. I wear them constantly, and although I’m aware that their constant presence can be seen as strangely hostile in some environments, they are a safety net I can’t afford to forfeit. Music is my sensory diet and also my self-care kit.
As I’ve become more socially competent and aware of other people’s preferred decorum, I have, for the most part, mastered all other ways my stimming impulse manifests itself. My tendency to unselfconsciously pace in public has been subdued, though in private I will still walk circuits around the space of a room, and when things get bad, there’s the treadmill. Now, by all appearances I could be assumed to be a mildly odd person who really, really likes music.
I still wonder about qualitative differences, though. Whether people feel the same tidal sweep of the music when they hear it. But I can only think about this in brief moments, before the music pulls me away.
John W. Thompson is a professional student pursuing a Master's Degree at the University of Colorado at Denver. His work has appeared on The Toast.