There’s an autistic toddler on TikTok who paces back and forth and flicks her fingers — all while watching her favorite show. Autistic people find it cute, while non-autistic people don’t understand why autistic people pace.
Reasons autistic people pace
In general, autistic pacing is a movement stim some autistic people engage in. I forgot I had a fitness tracker to monitor my energy spent for atypical anorexia recovery and was congratulated for “walking 2 miles” when all I did was pace back and forth for thirty minutes.
Pacing is not a bad stim unless your child has a history of eating disorders or other medical conditions. Since it can count as exercise, it should be factored into your child’s physical activity for the day. This way, they’re not expending too much energy.
1. Natural stress relief
Pacing back and forth is a calming act. It’s comforting and mindless, and you can engage in other stims whilst you pace.
Like cats, autistic individuals easily experience more stress than their non-autistic counterparts. This world wasn’t built with them in mind. Until recently in autistic history, neurotypical people were keen to forcibly sterilize us and put us on our own island.
2. Self-soothing or sensory-seeking behavior
Self-soothing behavior goes beyond pacifiers, security blankets, and teddy bears. In autism, it includes any stim that brings comfort to the autistic person and helps them reduce stress.
Autistic people practice self-regulatory behavior through repetitive movements known as stimming, which are not normally harmful.
3. It’s mindless/fun.
Stimming is usually an unconscious act that helps autistic people cope with stressful situations. However, stimming can also be done mindlessly because the person is content or having fun. Neurodivergent people don’t need a reason to stim.
Should you stop your autistic child from pacing?
NO. Autistic pacing isn’t harmful alone. If you punish them for stimming, they will replace this stim with another that is harmful.
If they have a history of an eating disorder or an injury where they need to stay off their feet, then yes — you should stop your autistic child from pacing.
However, if you want stop the pacing because it annoys you, distance yourself from the environment so you won’t be so annoyed. Autistic people have been forced to accommodate non-autistic people for decades, but have not received proper accommodations ourselves.
You know what comes from being unable to pace? Sitting for indefinite amounts of time. Pacing is one of the most harmless stims — again, on its own.
Self-regulation is crucial for autistic people, because it is a coping mechanism. Without our coping mechanisms, we can’t function in society and will burn out.
Understand autistic people’s energy
Autistic people are like phone batteries. Some apps drain your battery faster, while others preserve it. The latter are some stims and special interests. Every autistic person has a different battery capacity and requires a different time to recharge.
Many autistic people are recharged by stimming and partaking in special interests. We already have so little energy to work with and don’t always know whether we’re working with a full charge or how much battery juice an activity will require.
Autistic people need their stims like Americans need their coffee. Stimming is a basic need that autistic people must be permitted to fill to avoid overwhelm, meltdowns and burnout.
When you take away or punish autistic people for their stims, you aren’t disciplining them in the way you think. Rather, you are sending the message to them that their needs and feelings don’t matter. You are telling them that that safe stim is bad, therefore you are encouraging them to self-regulate in more harmful ways that you might never have imagined.
Autistic stimming is not misbehavior
There’s a common misconception among the autism (primarily non-autistic) community that stimming is bad. This is perpetuated by ABA. Stimming is not bad behavior.
Fidget spinners existed before they went mainstream, but students weren’t allowed to have them in schools until non-autistic children started playing with them. Anything autistic children do that non-autistic kids do, too, can be pathologized simply because they are autistic.
Non-autistic people pace when they’re stressed, frustrated, and upset — and no one threatens them to stop or else they’ll be grounded. Autistic people pace for a multitude of reasons, and they are perceived as oddball children who need to be taught how to assimilate into society.
If you take away your child’s safe stim, you are harming them. I know you don’t mean to. I know you’re frustrated, stressed and exhausted. But I’m saying this as a former autistic child who was strapped down to medical tables so she wouldn’t flap her hands:
Your autistic child will find an alternative way to stim. Only this time, it won’t be safe. They will hide it from you, and you might never know about it.
Mine was taking any sharp household object that wasn’t a knife to my thighs. But at least I don’t flap my hands anymore?
Let your autistic child pace. It’s good for their brain, energy, well-being, health and body.
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