Confessions of a World Class Fiddler
Updated: Jun 15, 2019
Stim stiminy, stim stiminy, stim stim ster’ee
I’m an expert fiddler. I started fiddling before I could speak and I fiddle to this day. You might call me a virtuoso of the fiddling world. Not a day goes by that I don’t spend at least some of it fiddling. Don’t expect me to pick up a violin and crack out a tune though. Oh no. That’s not the kind of fiddling I do.
Like many neurally divergent people I have a highly active mind. I never get bored because there is no way I could ever fit everything I want to learn and achieve into just one, short human lifetime. I am lucky enough to be both autistic and blessed with hyper-focus – the ability to submerge myself into a task to the exclusion of almost anything, for hours at a time. It’s one of the greatest, most satisfying pleasures I can imagine – to lose myself in a task or project, like writing this article for instance. The world around me is a blur – it’s just the words and I locked together, whirling in a dance of creativity, head spinning to the beat of thought, fingers tapping on keys like limbs tracing patterns in the air and feet across a polished wooden floor. It feels like a symbiosis unlike anything I know or have heard of. It feels like perfection.
Nothing is perfect though, and like dancers tripping, slipping or forgetting their next moves, the world has a way of invading my head-space when I’m hyper-focused. People talking, sudden noises, smells or sudden movement in the periphery of my vision can all break the spell. When the dance of thought has collapsed in a heap, how do I get it back up and moving again?
The answer is fiddling, or to use it’s more modern, but no less ripe for innuendo, term: “Stimming”. Almost everybody stims in some manner. We’ve all seen people biting their lip, twirling their hair or endlessly clicking their pen in the meeting room or classroom. We most often do it as a way of maintaining concentration. We prevent distraction by occupying our pre-conscious mind with movement and repetitive sensation. It helps us to focus the parts of our minds we need at the time without being distracted by those we don’t.
Stimming helps me work out problems and come up with ideas. It helps keep me calm when I am thrust into trying circumstances. It’s a coping mechanism when things happen which disturb or upset me. It also enhances my concentration when I’m trying to listen to someone who has very little of interest to say, but I am obliged to be part of their audience.
That may all seem quite obvious to many people, so why the need to point it out? If everybody does it, why am I wasting your time with pretty prose describing it to you?
For someone like myself on the Autism Spectrum, stimming is a far more potent tool for me than for those bored middle managers trying to concentrate on the latest set of sales forecasts, and it’s an indispensible part of my intellectual arsenal.
An important characteristic of autism, that used to be overlooked is the difference in our sensory experience. It’s very common for autistic people to have a subjective sensory experience which might seem alien to most of the people around us. It can go in two ways – we can be hyposensitive and be oblivious to things others would notice and insensitive to certain details, or be hypersensitive and notice subtleties and differences that would go way over most people’s heads. It’s also quite possible that those sensitivities may not just be tied to a particular sense or senses – it may be a particular type or types of sensory stimulus that we find both incredibly stimulating and difficult to filter out.
I’m personally hypersensitive to human voices, so I’ll use that as a canvas upon which to paint a picture of how the autistic sense-scape may differ from what you expect.
Typically most hearing people can understand what’s said to them in their mother tongue. As long as the person they are listening to is speaking sense they can understand what is being said to them. Most people will recognise the voices of people they know, whether it’s a friend, family member or a familiar celebrity. They might have some difficulty understanding someone speaking the language with a strong and unfamiliar regional or foreign accent though. It’s no secret that many Americans and English people find it near impossible to follow the movie “Trainspotting” without subtitles due to the broad Scots accents of most of the characters.
Someone who is hyposensitive to voices may not find all that so easy. They may find it difficult to distinguish and identify accents. They may even find it difficult to tell the difference between different voices – the auditory equivalent of face blindness – everyone literally sounds the same. It could be subtleties in sound – imagine having a perceptual lisp - if no matter how clearly someone differentiates their “S” sounds from their “TH” sounds you couldn’t hear the difference? You would only be able to tell if someone was talking about “sawing” or “thawing” by the context they used. They may even find it difficult to tell the difference between the sound of a busy public place full of human chatter and a yard full of animals.
In contrast, someone like myself who is hypersensitive to voices will experience a room full of people speaking very differently. I’ve always been able to pick voices out surprisingly accurately and often find myself following several conversations at once, even ones I’m not supposed to hear. I hear people talking from far away when I might not hear a different type of sound at the same volume. I can identify actors when when I’ve never seen their faces and have only ever heard them using their vocal range to the fullest, putting on accents and voices in animation and video games.
It might sound like a neat trick, but believe me, it comes with a lead-weighted downside. I cannot turn it off. If I’m trying to concentrate on something I can’t un-hear all the chatter around me. I can’t selectively forget the secrets I’m not supposed to know. That’s when I’m feeling strong. When I am fatigued, unwell or stressed I can still hear all those voices as clear as day, but I can’t separate them into strands, including those who may be talking to me. It becomes gabble – a melange of voices, overlapping and unintelligible. I can barely function in public at such times.
This is where stimming can come to the rescue. When I’m trying to do something useful, especially when I’m writing, preparing graphics for video or at work in my day job, I can block out the distracting voices with headphones. Depending what I’m doing I’ll play some favourite music or I’ll play sounds of nature or machinery. I can think much more clearly listening to sounds of heavyweight plant machinery or a clanking, whirring factory than that of people talking around me.
I can’t always do that though. It’s not possible in many public situations, especially in the workplace. I can’t attend a company briefing or have a meeting with my boss or colleagues with headphones on. I need to hear what people are saying, but how do I do so when I’m not at my best and people are speaking over each other? What if I’m trying to do my regular job but I have to listen out for something, or I’m working whilst someone is speaking to me?
I need to distract part of my attention, give my pre-conscious mind something to chew on whilst my fully aware, conscious mind gets on with the business of being productive or making a living. So I fiddle. Out comes my infinity cube, my ball spinner, my silicone noodles or failing that, anything spinny, foldy or clicky that is to hand. By occupying the distracting part of my brain which over-processes incoming voices I can focus better on the task at hand. It’s a life-saver (or at least it’s saved me from getting fired a few times.
There are many reasons people use stimming as a tool to augment their mental processes. It can be calming, it can stimulate the imagination, it can help modulate powerful emotions and much more. There are endless stim toys (or stim tools as some prefer) available to help people do this in ways that suit them, not to mention the countless habits and activities people engage in that need no accessories, from hair twirling, to thumb-sucking, to flapping like a bird.
When you see people stimming, try to remember, they’re not “whacko”, they’re not weird and they’re certainly not trying to put you off your stroke. We’re just like you when you’re sat in that boring meeting, clicking your pen and fidgeting whilst trying to keep your attention on the dull-as-dishwater speaker droning on. It’s not distracting to us, nor indicative of us not paying attention, it’s the exact opposite of both. We might seem a little more extreme, a bit more obvious, but it’s because we need it. When the world itself is a massive distraction, sometimes a little world class, virtuoso fiddling is exactly what you need to stay on course.