important things: everybody stims

I wrote this once. I am posting it here because I feel it strongly. Also because it’s important for understanding a lot of misconceptions about results in autism research, and suchness.

People often stim as a self-soothing tactic. It can be something we do because it just makes us calm or happy, but for many people, it’s also stress response. In fact, it’s actually a universal example of a stress response. As in, it is a type of behavior that virtually all humans display when they are under stress–the level of stress they have to be under before they stim, and the way their stims express, just vary a lot.

That’s not all, though. Almost every other animal species I can think of also engages in self-stimulatory behavior in response to stress. It’s a way that an animal can create predictable and coherent patterns in their sensory information, to help counteract an environment that feels unpredictable and stressful. So whenever you see any science article, or scientist, reporting that they have created “autistic mice” or “autistic zebrafish” or “autistic fruit flies” or whatever, because the animals display “repetitive, self-stimulatory behavior”? They’re basically just saying “I made mice/zebrafish/flies that are experiencing a lot of physical or emotional stress, and are trying to self-regulate.”

When people talk about stimming as a strange, inexplicable, pathological, solely-autistic kind of behavior, they’re saying “The only way to explain all this weird stuff these people are doing is to say ‘they have this diagnostic label.’” Because, for them, attributing behavior to “autism” is the opposite of attributing behavior to like, a person’s emotions, feelings, or stress. This a really dangerous kind of thinking. It is dehumanizing.

It’s important to say “all people stim” because when you say that, you’re also saying “stimming is something people do.” And that’s another way of saying that “the first reason people stim is because they are people.”

The first reason everybody stims is because everybody is a person.

the “effeminate boys” studies

in one of my little flurries of tweeting a month or so ago, i made reference to the direct parallels present between current (and past) attempts at gender-role/sexual-orientation normalization therapy and behavioral normalization therapies as practiced upon autistic people. i got a few remarks in response to that tweet specifically, most of which were relatively obnoxious–primarily ableist and accusing me of exaggeration, plus one or two homophobic “pro-neurodiversity” people who wanted to tell me how gay “conversion” therapy actually helps people (yes, really). so this has kind of been sitting around in my head for a while. i, of course, like to do my research. so that’s what i did. i wanted to find some of those “effeminate boys” articles. so that’s what i did.

i want to share some of the articles that i found in part because of how we often discuss ABA nowadays–there’s some assumption that behavioral modification doesn’t have to be as “terrible” as that “old” “Lovaas” stuff. autistic adults trying to point out the issues with ABA therapies are often told that they have conflated ABA “nowadays” with that “different” brand of medieval psychological torture practiced in the mid-twentieth century. those were bad things, and bad people did them, we’re told. people don’t do that kind of thing anymore, we’re told.

but in my reading of these studies, i found that the language and justifications of scientists and healthcare professionals was remarkably familiar. so i think it’s important for people to read this stuff, and understand that the language you hear today used to talk about autistic people is not brand new, nor is it socio-politically neutral. it has been used before, in contexts we might now consider far removed from that of “neurodiversity” and disability rights. and the more deeply we examine this language, and think about its broader implications, the better we will be at helping ourselves and each other.

from Bates, Skilbeck, Smith, and Bentler. Amer. J. of Orthopsychiatry, 45(1), January 1975. pp. 150-157:

Referrals for extreme effeminacy in young boys are common enough so that many, if not most, child therapists encounter at least a few such cases. However, clinicians may be troubled by the prospect of intervening with the child merely to eliminate forms of gender expression which fail to conform to social or parental sex-role stereotypes. After experience with a number of these children, it is our conclusion that extreme effeminacy is an important clinical problem which requires professional intervention, and that it is a disservice to the child and his family to perceive this behavior as normal, harmless experimentation with alternative forms of gender expression. This conclusion is based upon several observations. First, such boys are known to be a high risk for adult homosexuality, transvestism, or transexualism. Second, the families of these children are often characterized by high degrees of conflict and frustration, which frequently center around the target child’s effeminacy and how to change it. And third, perhaps most compelling, clinical observation of these children indicates that they are often intensely unhappy. They lack many of the skills needed to interact successfully with peers or family, and thus would probably continue to suffer social rejection and isolation, even if society were somehow to abandon gender role differentiations overnight…

…The goals of the program were 1) to increase the target child’s repertoire of masculine behaviors, 2) to increase the child’s social skills and peer interactions, and 3) to improve family relationships, particularly the relationship between the target child and his father…

…The co-therapists modeled and encouraged appropriate masculine behaviors, and suggested various activities for the groups. They also administered more structured behavior modification procedures. One such procedure involved allotting points to the boys for desired behaviors, which could be used to obtain small toys and snacks at the end of each session…

…Each boy worked with a therapist to specify three to five behavioral goals, which were put on a chart for the boy. For example, one nine-year-old’s goals were: 1) “Talking more with the other boys,” 2) “Being more interested in what the other boys talk about,” 3) “Being a leader more often—suggesting more games,” and 4) “Being more physically active”…

…Our clinical impressions were that these boys showed recognizable improvement in these groups, both in terms of social skills development and in the development of masculine interests and abilities. As one would expect, different boys improved at different rates, and some seemed more responsive to various elements of the total program than did others. Verbal reports from the boys and their parents indicated that they increased play with same-sex peers in the neighborhood and at school, that they were getting along better with their peers, and that they showed more interest in masculine play and less interest in cross-dressing, doll play, and imitating females.

from Zuger and Taylor. Pediatrics, Vol. 44, No. 3. September 1969. pp. 375-380:

Follow-up studies on boys with early effeminate behavior (cross-gender identification) have indicated that its manifestations persist and that it subsequently terminates in homosexuality in a large percentage of instances. However, these findings can be accepted with reservation only because the general prevalence of effeminate symptoms in young boys is not known…

…Parents were asked about the following seven items: (1) feminine dressing, (2) wearing lipstick or other makeup, (3) preference for girl playmates, (4) desire to be female, (5) feminine gesturing, (6) doll playing, and (7) aversion to boys’ games…

…Any feminine-type activity described by the mother was recorded as positive, no matter how short the duration, its circumstantiality (e.g., “There were only girls to play with.”), or its initiation by another child (sister, girl playmate). Putting on mother’s shoes or hat only, wearing female costumes on Halloween, being dressed as a bride by a sister were all regarded as positive for the item on feminine dressing. A wish that boys could have babies was considered as positive for the item on desire to be female. The boy was considered to have an aversion to boys’ games if he did not like to play with cars, trucks, trains, guns, soldiers, and so forth, but not if he did not play baseball and football only.

and lastly, from Rekers, Rosen, Lovaas, and Bentler. Professional Psychology, February 1978. pp. 127-136:

Briefly, our intervention approach for child gender disturbance consists of reinforcing masculine sex-typed behaviors, interests, preferences, and verbalizations, and extinguishing selected feminine behaviors, attitudes, interests, preferences, and verbalizations…The child’s parents and teachers are taught to use behavior-shaping techniques…Videotaped feedback is used in the clinic setting to help the child learn to discriminate behaviors that are labeled feminine by peers…

…Our treatment of the gender-disturbed boy is designed to provide him with athletic skills, interpersonal skills, coping patterns, and the avoidance of stereotyped self-defeating and socially punished patterns of behavior. The long-term potential benefits would include increased self-esteem, the acquisition of social coping mechanisms, and behavioral role flexibility. At the social level, the intended benefit is to reduce peer rejection and social ridicule. At the cognitive level, the intended benefit is to eliminate gender identity confusion and to establish positive, nonconflicted self-sex-labeling and a self-assured identity that is consistent with physical and social realities.

yes, that “Lovaas” is that Lovaas. and yes, these are all real articles–only a few of the many i have on my computer, trust me. i was also particularly struck by another one that i didn’t include text from here, in which “feminine play activities/games” were also classed as “preschool” or young children’s games, when played by elementary school boys. the researchers considered it a form of behavioral regression or under-development for boys to play games that are “feminine.”

there’s so much more that could be said here, but i’ll leave it here for now.

“i just want them to be able to be accepted by others” is never a politically or socially neutral wish. ever.