This is an excerpt from a chapter in my book, Different Drummer, exploring the use of drumming to help with self-stimulatory behaviors.
You can find other excerpts in the list to the right.
Kylie watched as I set up my gear, her face blank while she repetitively zipped and unzipped her sweater.
“She stims like this a lot,” explained her mother. “I can’t get her to focus when she does this. She just stares off into space and plays with her zipper or button. She can do this for hours and when I try to stop her she has a meltdown. She’ll pull away and scream.”
I nodded as I began to play. Simple, quiet rhythms at first. Just testing the waters.
The slightest smile appeared on Kylie’s face. It was gone as quickly as it came.
I settled into a groove with syncopated muted tones, creating a pulsing patter to try to engage Kylie. For about one minute she looked down toward the floor while zipping and unzipping her sweater.
I stopped for a couple of seconds, looking for a response. Kylie looked up at me. I started playing again, figuring that she was listening. She opened her eyes wide a few times as though she was trying to wake herself up.
I kept my syncopated patter going, interjecting a couple of rhythms I had found useful for stopping self-stimming. At about two-and-a-half minutes into this session, Kylie looked at her mom, who was sitting next to her on the couch. Over the next minute or so, Kylie looked at her mom and then away several times.
I switched to a 9-beat pattern and Kylie moved over to her mom and leaned into her and closed her eyes. The stimming stopped.
I played for another minute and noticed that Kylie was asleep. I stopped and left the room.
Kylie had autism. She engaged in a fairly typical behavior of self-regulation through repetitive motor movements. For Kylie, zipping and unzipping her sweater was soothing. Hers was a relatively subtle, innocuous behavior, one that didn’t seem to coincide with any outward stimulus or event.
This behavior was upsetting to her mother because when Kylie was stimming she was unreachable, having retreated into her own world. This is common among people with autism, though the stimming isn’t always present, because being unresponsive is a defining characteristic of the condition.
From my perspective, repetitive and self-stimulatory behaviors like this take two forms. They are either internally driven, possibly as a desire to retreat from the world, or they are in response to a disagreeable external stimulus. The stimming is a way to tune-out or modulate the stimulus.