Writing While Autistic #2: Writing and Stimming
Sticky Note: I am an adult autistic writer. All text in Writing While Autistic is my personal reflections and thoughts, which are based on my experience alone. While I do make general statements and give advice, this does not constitute prescriptive advice: meaning that what I say is just one possibility in a sea of other advice. Take what you need from it and ignore the rest.

“I never finish anything!” is a common complaint I hear from my fellow autistic writers. “I start things, but I do not finish.” “I wish I could finish.” I struggle with this myself. I started many more projects than I finished.

For many people, the guilt around not finishing can quickly become paralyzing. What’s the point of even starting, one might ask, if I will never ever finish? It’s useless. Futile. It won’t lead anywhere.

It’s not productive.

And herein lies the great mousetrap of our historical moment: the insistence that, every time you do something, you must end up producing a product. Product mentality is pervasive under capitalism. It’s not enough to write; you must finish. It’s not enough to finish, you must market it. It’s not enough to market it, you must sell it. It’s not enough to sell it, you must produce another fast, to create a series. Thus you become successful. Otherwise, a failure. And, oh, this is not just words, these are beliefs we internalize, those are feelings and emotions which are acutely felt.

The product ideal is taken to its many logical extremes. It’s not enough to create; you should monetize. It’s not enough to prepare a meal, you should Instagram it. It’s not enough to Instagram it: if you do this well enough, you should produce a food blog. A food blog should lead to a cookbook. If you can’t monetize, why are you even doing something so frivolous as creative work? These are the questions drilled into us by capitalism, stances which poison us from within.

There’s nothing wrong with producing a product, and there are many excellent things about product focus. For many people, producing is happy making. I enjoy productivity myself (though I struggle with it emotionally; more on this later). But where I think we are, collectively, lost is in the insistence that mastering the art of finishing a product and "embracing productivity" is always the ultimate goal. Because that’s how we are oppressed - oppressed as people living under capitalism, sure, but also oppressed in particular as autistics whose needs might be incompatible with a product-only focus.

Because sometimes you just need to stim.

Stimming in particular is a need for many autistic people, a need which in many of us has been suppressed. Many people are shamed out of stimming, taught not to stim, told how stimming is annoying to other people. Many autistics have been abused around stimming. Yet, stimming remains a need for many autistics, myself included.

Recently, some NT educators have been rethinking stimming. The connection between stimming and productivity is, unsurprisingly, at the core of these debates. NT stimming is unproductive, but to argue that stimming should be allowed one needs to argue that it is productive! A quick google search for “stimming” and “productivity” to illustrate these two ways of thinking:

A general strategy to reduce stimming is to: help the child become more productive at self-soothing (Caravel Autism Health)

… use stimming as a productive part of the learning process (Child mind institute)

I won't even start on the idea of taking away a person's stimming to make someone "more productive at self-soothing." Gevalt.

Stimming is not about being productive. That’s a NT thing: NTs are made uncomfortable by stimming, so many NT educators either want to replace it with something they deem "productive". If these people are willing to “accept” our stimming, they must at least justify it through the idea productivity.

We don’t want or need NTs to reduce us to our productivity alone, but this line of thinking (often accompanied by ongoing abuse or memory of childhood abuse around our sensory needs) is really easy to internalize and to maintain through negative self-talk and guilt. If you’re not producing a product, why are you even doing this? Stop fidgeting. Stop it. Stop.

The insistence on always and forever product takes away all the other reasons we might be writing. Here are some of mine:

  • It feels good.
  • To explore ideas.
  • I like the shapes that words make on the page.
  • I can’t stop!
  • The tactile sensation of fingers hitting keyboard.
  • That delicious feeling of finding just the right way to say something.
  • It’s meditative.
  • I like spending time in my world.
  • Writing is a part of my identity practice.
  • When I’m in the flow, I get a soaring feeling - and it’s literally the best.
  • The first line of a poem just came to me (thank you!) and now I need to unravel the rest.
  • I love my characters.
  • I have no idea why, but I feel like doing it right now.

I know many people (autistic and allistic both) for whom deadlines are motivating, but they are not a motivator for me. I can meet a deadline, but I am also afraid of them. Producing a product is something I definitely do, but doing it every time on demand, with the attendant social pressure, does not work for me. 

I have become significantly happier when I stopped worrying about finishing every piece I start. I might not finish, but it will do something for me (for me, not for others). It will be pleasant or soothing, or calming - in other words, it will be stimmy. It will be exploratory. I’ll find that phrase or that character I’ll reuse elsewhere. I’ll show it to a few people, maybe get feedback and ideas. I have no idea what will happen to it, but I just want to write it. And yes,  pieces also get finished, and that’s awesome too.

Letting go on the product focus is really difficult, but personally I feel it’s worth it. You can still produce finished products, but it’s good take the pressure off oneself to do it every single time.

Many people feel that they must justify spending time writing by the promise of a product to market ('I'm not just frivolously scribbling, I will finish a book I can then query!'). But it is not a waste of time if you’re writing for any reason whatsoever. Producing a product is not a waste of your time, but neither is stimming - and neither is learning, or simply spending time doing something which is meaningful to you and which does not have a well-delineated ending.

(to be continued)