The Self-injurious Stims that I Love

CW: Self-injurious stims involving skin, hair, and knives

My self-injurious stims:

  • Trichtillomania – hair-pulling
  • Dermatillomania – skin-picking, particularly but not exclusively the scalp
  • Shaving the skin off my hands with pocket knives

My scalp takes the brunt of my stimming. I pull my hair and dig bloody furrows with my fingernails. Periods of my life were marked by sores on my forehead where the furrows trespassed beyond the hairline. Those healed, but the bald patches are permanent.

My hands bear multiple nicks from exfoliating with knives. There are raw, pink patches where I’ve shaved close to quickened flesh. While those areas heal I tend to others with my collection of pocket knives — so many different blade shapes and grinds with which to peel strips of skin.

These stims have been lifelong companions. They give me great comfort despite the bloody scalp, hands, and fingernails. There have been periods of my life where I and others tried to stymie them, but no longer.

I love scratching my head. Love, love, love. The feel from both head and hand is satisfying, comforting, and necessary. Life is more bearable with the pressure of fingernail on scalp. Life is better when I can scratch, pick, peel, and pull.

Instead of suppressing these stims as I occasionally and unsuccessfully tried over the first four decades of life, I seek a balance that can be covered with a cap.

I buy beanie hats that:

  • cover the sores on my head
  • provide access to my scalp while wearing the hat
  • cover and squeeze my ears for sensory management

I like wearing beanies as sensory management, but they get in the way of scratching. I’ve taken to wearing beanies that are either thin enough or have loose enough stitching to allow my fingernails to gain purchase in my scalp. I can stim in my favorite way while still having my ears covered and my sores obscured from public. I’ll also use slouchy beanies that allow me to get my hand up under the hat while it’s still on, although those don’t provide as much ear pressure as I like. Someone make a stimmer’s beanie that accommodates fingernails while still providing ear pressure.

As for my knife-shaven hands, they don’t have sores like my scalp, so they’re not as anti-social. Regardless, I welcome the normalization of fist bumps and, even better, not touching each other at all.

My self-injurious stims are a great comfort. They’ve gotten me through so much. I no longer try to live without them. I wish all the people who tried to suppress them as a kid had just given me a beanie, let me wear it at school, and let me scratch, scratch, scratch. That would have made the tidal immensity of fear and stress I constantly felt more bearable.

“Autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety.”

Hyper-plasticity predisposes us to have strong associative reactions to trauma. Our threat-response learning system is turned to high alert. The flip side of this hyper-plasticity is that we also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system.

The stereotypes of meltdowns and self-harm in autism come from the fact that we frequently have stress responses to things that others do not perceive as distressing. Because our unique safety needs are not widely understood, growing up with extensive trauma has become our default.

Because of our different bio-social responses to stimulus, autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety.

Source: Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity | by Trauma Geek | Medium

“Autistic people have significant barriers to accessing safety.”

“We also adapt quickly to environments that are truly safe for our nervous system.”

That really resonates and calls to mind this passage of mine from “Classroom UX: Designing for Pluralism”:

Since reading NeuroTribes, I think of psychologically & sensory safe spaces suited to zone work as “Cavendish bubbles” and “Cavendish space”, after Henry Cavendish, the wizard of Clapham Common and discoverer of hydrogen. The privileges of nobility afforded room for his differences, allowing him the space and opportunity to become “one of the first true scientists in the modern sense.”

Let’s build psychologically safe homes of opportunity without the requirement of nobility or privilege. Replace the trappings of the compliance classroom with student-created context, BYOD (Bring Your Own Device), and BYOC (Bring/Build Your Own Comfort). Let’s hit thrift stores, buy lumber, apply some hacker ethos, and turn the compliance classroom into something psychologically safe and comfortable to a team of young minds engaged in passion-based learning. Inform spaces with neurodiversity and the social model of disability so that they welcome and include all minds and bodies. Provide quiet spaces for high memory state zone work where students can escape sensory overwhelm, slip into flow states, and enjoy a maker’s schedule. Provide social spaces for collaboration and camaraderie. Create cave, campfire, and watering hole zones. Develop neurological curb cuts. Fill our classrooms with choice and comfort, instructional tolerance, continuous connectivity, and assistive technology.

In other words, make space for Cavendish. Make spaces for both collaboration and deep work.

Source: Classroom UX: Designing for Pluralism

There isn’t much psychological or sensory safety to be found in schools or workplaces. I spent a lifetime trying and ended up helping start a fully distributed company built on written communication so I could work from home in a sensory space and communication culture curated to my needs.

Create Cavendish space in our schools and workplaces. Create safety accessible to autistic people. Neurological pluralism makes for good, universal design.


Lost In Translation: Ways in Which Neurodivergent and Neurotypical Social Languages Differ

We the neurodivergent are genetically different. We experience the world through a hypersensitive nervous system which informs every aspect of our thinking, our behavior, and our social values.

The dominant social group labels our way of being in the world as disordered because they don’t understand us. Even though they don’t understand, the dominant culture controls the narrative about our differences.

Society believes the experts who are not part of our culture, who see brokenness where there is order. We gradually start to believe the myths ourselves and lose all sense of self-esteem. We come to hate ourselves for being different.

They have largely not tried to understand the biological mechanisms that create our experience of self. Instead they have tried every means possible to force us to act neurotypical.

Some of us can pretend to be neurotypical, for a while, at great cost to our health and happiness, but we cannot change our neurotype. We are neurodivergent.

Our behavior and social values are different because the way we think is different. The way we think is different because our moment-to-moment experience of the world is different.

In this article, I’ll explain the key ways in which neurotypical and neurodivergent people misunderstand each other.

Source: Lost in Translation: The Social Language Theory of Neurodivergence | by Trauma Geek | Medium

This is a great piece of research-storytelling from the intersections of neurobiology and sociology. I highly relate to all of it. Here are the 8 key ways that are covered:

  1. Emotions
  2. Empathy
  3. Nonverbal Communication and Body Cues
  4. Words Mean Things
  5. Social Rules
  6. A Different Value System
  7. Skills and Abilities
  8. Reactions to Stress, Pain, and Overwhelm

Read the whole thing, and follow the thoughtfully curated links.

Check out Trauma Geek for more great articles, including one on “Discovering a Trauma-Informed Positive Autistic Identity”.