Just a little update here before we begin. I have three big posts in the works in my drafts that will come out with time but right now I am struggling a lot. I got new antibiotics for my voice problem, which is going away but I have lasting cognitive effects from the GA and I am suffering some side effects from the antibiotics that make it really hard to write a blog post. Rest assured, I have some big stuff coming up.
Onto today’s post however.
Today I am going to be talking about sensory phenomena, or premonitory urges, or urges. They are commonly associated with Tourette Syndrome, and sometimes with OCD. One area of study that is lacking is the aspect of sensory phenomena in Autism. Let me fill you in a bit. I have OCD and I also have some type of tic disorder not otherwise specified at the current time. I experience the usual premonitory urge that is released as a tic. I also experience sensory phenomena with sensory overload, the need to stim, and with my OCD. It comes part and parsel of physiological disorders, and people like to oversimplify and understate its presence within the framework of Autism.
When I say “sensory phenomena” I am referring to a very specific thing that is well known and recognised as existing within neurodiverse bodies. I don’t mean synaesthesia or anything like that. I mean feelings that originate in the body and are then followed by some type of action that releases the sensation, whether a tic, stim or compulsion. It is also seen in Restless Leg Syndrome. My earliest memories are of sensory phenomena. It comes in three aspects:
Mental: A mental urge, a sense of incompleteness, a sense of needing something to be “just right”. It must be noted that though this is a mental process, it is still a neurophysiological process, just the same as the more localised sensations seen in the rest of the body.
Musculo-skeletal: Happens in the musculoskeletal system, obviously. Some people feel localised tingles, aches, itches, electrical shocks, a “yawning” feeling in the bones
Visceral: Deep inside. Way deep in your gut. A sense of incompleteness, a sense of intense discomfort. A feeling of inner tension, or a feeling of increasing pressure building up
It is associated with the basal ganglia and the temporal lobe in some cases. In all cases, the sensory and sensorimotor feelings inside a person’s body are accompanied by a need to relieve them and some ability to suppress them. At the end of the day, some type of movement or action must be performed to relieve the sensations. Performing the action creates a palliative effect that releases the intense discomfort within the body.
I have mentioned before that when it comes to stimming and meltdowns, I have an accompanying aspect of sensory phenomena, which is a sense of deep inner tension and pressure building up. I am not the only one either. Many people mistake stimming for the type of fidgetting seen in neurotypical folks, but I believe there is a fundamental difference. In essence, no, NTs do not “stim also”. It is more than a case of a social model of disability arbitrarily pathologising an action in a “disabled” person and accepting it in an “abled” person. For me, and for many others I have spoken to, there is a sensory urge that is a precursor to the need to stim, or move in the way we move. An interesting personal description can be found in an article on the Hairpin called Where Autism Meets Krautrock. He describes his urge to stim as being preceeded by a constant “thrum in the neck”. I have heard others speak of a whole body tingle. For my own, I get many different sensory phenomena.
As I said, my earliest memories are of these sensory feelings. Specifically, I can remember being kept awake at night, and being an early riser with a build up of terrible inner tension and that sense of incompleteness. It was like an electric tingle that started out deep in my body and radiated out into my bones. I remember at the age of three, literally crawling in my skin. That feeling, to this day, has never gone away. My own way of alleviating it is through tactile and pressure stimming, which I have done since I was a very small child. When I am specifically overstimulated, one of them is coughing. I mixed it up with a tic for a long time because it was preceeded by a premonitory urge that spurred me on. The pressure in my chest being released created a palliative cancelling out of the whole body terrible feeling.
I also remember, much later in life, between the ages of 11 and 18, a particular pressure stim I performed which was writing certain letters over and over again, pressing the pen hard into the paper. Unfortunately, this combination of soothing letters were not exactly socially appropriate. My mother questioned me upon finding several sheets of paper covered with the words “kill” and “stab” on them, and I am sure she assumed I was violently disturbed. The fact is, the meaning and social connotation of the words had exactly zero bearing on why I was writing them. I wrote them because they felt good and they released an inner tension in my body that I could not explain. It was palliative, meditative, pressured and tactile. During these years I had forced “writing therapy” in school from teachers who complained that my writing was too messy, I gripped the pencil too hard(indeed I snapped many in half just picking them up), and I held it the wrong way entirely.
Another stim that has lasted from early childhood to the present day is a continuous muscle tensing of my legs and knees, particularly when I go to bed or wake up in the morning. A sensory ritual that helps me start my day, or finish it so I can actually fall asleep. Also, because of my OCD, I have that compulsion for things to be just right, or complete and must perform compulsions until I feel that sense of being complete within myself. Often these are mental, but sometimes they are also physical(my clothing must look and feel complete. If someone touches me I must even out and make it symmetrical. I cannot stand to have my clothing wrinkled or askew, or have a place I am sitting be slightly moved out of place without feeling a growing sense of disquiet and indeed, inner torture).
Autism is a physical disorder. It is not just a disorder of context or interpretation within the mind’s eye, but a disorder that affects movement, visceral urges, the physiological processing and reactions to the environment, and stimming is part of that. It is a thoroughly physical experience. I am not sure WHAT neurotypicals feel but I am pretty sure this is not their day to day existence. In any case. This has been my experience in the world of Neurodiversity. What does stimming feel like for you? Do you have an urge to move, or a sense of inner tension of some type that makes you move? What does it feel like to actually stim? What about fidgetting. What are you neurotypicals feeling?