Autism Awareness Month: Why We Should Stop Stim Suppression
Updated: Apr 26
The following article was written by Cassandra Crossman on her blog site "In The Loop About Neurodiversity". The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone but have been echoed by numerous individuals who are on the ASD spectrum.
Stim suppression, at first glance, may not look abusive. It comes in the form of “whole body listening,” or classroom posters that encourage students to listen with their whole bodies by making eye contact with the speaker, and using “quiet hands.” It looks respectful and it makes a teacher’s job easier when they know students are looking at them, and appears to be paying attention. In reality, any form of stim suppression, including “whole body listening,” can make it harder for students to learn and pay attention and can actually be harmful to neurodiverse and disabled people who learn best by being allowed to stim and fidget in class and are uncomfortable with eye contact.
“Whole-body listening” is a classroom technique that tells students to listen with their whole bodies, by keeping their eyes and body on the speaker, their ears listening, their lips shut, and their hands and feet quiet. But these are a lot of instructions, and hard to remember while also trying to listen to the teacher! Stim suppression is why “whole body listening” actually hurts neurodiverse people in a class. It is hard for many of us to sit still and have “quiet hands” for long periods of time without being allowed to stim. Being punished for autistic behaviors such as stimming is ableist because we cannot control these and should not be expected to. Students should not have to worry about forcing eye contact or keeping their hands locked together or in their pockets, they should be learning! When students are free to move around, to use fidget gadgets, to look wherever feels comfortable to them, to flap their hands and arms, or to hum to themselves, they are more likely to retain information than if they keep telling themselves to keep still, look on the teacher, and to keep hands “quiet” all at once. Students should not have to sit on their hands, or keep their hands in their pockets for every class, for an eight-hour school day, and teachers should not expect students to do so. “Whole-body listening” in itself is a lot of information to take in and remember, and doing that simultaneously and learning is difficult for many neurodiverse students, including me when I was a student.
Early interventions based on strict compliance, such as Applied Behavioral Analysis, also teach “quiet hands,” or however else it may be phrased: “safe hands,” “calm hands,” or “table ready.” It also teaches forced eye contact as a “necessary” social skill. It is based on the false premise that autistic behaviors are “bad” or “wrong” behaviors, and that fidgeting or stimming means an inability or unwillingness to learn, or is something that is “inappropriate” and should be stopped. ABA also gives charts that reward positive behaviors, such as using “quiet hands,” and punish negative behaviors, such as not complying and stimming. Applied Behavioral Analysis is harmful to neurodiverse people because it teaches us to socially mask and hide our autistic behaviors, and it may take some of us until adulthood to unlearn the principles and stim suppression techniques that were taught in ABA and in the classroom. This is how ableism starts early, and why many autistic people are traumatized by ABA, and some may even have PTSD symptoms from ABA practices such as “quiet hands.”
We don’t need “whole body listening” charts or other stim suppression techniques in classrooms. We need to foster an environment in which neurodiverse students feel accepted and the ways they learn are accommodated. Neurodiverse students should not be punished for stimming and behaviors they cannot control, and even neurotypical students may have trouble keeping still in classrooms and following “whole body listening” for long periods of time. Let students move and flap and fidget and hum and rock freely! It is ableist to expect constant eye contact or punish students for not meeting eye contact, and ableism does not belong in the classroom or anywhere else! When we listen to neurodiverse students and respect the ways they learn, then we can learn a lot from them as well.
Cassandra Crosman is an educational assistant and graduated from Western Oregon University with a Master of Science degree in Education in 2021. Her undergraduate degree was in Humanities with a minor in Political Science. As someone who is autistic herself, she aspires to teach and learn from other neurodivergent people. She loves to write and created the blog, "In the Loop About Neurodiversity" to help empower neurodivergent people and educate neurotypical people about the importance of recognizing and celebrating neurodiversity. Cassandra wants others to know that being different is not something to be ashamed of, but is something to be proud of.