Why I Like Strings: Reflections on an ‘Aspie’ Habit
During National Autism Awareness Month, Autism NOW and The Arc offers the personal stories and perspectives of people with autism to generate discussion about autism awareness and acceptance. We invite your comments here and on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #AutismAware.
By Daniel Crofts
There are advantages and disadvantages to being on the “higher-functioning” end of the autism spectrum, as opposed to being on the “lower-functioning” end or being neurotypical. One of the advantages, for me personally, is that I have experienced the inner life of the spectrum while at the same time having an awareness of myself as being on the spectrum. I can therefore comment on things that could not be commented on otherwise.
I want to touch on one such subject that people often wonder about – namely, the peculiar, idiosyncratic habits and behaviors of autistic individuals. Can I speak for everyone on the spectrum? By no means – but hopefully my experience can offer something of help.
From at least as early as my preschool years, and then well into high school, I had the habit of shaking and wiggling string-like objects, as well as other objects that were similarly “shake-able.”
At first this was a public activity. I would do it at school among my preschool and kindergarten playmates as easily as in the comfort of my own home. But I soon learned that this was not “normal” behavior; so I began to confine the habit to more private moments, when I didn’t have to worry about it being socially prohibitive.
My parents often asked me about this habit of mine. They were concerned that it would cause undue introversion, and they were eager to understand my motivation. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really explain it – at least, not well. But now that I am older and have grown in my reflective capabilities, I can offer myself and others a little bit more insight.
So why did I get a kick out of shaking around strings, handkerchiefs, etc? Well, there was the obvious sensory stimulation – the motions of, say, a string while I was causing it to undulate, its physical interactions with the artistic patterns in the floor tile, wall, furniture and elsewhere, etc.
But there was something else as well. To others, it looked like I was going into my own little world; in a sense, I guess this was true – but it was a world that very much mirrored the outside world.
While engaged in this activity, I would normally be thinking about movies, TV shows, cartoons, books or stories I had enjoyed, and then eventually also about my own creative ideas based on this material. And if there were things going on in my daily life or in the world that fascinated me for whatever reason, these were fair game as well.
The string-shaking by itself, unaccompanied by any thoughts to feel excited about, wasn’t necessarily adequate. On the other hand, it was as though these exciting thoughts were incomplete without a “shake-able” object to go with them.
A quick analogy might be helpful. Fellow Catholics will be more familiar than others with what I’m talking about, but I’ll try to make it accessible to everyone.
We Catholics have what is called a sacramental spirituality, which holds that God uses visible, tangible signs from the material world to communicate His grace to us. These range from the Eucharist – bread and wine consecrated to become literally the Body and Blood of Christ at Mass – to Rosary beads and consecrated shrines (which are actually sacramentals as opposed to sacraments, but I won’t get into that distinction here). It is a spirituality that recognizes human beings as both spiritual and physical beings, linking us to God and the spiritual life through what is perceptible to the senses.
The analogy here is obviously very, very broad. But my peculiar habit could be likened to a sacrament in one sense – a sense which pertains to the relationship between the visible and the invisible. In my case, the invisible consisted of stimulating thoughts (granted, these thoughts were based on material experiences, but the thoughts themselves were immaterial). And the strings, handkerchiefs, etc. were the material and tangible conduits or focal points by which I could channel my access to the experience.
At the risk of drawing negative attention to myself, I would like to mention that after having given it up for nearly 10 years, I have recently resumed this habit in my very private moments. Trust me, I never expected to go back to it. But having done so, here are a couple of observations:
- Far from damaging me, I have found that it helps to stimulate creative ideas.
- A week or so ago, I had a somewhat rough day at work (we’ve all been there, right?). When I got home, I went to my room, grabbed the cord that goes with my night robe, and started shaking it. What I found was that this helped me to manage my stressful emotions so that I wasn’t feeling overwhelmed. In fact, overall, I’d say my private emotional life has become much more balanced since I rediscovered this old habit.
I hope this makes sense. Like I said, I don’t expect this to be identical with the experience of everyone on the autism spectrum. But I feel that if we can take the time to understand the motives behind one unusual habit, we can go a long way toward approaching autism-related behaviors in general with more of an attitude of openness and understanding.