Although everyone stims to some degree, it’s necessary for autistics. Stimming helps us regulate our emotions and relieve anxiety. But in the workplace, our stims can distract coworkers – drawing unwanted and unnecessary attention.
Not all workplaces are a safe environment for autistics to be our authentic selves. Our social challenges often cause our coworkers to exclude us, so we don’t need another “quirk” to make us stand out any further.
But blocking our need to stim is harmful to our mental health. So, we need to find stims that meet our needs but won’t distract coworkers.
Many of my stims are distracting, including biting my nails, pulling on my hair, rearranging objects on my desk, and cracking my knuckles. I’ve worked in an office environment on and off again for 20 years. Throughout this time, I’ve looked for more appropriate ways to stim without being so distracting.
I want to share them in case someone else needs an idea. If you have an alternative stim that you use in the workplace to avoid being a distraction, please feel free to share in the comments!
So, on we go:
This one really helps me avoid the urge to bite my nails. I hide the small container in a drawer and pull out enough to roll around my fingertips while thinking at my desk.
It’s quiet and moldable. A larger piece can act as a stress ball. A small amount can roll around between my fingertips. And when someone catches me with the Play-Doh, I tell them it’s my stress ball alternative. It seems to work, and they shrug it off because everyone can understand the need for a stress ball at the office.
I can make my blob of Play-Doh as big or small as I need it to be, which keeps it adaptable to my needs at that moment. A small piece can easily be smuggled into a meeting rolled around in my hand under the conference table.
I have a long necklace with two metal leaf pendants. This necklace does wonders for meetings. It’s the perfect length to avoid drawing attention when people are looking at me. But I do have to be careful not to jingle them. Unfortunately, they don’t go with every outfit I wear. So, limitations. At least on the fashion front.
Also, because they are metal, they are not suitable for aggressive stimming. It becomes loud. When my anxiety skyrockets, I need something more moldable – like Play-Doh.
I keep a small soft blanket at my desk. Rubbing the fabric and “petting” can relieve my anxiety and help me focus. The great thing about having a blanket at the office is that every woman has one! Offices tend to be too cold for women, so having a blanket at your desk doesn’t make you “weird” or “childish.”
For meetings, sweaters are fantastic. Under the table, I roll the threads and hems in my fingers. Since many sweaters have thicker threads, it’s easier to roll the thick seams around. I especially like my cardigan for this reason.
Meetings are always an overstimulating environment with the lights, people talking, the need to process the verbal conversation, thinking through social cues, reading the presentation, and bodies sitting near you. It’s overwhelming. The room can feel like it’s closing in on you; heaven forbid someone asks you a question when you weren’t expecting it.
Stimming in meetings is necessary; we need something to help channel the anxiety.
Years ago, when I taught high school, many of my students found doodling effective. Not so for me. I never liked doodling until I discovered calligraphy. Now, I’m not a calligraphy expert. In all honesty, I’m still a beginner. But I enjoy it enough to do it in my notebook during meetings. Calligraphy became my doodling and lifesaver. For most meeting attendees, it looks like I’m taking notes. And, frankly, even if someone knew what I was writing, doodling is a widely accepted practice for focusing during meetings. I have yet to have anyone get upset by it.
My notebook is filled with keywords from meetings and my kids’ names written in calligraphy. Calligraphy was a game-changer for me. I can do it as vigorously as I need. The more stressful the meeting, the more I can doodle in my notebook.
Calligraphy requires that I slow down and focus.
I love rocking in chairs. Rocking is one of the more common stims for autistics. Thankfully, many types of office chairs can handle a slight rocking. My office chair doesn’t rock, but it does swivel nicely! I’ll grab my desk with both hands and swivel back and forth.
This may become distracting during a meeting, though. So, reserving this action for your desk might be more appropriate if you aren’t in an overly exposed cubicle setup.
These are just a few of the stims I’ve discovered work for me. They help me relieve my anxiety while avoiding the stims that distract others. (No one wants to sit across a conference table and watch a woman gnawing on her fingernails like a hyena with its prey! Gross!)
Have a stim to add to this list? Feel free to share it in the comments.