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Creating Autistic Suffering: Interoceptive stimming or “challenging behaviour”?

This article was co-authored by David Gray-Hammond and Tanya Adkin

TW: Discusses Challenging Behaviour, Disordered Eating, Sex and Related Activities, Self-Injury, and Victimisation

Recently David posted an infographic about interoceptive stimming. This proved to be a very popular topic and we felt it necessary to expand on this more via this series. In our experience working directly with Autistic individuals experiencing various levels of distress and crisis, what is often conceptualised as “behavioural” can be attributed to interoceptive self-stimulation.

What is interoception?

Interoception is the sense that tells us what is happening internally in our body. It allows us to identify our emotional and physical needs through the sensations we derive from them.

“So how exactly does interoception do its important job? This sense is hard at work all of the time, monitoring your entire body—body parts like your heart, lungs, stomach, bladder, muscles, skin, and even your eyeballs—and collecting information about how these body parts feel. For example, interoception collects information which helps your brain identify how your stomach feels: does it feel empty, full, gassy, nauseous, tingly or something else?
Your brain uses the information about the way your body feels as clues to your current emotion(s): are you hungry, nervous, tired, sick, excited and so forth?
Thus, at the most basic level, interoception can be defined as the sense that allows us to answer the question, “How do I Feel?” in any given moment….

…interoception is the very foundation of independent self-regulation.”

Mahler, (Accessed September 2023)

What is Alexithymia?

Alexithymia is the difficulty or inability to identify or “sense” one’s emotions. This then makes it difficult to articulate your emotional experience (Gray-Hammond, 2023). It could be thought of as a subgroup of interoception; emotions after all are an internal experience. Alexithymia occurs in around 50% of the Autistic population (Kinnaird et al, 2019).

What is stimming?

Also known as self-stimulatory behaviour, stimming is a repeated action that stimulates a particular sense, Autistic people may do this because the sense is under-stimulated, they may also do this because the sensory input is soothing and helps to keep them regulated. Hand flapping is probably the most commonly referenced, but it can include things like echolalia, listening to the same song on repeat, or spinning, etc. It can be self-injurious behaviour such as skin picking and head banging. Stimming is any repetitive behaviour that self-stimulates a particular sense.

Interoceptive stimming

Just in the same way that an autistic person may make repetitive movements or make repetitive sounds, it stands to reason that we may also engage in interoceptive stimming.

“repetitive, stimming behaviours, such as hand flapping and body rocking, are self-soothing and help to regulate the autonomic nervous system, which in turn generates interoceptive signals.”

Reframing Autism, 2022

What can interoceptive stimming help us understand?

Challenging Behaviour

Challenging behaviour are words that are commonly used to describe behaviour that is considered culturally unacceptable, societally abnormal, inconvenient, costly, or harmful and dangerous (Bromley & Emerson, 1995). Suppose that an Autistic person can not access or feel their emotions, much like when our proprioceptive sense is under-stimulated, we would seek proprioceptive input. We can also seek “emotional input”. Sometimes this can look like watching sad movies, or adrenaline seeking. However, sometimes it can appear as starting arguments or seeking to be dysregulated. This is often conceptualised as “challenging behaviour”.

Disordered Eating

“…there is a robust body of literature illustrating that alexithymia levels, both from a continuous and a categorical perspective, are elevated in individuals with eating disorders compared to healthy controls. Furthermore, individuals with eating disorders have specific deficits in identifying and communicating emotions.”

Nowakowski et al, 2013

Hunger is an internal sensation. Therefore, the feeling of hunger can be a form of interoceptive self-stimulation. Coupled with other sensory differences such as texture and smell aversion, this could look incredibly similar to disordered eating.

“…in the absence of accurate interoceptive representations, one’s model of self is predominantly exteroceptive.”

Filippetti & Tsakiris (2017)

What this means is that those with under-sensitive interoception will create their sense of self, and self-beliefs from external happenings, i.e. autism + environment = outcome. This is referred to as being suggestible or suggestibility. The way that neurotypical disordered eating is commonly addressed is as issues surrounding body-image. In Autistic people that are highly suggestible due to under-sensitive interoception, neuronormative ideas around the origins of disordered eating can create a self-fulfilling prophecy of body image issues when in fact, building the interoceptive sense may serve to be a more effective intervention; it may also avoid people internalising neuronormative self-beliefs that are not accurate.

Hypersexuality

Hypersexuality can also be a form of interoceptive stimming. Sex, masturbation, and related activities can serve as a vehicle for stimulating the interoceptive sense. Granted, many Autistic people have other sensory needs that makes engaging in intimate acts difficult. However, the other side of the sensory coin can be found in Autistic people who use sex and related activities to stimulate the senses and would traditionally be framed as being “hypersexual”. Coupled with suggestibility and social differences, and the rates of vicitmisation of Autistic people (Pearson et al, 2023), we can see why this can and does create a very big problem.

In conclusion

The above examples are just a snapshot of how understanding interoception can help us understand our Autistic selves and our Autistic loved ones. We must remember that for every Autistic person who is hyposensitive to interoceptive input, there are probably just as many who are hypersensitive. We can both seek and avoid interoceptive input. Sensory experience can also be dynamic dependent on our regulation levels and environment. What we seek on one day, we may avoid the next. By being aware of interoceptive stimming, we can be more aware of the need to find alternative routes to meeting interoceptive needs.

References

Bromley, J., & Emerson, E. (1995). Beliefs and emotional reactions of care staff working with people with challenging behaviour. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 39(4), 341-352.

Filippetti, M. L., & Tsakiris, M. (2017). Heartfelt embodiment: Changes in body-ownership and self-identification produce distinct changes in interoceptive accuracy. Cognition, 159, 1-10.

Gray-Hammond, D. (2023) What is alexiathymia? Emergent Divergence

Kinnaird, E., Stewart, C., & Tchanturia, K. (2019). Investigating alexithymia in autism: A systematic review and meta-analysis. European Psychiatry, 55, 80-89.

Mahler, K. (2023) What is interoception? kelly-mahler.com

Nowakowski, M. E., McFarlane, T., & Cassin, S. (2013). Alexithymia and eating disorders: a critical review of the literature. Journal of eating disorders, 1, 1-14.

Pearson, A., Rose, K., & Rees, J. (2023). ‘I felt like I deserved it because I was autistic’: Understanding the impact of interpersonal victimisation in the lives of autistic people. Autism, 27(2), 500-511.

Reframing Autism (2022) Dissociation in How Core Autism Features Relate to Interoceptive Dimensions: Evidence from Cardiac Awareness in Children – A Summary for Non-Academics. reframingautism.org.au

I am an Autistic person, not a scientific phenomenon

Recently I have been reading Authoring Autism by Remi Yergeau. It has really been opening my eyes to the use of rhetoric in the construction of narratives surrounding Autistic people, and has very much inspired me to write this.

I am an Autistic person.

And yet the world treats me as a phenomenon, a peculiarity that needs to be studied.

Some of the world fears me, others adore me. Some care not for whether I live or die, while others fight for my existence. Most of them have one thing in common; they don’t trust me to speak for myself.

Autistic people are treated as clinical subjects. Repetitive and self-stimulatory behaviour. Clinical definitions for a deeply disordered non-human entity.

But I am human.

I am a person.

What they pathologise, is what makes my existence into a thing of poetry.

My repetitive hands trace the words that my mind can not find. My fingers type the stories that my mouth doesn’t speak.

What they call self-stimulatory, I call world altering. Where they reach for liquor to calm their mind, I find calm in the flapping of my hands, each beat like that of a birds wings.

Their description of sensory processing issues are actually a connection between my body and environment that I can not put into words. While their world is painful to me, I guarantee that they haven’t heard the electricity in the light bulbs sing.

They assume incompetence from all except themselves.

I am not a mindless automaton. I breathe the same air as you. I feel love and hate, pain and pleasure, I ponder my place in the universe. I see and hear how you talk about me.

I am an Autistic person not a scientific phenomenon. Let me write my own stories.

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