Wiki (thank you...again) says, "A tic is a sudden, repetitive, nonrhythmic motor movement or vocalization involving discrete muscle groups.. Tics are described as semi-voluntary or unvoluntary, because they are not strictly involuntary—they may be experienced as a voluntary response to the unwanted, premonitory urge. A unique aspect of tics, is that they are suppressible yet irresistible; they are experienced as an irresistible urge that must eventually be expressed." Wow! In our house we define it as some weird, quirky, movement or behavior that may get you beat up on the playground. Believe me, we have had our share of tics in this household, and I don't mean the fun, Tic Tac Toe kind. Many kids on the autism spectrum demonstrate self-stimulating behavior or "stims". These behaviors are described as "controlled" and the stimming helps calm a child's overloaded sensory system and eases their anxiety. Some stim just because it feels good. It's been hard to differentiate between a true "tic" and a "stim" with Ryan so over the years, we have just referred to various behaviors as tics. "Tic" is a lot easier to use in a sentence then "self-stimulatory behavior". "Oh, have you seen the latest tic?" or "I wonder how long this tic will last?" or "I guess this tic replaced that last tic." And for the longest time, I would discourage these tics, stims, etc. not with a tac and a toe, but with a big emphatic NO.
We all have stims, tic and annoying habits. Some of us are hair twirlers, leg bouncers or knuckle crackers. The difference between a neurotypical person's stims or tics versus someone living with autism is the type of stimming repetition and the intensity of the repetition. I remember watching the Temple Grandin Movie on HBO for the first time, sharing my popcorn with Clueless and Denial. A parent asked Temple how to make her child stop spinning and stimming and Temple very adamantly said, "You don't." Adults and children living with autism need to stim and tic as much as they need to breath. When the world gets too big, too loud and too bright, these quirky behaviors are what gives them peace and makes them able to get through whatever emotion is or situation is bothering them. I felt so guilty that for years, I tried to make Ryan stop and in all AWEnesty, he couldn't. I dumped my popcorn on Clueless and Denial's heads and kicked them out of my house and went and snuggled my sniffing, licking, finger flicking boy.
In the book, The Reason I Jump, the author, Naoki Higashida (who wrote the book at age 13 when he was non-verbal) explains that stimms and tics are not a result of a problem at a nerve level, but at an emotional level. Naoki explains that because people living with autism are often unable to express what they are feeling, he says, "the despair we're feeling has nowhere to go and fills up our entire bodies, making our senses more and more confused....and sometimes, all my body's energy is concentrated in one area ." So for this week, or this month, or this year, Ryan's emotions and senses are all piling up in his left nostril, and regardless of how annoying 25 sniffs in 60 seconds can be, that's the only exit for my boy's new middle school stress so, I must either try to ignore the sniffs or get ear plugs. I wonder if I should get the entire 6th grade ear plugs too?