Recently it’s been debated in the Autistic community, possibly due to one of my Tweets, on whether or not sex is a valid form of Self Stimulatory Behavior aka Stimming. (Spoiler Alert: It is!)
While the concept was met with mostly positive feedback there are some that do not see it that way and for those who do not see sexual activity as a stim, I feel it would be helpful to break it down for you so you are more apt to understand sex stims even if you don’t adopt the concept yourself. Keep in mind that Autism is a spectrum of differences that we may or may not share with other neurodiverse people. One person’s stim may be another person’s sensory overload and that is okay too! No one has to be the same. It’s a rule!
Before I continue I wanted to speak up for the neurodivergent that rely on sex stims to be able to function. Mainly the female among us. I have a hypersexual sex drive that is stimulation based and, as a result, I have been slut shamed for much of my life and, regardless of whether or not I was monogamous and faithful, I’ve had a bad reputation. I’m tired of this! We need more understanding and compassion for those of us that respond in a sexual way to carry out their stims. I’m not a slut or someone out of control. I’m not even particularly promiscuous. I like sex. A. Lot. I prefer long term trustworthy partners like a spouse or, in the past, a long term friend. However, that all has always been overshadowed, simply, by my liking sex. This is an attempt to bring levity to a situation that desperately needs it.
To start with I think we will answer what is a Stim? The word Stim is “Autistic Slang” for Self Stimulatory Behavior. It is very common for Autistic and Neurodiverse people to stim. You have most likely seen Autistics or other neurodivergent persons tap, rock, spin, snap their fingers, flap their hands, and other repetitive movements. These are the most common and more obvious of SSB’s but there are a plethora of other stims too!
There are also auditory stims (stims that you hear) such as words and how they make you feel when you say them (a good example is when swearing makes your stubbed toe hurt less) or humming. Grunting, clearing your throat, and shouting are also vocal stims. Some auditory stims are repetitive like striking a certain piano key over and over and some are whimsical for example enjoying wind chimes as they dance in the air currents. ASMR could even be considered an auditory stim!
There are tactile stims. For example, my husband likes satiny cloth that feels slick and silky when rubbed together. Petting your cat or dog, running your hand over a brick wall (I did this as a kid) are all tactile stims. I like how the hot water feels on the tips of my fingers in the shower. Walking on the grass, playing with fidget toys, sitting on your hands (also me) are all, yes, you guessed it! Stims! We have proprioceptive (where you are in space and in relation to other objects, body position, and movement), vestibular (sense of balance), Gustatory (taste), Olfactory (smell) self-stimulatory behaviors.
So we know what stims are but why do we do them? It’s all in your head, literally! Autistics stim in order to produce the neurotransmitters they need to function. (Non-Autistics stim to just not as much as we do.) Proprioceptive stims will improve your sense of where your limbs are. Some Autistics have a service animal to help them stim, such as Drea in Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, by having her service dog apply pressure to her body. Running or pacing can burn off extra energy and anxiety while flapping your hands can achieve the endorphins you need to be happy and in the moment. Feel good stims, like satin pillowcases, are there to help relax. Happy textures, warmth, water, they are all sensory-stimulating interactions that will boost the feel-good chemicals in your brain and help you get through life. My husband will squeeze me tightly when I’m being overwhelmed. It helps by calming my nervous system. My asking him to apply pressure, while assisted, is still me seeking the stimulation of a squeeze much like Drea and her dog, but my hubs isn’t a dog, he’s a human.
Breaking down the term Self Stimulatory Behavior is the key to deciphering what SSB’s may include.
The word self is pretty self-explanatory (weak attempt at a pun intended) so on we move to the word stimulation. (Yes, you can giggle at the following paragraph. I did!)
“(transitive) physiology to excite (a nerve, organ, etc) with a stimulus”
A few of the definitions I found for stimulation and stimulatory are:
“(transitive) physiology to excite (a nerve, organ, etc) with a stimulus”, “The condition of being stimulated. The application of a stimulus to a responsive structure, such as a nerve or muscle, regardless of whether the strength of the stimulus is sufficient to produce excitation”.
Then there is the word Behavior which I’m assuming we all know what it means but just in case I’m going to say it may be defined as an “observable activity in a human or animal, the aggregate of responses to internal and external stimuli”, “a stereotyped, species specific activity, as a courtship dance or startle reflex”, “Often behaviors or behavior pattern.”
Oh! What just happened! We are talking about the senses, and the stimulation of organs, getting excited, and application of a stimulus to a responsive structure! All of these apply very well to SSB’s, and all of them sound very satisfying. Matter of fact masturbation is known and recognized as a stim, is it just me, or is it getting a little hot in here!
The act of sex stims provides a very intense sensory-stimulating experience. It engages the entire body. The proprioceptive repetition of thrusting. The vestibular input of heavy breathing and vocal exclamation of delight. Sex also comes in an array of tactile input (take that however you want to, no judgment) that increases the neurotransmitters in your brain.
During sex stims, important neurotransmitters are produced, that boost the functionality of the brain and nervous system. Dopamine is known for making us feel good, it’s in charge of movement, propelling your personality up and out. Dopamine also is in charge of motivation and focus.
Sex is also a fantastic source of oxytocin, another neurotransmitter that important for us to stimulate, yet, it’s difficult to do on our own. Cuddling, sex, hugging, nursing, and childbirth can stimulate oxytocin. The hormone facilitates trust, bonding with a romantic partner (as well as bonding with a newborn after a mother gives birth). Social behavior and anxiety are also linked to oxytocin. Studies show that sex also stimulates prolactin, noradrenaline, serotonin, and endorphins (endogenous opioids), all of what a brain needs.
The Autistic Nervous System is deficient in many neurotransmitters. Dopamine, Serotonin, Norepinephrine, Oxytocin, are only a few neurotransmitters that come to mind that have been indicated as being contributing factors to how the Autistic mind functions.
Sex is the one Self Stimulatory Behavior that not only stimulates the brain in its entirety and neurology all at once but the cervical stimulation that comes (okay the pun is totally intended here) with deep penetration can calm down the vagus nerve and help reduce anxiety.
Last, but far, far, from least, is that when it comes to sexual behaviors, in Autism, we have hyposexuality, hypersexuality, and paraphilia’s (such as BDSM) just like we do in the majority of the population. In psychology, however, they hesitate to diagnose these as sexual disorders even when it fits the description. This leads me to believe that sex, even when occurring in excess, thankfully, is seen as they should be seen. These are Self Stimulatory Behaviors, aka sex stims, that have been stigmatized as deviant behavior when they shouldn’t be. If it is consensual and everyone understands the meaning and purpose of the act, then we need to accept sex as a stim. To add stigma to something that is enabling Autistics to function better is not the way to go.
Instead, may I suggest education on safer sex practices, instruction on sexual health, teaching consent and legal age limits, point them in the right direction towards age-appropriate information on sexuality. Most importantly we need to teach Autistics about telling people when they are violated. We need to teach people about replacement stims (age-appropriate instruction on “personal massagers” is good) and alternative sexual stims to, well, sex!
The fact is, we are sexual beings just like any other human, and many of us find sexual interaction to be a fantastic stim. Regardless if it’s an interactive (with someone) stim or not doesn’t matter. It’s a stim that brings focus, balance, and a slew of other health benefits. Sex is a stim.
Note: I did have all the links for references for this however I had them on a micro SD I was forced to reformat. Please, forgive me for not having all the pertinent information on hand. It was not intentional. In addition, I am not interested in anything sexual, so don’t message.