“No More Stim Toys!” – What It Feels Like for an Autistic Person When You Take Away Our Sensory Aids
Someone I know who works with autistic children recently told me about a disturbing incident they observed between an autistic student and their teacher.
Apparently, this child was given a stim toy to play with to calm their anxiety, and before they could even begin to use it for self-soothing and emotional regulation, the teacher grabbed it out of their hand, yelled, “No more stim toys!”, and proceeded to throw it in the trash right there in front of the child.
Of course, the child had a meltdown.
This act utterly enraged me when I heard about it, and I needed some time to process my very strong and passionate feelings on the subject before I wrote about it.
What this teacher did tells me two things:
- The aim of the majority of schools and programs designed for autistic children is STILL to make them appear “indistinguishable from their peers”. In other words, the goal always seems to be to make the child appear “normal” whenever possible and discourage their natural autistic traits.
- Stim toys are seen as actual toys, and, even though that’s what they’re called, it’s misleading. Stim toys are accessibility aids for autistic people, and teachers, parents, and other professionals need to understand that.
Should We Change the Term Stim Toys to Sensory Aids?
Stim toys, in my opinion, should be referred to as sensory aids. When you hear about a teacher taking a tangle or a squishy away from a child in class because he or she is “not paying attention”, the teacher is praised for that action, as though they made a disciplinary decision and helped the child learn not to be “disruptive” or “rude” (or whatever they misunderstand the behavior to be at that time).
The teacher may think taking a stim toy (sensory aid) from an anxious autistic student is the same thing as taking away a cell phone from a bored neurotypical student who keeps scrolling through TikTok during class. This is not true at all, and this type of thinking is dangerous and can cause mental harm to the autistic person.
Let me address my earlier point first:
- The goal of teaching or working with an autistic student should NEVER be to change the person or make them behave in neurotypical ways to make their neurotypical counterparts more comfortable.
- Taking a stim toy (sensory aid) away from an autistic student is just as bad, demeaning, and inappropriate as taking a hearing aid away from a deaf student, a guide dog away from a blind student, glasses away from a myopic student, or a wheelchair away from a student without the use of their legs. It is cruel, full stop.
What Having Our Sensory Aids Taken Away Feels Like for Us
If you’re a neurotypical person reading this, I want you to imagine the last time you either had the flu or were hungover.
Remember that feeling of waking up, and the sun or the lights in your room were too loud? The sound of your dog barking or your child yelling was like a knife piercing through your ears?
When your spouse walked into the room to ask you a simple question, they might as well have been speaking a foreign language for all your muddled brain could understand?
Welcome to the type of experiences autistic people have every single day just by existing!
If a bath, a nap, a hot cup of tea, an old movie, or some silence was all you wanted while recovering from a wild night or a maskless individual who decided to cough on you at the grocery store, you would think those needs reasonable and in no way disruptive or bothersome to anyone, right?
Imagine if those things were not only taken away from you, but done in front of other people while you were feeling at your most vulnerable, AND you were also shamed and belittled for even needing them?
This is how an autistic person feels when everything is too loud, too bright, too jumbled, too confusing, and the one thing of comfort that we reach for in all this noise, the one thing focusing our thoughts and regulating our emotions is ripped away from us, and we are left with not only no way to regulate but knowing, deep down in our souls, that if we allow* all of those feelings, which are roiling inside of us like a volcano, to burst forth through us into a full-on meltdown, we could be sat on (prone position restraint–don’t EVER do this) and possibly killed?
*Most autistic people cannot “allow” or “disallow” a meltdown, it’s a neurological event, but there are some instances where we can feel it coming and head it off at the pass, so to speak. This is where sensory aids come in!
Can you, for one second, imagine that horror? That feeling of utter helplessness, fear, and shame? The sensory equivalent of being naked in a pile of snow in a freezing cold rainstorm while someone yells at you for reaching for a coat?
If you wouldn’t rip the dark glasses off a blind man or knock a mobility aid out from under a person with EDS, don’t take sensory aids away from an autistic person (unless we are actually harming ourselves or others with them). We need them just as much as any other person with a disability who requires accommodations and accessibility aids.
Books for Better Understanding the Autistic Brain
(Whether you’re an autistic person who is newly diagnosed, or you have a loved one on the spectrum, the books below can help you better understand the autistic brain.)
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