ISSN 2977-0602


Sam Metz

Spatialization of stimming,
Diagrammatic Praxis

A note to the reader:

This work traces the development of my thoughts around stimming as communicative, artistic and embodied praxis. In it, you will find textual and diagrammatic representations of those thoughts. Depending on your own preferred languaging,[1] you may read the diagrams as illustrations of the text or the text as illustration of the diagrams.

For me, these hierarchies are redundant. A thread running through my argument is that verbal communication is not privileged - word and diagram are equal in translating and notating, each imperfectly, the deeper, more complex and more entangled practice of stimming. This entanglement of at once receiving and interacting with the environment allows for an experience that is looping - playing with and learning about that environment in a continuous feedback loop that does not work towards an outcome. Thus, as described below, stimming is essentially anti-teleological and, as such, rebels against and stands in contrast to neuronormative and capitalist constructions of the environment as a functional resource to be observed and exploited. In this text I offer a number of diagram opportunities but I don’t resolve a correct one for stimming and its relationship with ecological thinking, because for me it has a queer relationship and queer approaches to ecology often disrupt (..) ‘traditional or prescribed ways of looking and understanding‘ (Yorkshire Sculpture Park, 2023).[2] 

At times, diagrammatic practice allows me to describe that more helpfully and more readily than the written word does. It is up to you how to receive that communication.

What is stimming?

Stimming is seen across a number of neurodivergent conditions, particularly autism, and also in blind and visually impaired people (I am autistic and visually impaired). Stimming may manifest in a number of observable stereotypies (Rozanna, 2017), such as hand flapping or repetitive sounds, but it represents a full range of behaviours and, importantly, transcends the solely negative connotations of stimming that are often described by people without lived experience. Stimming, I believe, should also be recognised as part of a positive sensory-seeking journey, as much about expressing joy as it is a tool for regulation during periods of overwhelm. My broadening of the range of affect of stimming is an important primary step in attenuating the pathologizing of difference that is often seen in medical model approaches[3]to understanding neurodivergence. This shift away from medical model understanding is supported by the theoretical framework I find my work fits within most readily: neuroqueering.

I have developed my understanding of neuroqueering from Nick Walker, who encourages liberation from the pathologizing disability model that is reliant on deficit model descriptions and resulting perceptions of disability (Walker, 2021, p. 16). My particular focus within neuroqueering as praxis has been on destabilising a wholly deficit language around, and understanding of, neurodivergence that often relegates my specific area of interest, ‘stimming’, to nothing but a behavioural problem that is required to be fixed. My response to neuroqueer perspectives has sought to suggest that stimming has a range of richness and communicative possibilities, and that in welcoming stimming as languaging we might destabilise the neurotypical hegemony that centralises verbal and written language as the most important tools.

Stimming and porosity

The diagrammatic potential of the spatialisation of stimming is an interesting cognitive exercise. Erin Manning suggests that ‘diagrams rhythmically call forth the relation artwork-world’ (Mannng, 2008) as such, they help me to structure my thoughts around stimming as 
languaging and connection to creative practice. When I first started to embed stimming into my artistic work, I did so by considering the relationship between the/my autistic body and site, which is understood as a proxemic[4] relationship. My proxemic relationship has been to the site near to my home in Hull where I have been working for around a year: the Humber Estuary. My sculptural practice has resulted in an exploration of the physical distances of stimming and its resulting effect on environmental imagining. In thinking about the embodiment of stimming and where body meets site, I have also been considering cognitive mapping. According to Robert M Kitchin, cognitive mapping can be thought of as a ‘marriage between spatial and environmental cognition’ (Kitchin, 1994), where in the context of stimming the way we imagine and think about the spaces we navigate is not just impacted by our embodiment but defined by it. I am particularly interested in diagramming the spatialisation of stimming in relation to the imagining of environments through vernacular use of spatial metaphors by neurotypical people and the resulting differences that stimming and neurodivergence might make to the way we think about our bodies in space.

Erin Manning, artist and researcher, refers to her experiencing a ‘leaky sense of self’ (Manning, 2013), which is a useful way of thinking about the autistic body too. Many autistic people are known to have tactile hypersensitivity (Blakemore et al., 2006), alongside difficulties with proprioception (knowing where the body is in space). My own autism diagnosis relayed that I did not seem to understand where my body ended and where the world began. In this sense, for some autistic people, we can think of the body as having holes which the world fills in. The border between the body and the environment is porous because the autistic body is often highly sensitised to the stimulus of the environment and because the autistic body often does not have the same embodied delineation as neurotypical bodies. Walker suggests, in her writing on neuroqueering and approaches to understanding neurodivergent bodyminds, that a ‘(…) central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness (Walker, 2014). I argue that this responsiveness often situates autistic people in a more horizontal relationship with the ‘outside’ world, precisely because (..) ‘the autistic brain registers more information than the neurotypical brain on both sensorimotor and cognitive levels’ (Walker, 2012).

For Manning, the ‘unbounded’ self (Manning, 2013) – a self not constrained by the limitations of the body – has the potential to infer meaning more readily from the environment precisely because of its porosity. The history of our language suggests that something about seeing is also about embodied learning. For instance, in the etymology of apprehension, we might begin to understand the ability to seize with our hands as much as our eyes through the latin verb ‘prehendere’, meaning to grasp, where to see is also to reach out. However, this meaning has been lost and the legacy of mind/body dualism endures, alongside the static view of vision as the ‘principle organising modality’ (Paterson, 2016). We might also see this distinction when thinking about the term environment, often meaning things that surround us rather than incorporating our bodies too. When diagramming stimming relationships, it’s necessary to shift this occularcentric[5]spatial organisation and to consider wider embodiment and a shift to ecological thinking.

For an initial helpful visual diagramming exercise we might think of the occularcentric separation of body/environment. For this, the sociologist Mark Paterson, writing on touch and architecture, relates that the intellectual legacy of models of vision described by Descartes’ Dioptrique persist (‘OnOptics’,1647), ‘(…) where the static mode of the camera obscura not only functioned as an explanatory mechanism for the visual process but also as an epistemological model for a disembodied subject’ (Paterson, 2016, p. 4). Descartes' camera obscura is helpful for describing the enduring legacy of spatial organisation that supports extraction: one that positions a static viewer viewing a static landscape as though they are not themselves part of the landscape, thus making it easier to see the earth as a resource. I argue that many autistic people do not have this ability because autistic bodies are in constant exchange with the environment. Instead, Paterson looks at the perceiver as an oculomotor subject: a subject who uses their proprioceptive, kinaesthetic, haptic and other somatic abilities as equal tools of embodied understanding and relationality and, in doing so, they outline a ‘more-than-visual’ approach, which is where we find many autistic bodyminds.

The inability to habituate to the environment – or to become desensitised to its fluctuations might in fact for ecological purposes be useful. Manning begins to demonstrate how an autistic body has the capacity to undermine anthropocentrism precisely because of a porous intertwining that facilitates co-presence. She explains how the neurodivergent bodymind as perceiver, with its unbounded edges (leaky body), has an openness to wider attention that is ecologically useful. As an autistic person, I am aware from my own experience that honing attention to just one thing is both difficult and something that I am asked to do repeatedly in social, work and leisure settings. Manning quotes Karen Krumins, who is autistic, noting that, ‘I attend to everything the same way with no discrimination, so that the caw of the crow in the tree is as clear and important as the voice of the person I’m walking with’ (Krumins in Miller 2003, 86). To revisit the camera obscura example from Descartes, here Krumins – an autistic person with a highly sensitised body – is unable to be a static viewer attending to just one thing in the landscape. Utilising neuroqueering to reframe the perceived deficit of a failure to attend to expected single voices (see here ‘failure of joint attention’[6]), we might suggest that this more polyvalent attending enables autistic bodyminds to position themselves in more horizontal relationship with ecology through co-presence. Autistic bodyminds are not the ‘maker’ of the scene beyond the camera obscura lens, but instead they remain fully ‘co-present’ and unable to filter (Manning & Massumi, 2014, p. 5). Being co-present enables attentiveness to what the ‘field wants’ (Manning & Massumi, 2014, p. 6), rather than what the perceiver wants.

An interesting visualisation of environmental interconnectedness of autistic proxemics (spatial environmental behaviour) was established by a radical educator working with non-verbal autistic children in the 1960s, Ferdinand Deligny. Deligny, alongside his volunteer Gisèle Durand-Ruiz, took time to observe and document, through drawings on a site plan, the movement of the children throughout the grounds of a disused house in the Cévennes mountains Southern France where he had set up a project for a community of autistic children (Jaojoco, 2022). Sabel Gavaldon commenting on the maps writes how they documented ‘(…) the overlapping experiences of this territory as perceived and navigated by each of the children, revealing not just a rich universe of subjectivity, but in fact a plurality of inhabited worlds… Each of those charts and drawings contained dozens of intersecting lines but no arrows, and thus no direction, no teleology … just network.’ (Jaojoco, 2022, p. 20)


From horizontal to lattice (network)

Deligny and Durand-Ruiz observed and documented the children’s movements, which were situated outside the prescriptive routines of more typical psychiatric institutionalisation of the time and named them ‘wander lines’ (Jaojoco, 2022) (or lignes d'erre). The archive of maps and ‘wander lines’ might provide some comment on and document of autistic agency outside both the institution and constructs of social cohesion (Jaojoco, 2022). Henri Lefebvre argues that the complex social structuring of urban space defines an individual’s negotiation of space like a form of language that is shaped by social practice (Lefebvre, 2007). This negotiation creates social ‘cohesion’ (Lefebvre, 2007, p. 37) that an individual user adheres to, resulting in a performative dimension of the public arena that Deligny and his assistant seem to suggest autistic children are outside of.

While Deligny’s maps may seem to suggest that the wander lines of individual movement are also futile because they are not informed by social practice and thus lack social cohesion, we could read these maps in another way as an observation of stimming. Stimming sits outside of performative and capitalist norms; in other words, it is not regulated by capitalist norms (although it is externally oppressed and managed by neuronormative agendas). This does not mean that stimming is futile, but that it represents an alternative use of space that is less performative. Stimming is often described as stereotypy, having an innate purposelessness, unmediated and lacking reflection, and so the maps might lack references and direction for a neurotypical viewer searching for a singular meaning. As Gavaldon notes they seem to lack ‘teleology’, but I would read here neuronormative understanding of goals.

However, the relational possibilities of stimming are meaningful for artists. I believe stimming does not just recognise individual things, but instead forms networks as documented by Deligneys ‘wander lines’. Deligny helpfully describes the maps of his autistic subjects as arachnean networks, spider-like in their formation but also suggesting that the making of the network itself is important:

‘But can we say the spider has as its project the weaving of its web? I don’t believe so. Better to say that the web's project is to be woven’ (Starling Gould & Wiencek, n.d.).

The maps of the autistic young people’s movements informed Deleuze and Guatarri’s understanding of the rhizome (Starling Gould & Wiencek, n.d.),which helps me to start to think of the radical position of considering stimming as praxis with a richness, affect and communicative potential that make it a suitable method for paying dedicated attention to space and place. I suggest that problematising sterotypy of stimming as deficient or futile behaviour can lead to new and complex relationships with art and ecology. Perhaps the germ of this idea has been present since the 1960s when thinkers like Deligny observing non-verbal autistic subjects recognised a freedom in being outside of verbal language with its deferential implications for knowledge formation, reliant on the dialogic.[7] Instead, neuroqueering opens up possibilities of considering stimming as languaging with ecological relations, networking the body into multiple conversations with site like the rhizome, providing an enduring image of the multiplicity of connections in ecological situatedness.

Stimming and anti-teleology

‘Cyclical repetition and the linear separate out under analysis, but in reality interfere with one another constantly. The cyclical originates in the cosmic, in nature: days, nights, seasons, the waves and the tides of the sea. The linear would rather come from social practice, therefore from human activity: the monotony of actions and of movements, imposed structures’
(Lefebvre, 2014, p. 18)

In his description of cyclical and linear time, Henri Lefebvre helps me to consider how stimming might not just sit between these two spatialisations of time, but how it might also offer a new way of viewing cyclical time through repeatable actions. Something about stimming and its vibratory, iterative and anti-productive ethos allows access to a reading of a world in process more precisely than a disjunctive observational framework might. 
Precisely because stimming sits outside of the individual body and becomes (like Manning’s description of mobile architectures in choreography) an event ‘(...) for the ontogenetic environments in the making’ (Manning, 2013, p. 100).

If we suggest that stimming might have an anti-teleological (or anti-goal-orientated) praxis that is productively different from neurotypical forms of languaging, we might infer that stimming engages with time in ways that are not linear. This spatialisation of stimming is most useful, because it helps me to consider a diagrammatic practice that supports stimming visually and poetically sitting outside of neurotypical languaging (a space I am not sure it wholly occupies).  Stimming actions often have a repeatability, when I research my site of the Humber Estuary I stim with my hands in an undulating motion back and forth, I learn about the materials I am encountering through repeated touch. This learning is not a singular articulation, the repeated actions of my body mean I am learning in a process - understanding the material resistance of the stones by the river, the textural interplay and the haptic feedback it offers - how it changes warmth according to the heat of my body and my moving in relation to its presence.

In the extended relationality of touch feminist science studies scholar, Karen Barad suggests that touch has a ‘ciliated sense’, my touch reaches out like cat whiskers feeling the vibratory relationships with the material resistance of the estuary. The iterative nature of touch through stimming forms through embodied practice a ‘co-presence’, learning alongside. Repeated movement through stimming at the site is markedly different to the act of looking without moving or touching and its resulting artificial separation. This learning alongside is found in Barad’s notion of the ‘intra-active’, the ‘intra-active’ recognises that knowledge production and formation can only be understood in terms of being part of the world, not distinct from it. In this sense the iterative quality of stimming and its articulation of situated ecological co-presence is co-constitutive, both formed and forming. In the iterative intra-active mindset we make new temporal realities, ones that are anti-teleological but, importantly not anti-knowledge forming.

I find that this diagrammatic spatialisation opportunity or tendency is also offered by more neuronormative approaches to languaging within linguistics. Colin Wright's (University of Nottingham, 2010-2023) lectures on Ferdinand de Saussure's approach to semiology in his theory of synchronic and diachronic language morphology offered drawings of time as a pedagogical tool to relate Saussure's depictions of language change and operation. Where pre-modern linguistics was concerned with historical methods of how meaning had emerged over time (diachronic), instead Saussure’s understanding of linguistics (Saussure, 2013) can be characterised by an atemporal structure.

Synchronic readings of language offer snapshots of usage, rather than accounts of change over time. This offers me connections to thinking about stimming, sitting, as I believe it does, outside of neurotypical observational and interpretational frameworks. In the crossover and interconnection of the linear and the cyclical we learn of the measure of time. Lefebvre relates how the ticking of the clock with its forward vector (linear) measures, through rhythm, the cycle of the clock hands (Lefebvre, 2014). Stimming has an everyday practice and repeatability, but it isn’t defined by those terms. Stimming is both everyday practice and a connection with the processes of the environment, both synchronic and diachronic, but it is a dashed line, not a line with propulsion in only one direction.

Entanglement and Flows of stimming in Dialogue

The final two diagram opportunities for stimming are ones that I particularly like because the first suggests a move towards interpenetration, situating a stimming body changed by their environment – turning ‘environment’ to an ecological relationship[1]. And the second because it issues a call for translation. Where so often those without lived experience of autism translate stimming, Manning, seems to me to call for a way that autistic behaviour might be furthered to question neurotypical norms – particularly for this essay in relation to ecological perception.

Simon Yuill describes stimming as ‘metabolic’ (Yuill, 2021) and the notion of a stimming as a metabolic response is useful in connecting to stimming as a relational process. Metabolic stimming is more than the action of a pathologized individual body, and instead we can diagram a body in conversation with the environment – in constant negotiation and relation. We can see an evocation of this principle in the filmIn My Language by Mel Baggs, where we see Baggs moving and touching and responding to their domestic space with experiential play. Manning notes that Baggs’ interaction with their space is co-constitutive; they make stimming noises and sounds and their ‘object-voice sonorities are created in tandem with the discovery of the environment’s layers of experiential potential’ (Manning, 2013). The propensity for movement in the autistic body in relation to the liveness of the natural world recognises the metabolic relationship as both constituting and constituted, standing apart from the environment and extending into it like a flowing dialogue.

Erin Manning creates a spatial organisation of stimming, defining a ‘neuropolitics’ informed by Deleuze and Guatarri’s description of major and minor literature (Holland, 2018). She suggests that neurodivergence occupies the space of the minor in relation to the major, neurotypicality. However, the minor is sometimes forced to use the language of neurotypicality to be understood. We can see this in the second half of In My Language, in which translates Baggs’ understanding of their stimming to speech packaged for the neurotypical ear perhaps unable to witness the stimming conversations present. In this translation however, a deterritorialization happens – stimming as an embodied enmeshed process loses integrity when verbalised for neurotypicals. When unmediated, the ‘minor invents new forms of existence’ (Manning, 2016, p. 2). Recognising a loss in translation is underscored by Damon Milton’s notion of the double empathy problem (Milton, 2012), which importantly tells us that neurotypicals have as much of an issue understanding us as we do them.


[1] When thinking of the origins of language, Stephen Cowley (Cowley & Kuhle, 2020) suggests that instead of thinking of language in isolation, that we think of early systems that integrated language and cognition and that this may of course include non-verbal movement. He suggests ’As activity, languaging transforms understanding, bodily movement and all imaginable types of social action – whether based in repetition, skill or thinking’. I use the term languaging in this essay to encompass a wide range of meaning making and interpretation, a rich grammar of understanding I find to be evident in stimming -but which is often only viewed on a surface behavioural level.

[2] I also caveat that my own relationship to stimming is not representative of all autistic worlding, my own stimming often explores my sensory sensitivities and as such I cannot speak for autistic people who are hypo-sensitive to their environment.

[3]Nick Walker uses the example of a hypothetical autistic person to describe the social model of disability – a person who has mannerisms that are visibly associated with being autistic – she describes a particular kind of embodiment that is observable in some autistic people, such as rocking, lack of eye contact and neurodivergent head and hand motions (Walker, 2021). She also describes how this hypothetical autistic person has a communication style that is direct and literal. She describes how this autistic person who is disabled by society could have that disablement ‘(…) alleviated entirely through shifts in social attitudes without any substantial material or logistical accommodation’ (Walker, 2021, p. 65). By contrast the medical model concentrates on the pathology in the individual, it is often a model that uses deficit language and does not seek to look for adjustments in the environment as a first step, instead it looks primarily at ways of fixing and changing the individual often beyond immediate medical need and often to neuronormative standards.

[4] Proxemics refers to the study of how space and distance influence communication (Hans & Hans, 2015)

[5]Reducing the world to interpretation heavily weighted towards sight (occularcentrism) (Pallasmaa, 2009)

[6]Joint attention, by way of example, might be responding to an adult pointing at something in a positive way that indicates recognition or understanding, or making eye contact, something I and many other autistic people can find invasive and painful. Failure of joint attention is pathologized as a lack of understanding through empathy, of what is happening in the mind of another human and is attributed to developmental delay (Morton, et al., 2008). Instead, failure of joint attention could be termed a difference in culturally-constructed forms of attending that often have inherent bias towards notions of being productive in a capitalist sense that rely on discrete and purposeful attending, as opposed to the kind non-hierarchical textured autistic attending incorporating more than humans that Manning describes.

[7]When I use the term dialogic here, I mean connected to a multiplicity of others in received understanding but in saying this I am not suggesting stimming is not communicative but that it has the potential to connect to more than human voices.

[8]Ros Gray (Programme Leader of the MA Art and Ecology) reminds me that Malcolm Ferdinand suggests a decolonial ecology rather than environmentalism, because the latter suggests a separation.


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