On Stimming And Smoking

Conquering Late-Diagnosis Imposter Syndrome

WHEN YOU ARE ACTUALLY AUTISTIC but late-diagnosed, you think a lot about whether or not you’ve been stimming for all those decades, or were suppressing your stimming because it didn’t match (as I’ve discussed before) society’s background radiation of conformity.

It’s clear to me now, from thinking about things over the last year, and also just trying to step back from myself, the myself that I was for four decades as an undiagnosed and unaware autistic person, and see if any stims surfaced on their own. What’s becomes clear to me is that a lot of my stims are in my hands. I don’t flap. I fidget. I rub the skin on my middle finger with my thumb, sometimes to the point of callouses. I’ll rub the tps of my thumb and forefinger together, in circles. I’ll interlace the fingers of both my hands and slide them in and out of each other.

Overnight, I realized how much of my stimming for the two decades of 1998 to 2008 probably went into smoking.

Not just the smoking itself. All its associated fidgets.

The tapping and packing of a freshly pulled out cigarette. The switching up how you’re holding one when its lit. The flicking of the lighter. In essence for two decades I had a sort of masked stimming, for lack of a better term.Stimming that was in the form of a thing many people, autistic and allistic alike, did as a matter of addictive course, and so unnoticed as my being autistic.

What’s interesting to me in retrosepct is that when I quit (cold turkey, exactly three days after my dad died, without a second thought or a look back), unlike many ex-smokers I didn’t need something to satisfy any lingering oral fixation. No toothpicks. No pen-chewing. No gum.

I did, however, keep my Zippo on me for years. I lit other people’s cigarettes, and continued distractedly flicking the lid open and closed. Looking at it now, it was to maintain the hand stimming I needed beyond my days as a smoker.

Mostly I find this reassuring.

When you are late-diagnosed (for me it was at 46) you experience a kind of autistic imposter syndrome. “How can I possibly be autistic, you think to yourself (a lot), “when I didn’t exhibit any of these things autistic people often exhibit, for all those decades?”

It turns out I did, but they were hidden in plain sight.