Just Keep Doodling

Sometimes I notice that a lot of my classmates sit in class, body still, hands still, looking to the front of the room, in what appears to be full attention. Setting aside the texters and chatters (less common in my classes now that I’m an upperclassman), there seem to be a lot of attentive, if quiet, students. They may or may not participate in class conversation, but their whole quiet bodies exude polite attention.

To me this looks like a superpower. If I want to actually absorb anything said in class I cannot do that. I can sit still, but it takes so much of my attention to do so that my mind wanders and I miss important parts of a class discussion or lecture. Actually looking at the instructor the whole time is difficult in a way that’s hard to explain, even though I don’t normally have trouble looking at people in social situations. I need to do something else with my hands and my eyes in order to follow the lecture.

My stimming doesn’t look much like stereotypical autistic habits, though I have been known to hand-flap when very excited. Instead, I have drawn the same patterns down the edges of my notepapers in class since middle school. I buy nice pens in many colors in order to do this in the most satisfying way, with bright colored uni-ball Vision pens having the best feel and color saturation. My notes ALL look like this, from 6th grade Social Studies through college Ecology courses. I take notes too, of course, but the rest of the time I am carefully drawing my patterns over and over.

Image is of a diagonal checkerboard pattern in red and black along the edge of a loose leaf sheet of paper in a 3 ring binder.
Image is of a diagonal checkerboard pattern in red and black along the edge of a loose leaf sheet of paper in a 3 ring binder.

These days I also use fidget toys in situations where doodling my lines isn’t feasible, such as sitting in talks without desks or tables. My favorite fidgets are hard plastic movable toys. They need to be very quiet and have as smooth of a texture as possible. I particularly love the Jeliku Toy and Tangle Jr. These aren’t as good as doodling though, which just seems to open up my ears and calm my mind like nothing else. I definitely learn best when I can doodle my lines.

There’s good reason to let autistic learners stim in ways that allow us to learn better. If we’re spending energy trying to repress our habitual stimming behavior, that is energy not going to learning. I am lucky that I have had very little trouble in college with professors questioning my doodling, but it definitely got negative attention from teachers in middle and high school, who saw it as a sign I wasn’t paying attention. In fact, I’m often the first student to respond to questions in class, and I participate enthusiastically in class discussions, so I don’t think my professors worry that I don’t know what’s going on – they realize pretty quickly that even though I’m not looking at them, I’m hearing everything they say.

Just Keep Doodling

7 thoughts on “Just Keep Doodling

  1. 1

    I always doodled as well (though different patterns), or wrote lines from poems and songs.
    I’m not on the spectrum AFAIK, but there’s a certain level of attention that I simply don’t have. I cannot listen to audio books. Either I fall asleep or I wander off doing something else.
    Once a lecturer fell seriously ill during the term and hero that she is, she recorded the lectures from her hospital bed. I was lucky to know most of the stuff already or I would have totally failed.

    1. 1.1

      Interesting. It’s amazing how different people are in terms of the ways we learn best. I LOVE audiobooks and the combination of audio and something to do with my hands and eyes (crochet, Tetris, doodling my lines) is a great way for me to learn. But clearly not for everyone!

  2. 2

    OMG I just realized that I stim, that I always have, that other students would complain that I was “allowed” to, and that the reason I get away with it is I’m always at the top of my class. Now I’m 29, in college, still at the top, and trying to hold back until professors realize I’m really doing well and will leave me alone. I just didn’t realize it was stimming until now.

    1. 2.1

      I have totally done that holding back thing, but I hate it so much and I do it a lot less these days.

      I wish students who were NOT at the top of their class were permitted to stim too. Many teachers seem to blame stimming for the reason a student has C’s and not A’s, but it may actually be bringing those students from D’s to C’s you know?

  3. 3

    Also, as a current middle school teacher I don’t think I have it in me to stop students from doing something non disruptive, non dangerous.
    Clearly, some things are out of question: humming is not OK, no matter how much it might help you because it’s actively distracting the others (but if I know the student is on the spectrum we could agree that they go outside for the quiet work).
    Big movements are out of question, too.
    Squishing an anti-stress ball (while NOT throwing it)? I don’t give a fuck. I have enough on my hands with neurotypical able bodied twelve year old dude bros who think it’s unfair they’re getting a bad grade just because they didn’t do their schoolwork OR their homework…

  4. 4

    I just found out very recently I am on the spectrum and I’m a 51 year old female. My written notes have always had intricate geometric drawings in the margins but I had never made the connection until now. I was a note taker in college for the college assistance office, and I always had to re-copy my notes before I could turn them into the assistance office to be copied for the kids who needed them. How ironic.

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