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.
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.