Talking about the way we move and our sensory experiences
An online discussion in an autism group the other day got me looking up information on proprioception and motion in autistic folks.
I looked at several studies and was disturbed by a series of reports which discussed the differences in the way people move. Comparison was done on limited numbers of young autistic adults and children and a similar group of neurologically normal/average (neurotypical or NT) adults and children. It has been discovered that the autistic ability to adjust oneself to one’s surroundings (proprioception) seems not to rely on visual input, but other senses are used more strongly instead.
It was suggested that this finding could be used to correct the way autistic people carry themselves and how we move.
My own autisistic neurology has been tested to be 25th percentile visual processing performance, and 35th audio processing performance. My NEUROLOGY is set up differently enough that I do not function well using vision and hearing in my everyday life. I must rely more on still images, written words, and the sense of touch (smell and taste too) to get understanding of my world and to make my way. The idea of training me to use my vision to have better proprioception is ridiculous.
This goes back to the many studies that show us some little fact about a certain group of autistics studied and the conclusion that because we do things a certain way, now we know that, we can correct it.
Take it a step farther for illustration : because we know Terry is in a wheelchair and doesn’t walk, we can make Terry walk by teaching him/her to use their legs. or, taking it even to more extremes,but referring to another neurological condition (also one that appears in a high percentage of the autistic population) knowing when somebody is epileptic, learning how the seizure occurs, we can teach epileptic folks not to have seizures. Wrong conclusions.
Wrong, too, to study small groups of people, 23 in one study I read and 100 in another, and draw the conclusion that ALL of us are the same in our use of vision or any other sense.
So many so- called studies are so absolutely blind to common sense.
Studies still try to lump our different neurologies into a one- size -fits- all, “everybody all together with the same signs and struggles” with lots of assumptions about function (If a few are like this, all must be like this).
It is true that many autistic people, probably the majority of us, struggle with proprioception.
It is also true that autistics can be outstanding athletes and performers of physical feats both small and large motor oriented.
Along these lines of proprioception and motion, I found discussions and studies about autism and the need for proprioceptive input.
When we “stim” we are seeking feedback from sensory stimulus.
Swaying, rocking, spinning, flapping, slapping, stomping, throwing oneself against a wall, or the floor, biting or squeezing oneself, scratching, pinching, burniing, cutting, jumping,walking, running, etc are all seeking sensory input.
I spent a lot of my childhood doing many to most of these things to myself at one time or another. I had another of those “aha” moments recently, while thinking about this.
As a young teen, I walked everywhere, all over our town, both daytime to and from the school,( about a mile) the downtown shopping district (about 3/4 of a mile away) the library (about a mile). Then when homework and evening dinner and dishes were done and the rest of the family sat down to watch television, I left home and walked and walked and walked.
I remember walking to the far side of town and thinking I would walk as far as one street went. I ended up far out in the corn fields, barns, and unlit spaces of rural country. I walked back home, too.
I have realized how important this walking motion had been to my ability to survive my daytime life.
I was stressed all day at school, came home to even more stress, and in summer vacations was most stressed of all because even the stressful school situations were less distressing than my home life and the situation I grew up in.
My walking helped relieve the distress, tension, stress, anxiety, and gave me focus, gave me plenty of proprioceptive input in seeing new surroundings as I walked.
Feeling the ground beneath my feet, feeling my body in motion, walking over various terrains and making constant adjustments to that and allowing for avoiding traffic, avoiding other people, thinking about where to cross at intersections and how to avoid giant mud puddles, barking dogs, etc, the scents, the sounds in each place I passed through; all provided loads of proprioceptive experiences without my having to worry about the troubles “back home”.
My thoughts turned to the caged “big cats” and other animals in any zoo situation, dogs and cats kept as pets, and the horses I have worked with all these years until my recent retirement.
In cases where natural activities are restricted, these animals develop quirks and ticks of behavior. They rock from side to side, shift their feet in a specific pattern, changing balance from one foot to the other. They self mutilate, They kick the walls or chew them, or do all of the above. They may eat their own feces, urinate inappropriately, have unnatural rituals or participate in patterns of destruction of their surroundings. Check with any zoo keeper, stable hand, or kennel worker, check with pet owners!
Confinement under unnatural or stressful situations needs to provide an outlet. Those that don’t get this natural outlet will find other ways of expressing their needs.
How much of that can we apply to people confined to their homes, to support /care institutions, to hospitals and nursing homes, to situations such as schools and offices or day care?
All of it!!!
Highly intelligent in our own human way, we probably need a lot more support in those confined situations.
Humans are indeed animals, and our natural state is to be in motion.
If we provide plenty of opportunity for more natural proprioceptive input for animals in zoos and horses in stables and confined to small paddocks, or to pet dogs in apartments or houses , many of the unnatural behaviors are limited in expression or fail to appear, disappear in those with established habits.
How can we provide opportunity to move naturally for those who are restricted to rooms, houses, institutions, or other unnatural surroundings, especially those of us in “captive” situations?
Think of children at home, think of children at school, think of all those adults in any situation where their actions are constantly controlled by others.
Think of ways we might be able to help so many who self injure, have unwanted habits of seeking proprioceptive stimulation in unhealthy ways.
What can be done to help provide healthy activity instead?
There is no way to express how strong a need there is for awareness of this principle in the autistic/autism communities and classrooms, homes and institutions of today.
I read so many complaints and distressed queries from staff and family members where somebody is hurting themselves, and what do we do?
think about the multiple ways to provide proprioceptive input that might be available and pour it on!
More about ways to provide proprioceptive input soon.
One thought on “Autism in motion”
Good morning Debra, my son had extreme body control issues. He wore out 3 sets of training wheels before could balance bike but rides it leaning weirdly, isn’t great for bikes but he rode long and often as kid. I put him in karate when I brought him home to school as he had been brutally bullied and needed tools but still had problems with balance. The instructor seemed to know what this 9 yo needed and found his strengths, let him come 3 times a wk(!!!) pain for me to drive around working and dealing with sister,goats and house. Made a big difference from the wooden awkward kid he was at 5. Met a librarian here who is very autistic and her only way of coping is walking very fast,but she wanted to socialize so I walked holding her elbow to slow her down. The pandemic and being forced into retirement has put her in a very bad place. Hope you find some tips to help both of them.
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