Look into my eyes: autism on the dancefloor

A 2011 fMRI study … found that the brains in a sample of high-functioning autistics and typically developing individuals seemed to respond to eye contact in opposite fashions. In the neurotypical brian, the right temporoparietal junction (TPJ) was active to direct gaze, while in the autistic subject, the TPJ was active to averted gaze … The study found the opposite pattern in the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex: in neurotypicals, activation to averted gaze; in autistics, activation to direct gaze. So it’s not that autistics don’t respond to eye contact, it’s that their response is the opposite of neurotypicals’. The Autistic Brain, Temple Grandin (Harcourt Miffflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2013).

A few weeks ago. I am on a 5Rhythms dancefloor. It’s near the end of the dance, and here it comes again that instruction: look into your partner’s eyes. But a couple of things have happened since the last time I was asked to do this. One: I have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), aka Asperger’s Syndrome, aka autism. (I prefer ‘autism’, because whereas ‘ASD’ and ‘Asperger’s’ are a having, ‘autism’ is a being, and I am autistic.) Two: I have recently got to this passage in Temple Grandin’s book.

While it isn’t natural for me to look into another person’s eyes, like most older women with autism, over the years I have trained myself to hold all sorts of gaze, in all sorts of different situations, in neurotypical-mimicking ways, so on a purely technical level, I can do this exercise really well – better than many neurotypical people. But the thing is, my gaze is a very skillful forgery – so skillful that unless you know what you’re looking for, you’ll never spot it.

After a minute or so of eye-gazing, I see that my partner’s eyes are beginning to tear up. And I am feeling …  at first it seems nothing … but if I stay with myself and keep watching … there it is: I feel pinned, like one of those asphyxiated butterflies impaled on a tiny cushion. I feel incandescent with fury, hot little flames licking up my belly, because once again I have been compromised, manoeuvred, forced, and the only way I know to break through this fakery and blast my way into truth is to get up and walk away … but this is such a fundamental transgression of a human – neurotypical human – rule of intimate engagement that I do not dare. And, yes, it would be one hell of a dance, but if you have ever been in a minority, if you have ever felt the weight and surprising omnipresence – look, it’s even here inside me! – of the arm that polices, you may understand why in this moment a few weeks ago, I cannot stand up and do that dance. So I am left with this nasty-tasting insinuation, this snaky voice in my head, whispering that I am all wrong and that you, neurotypical person, are all right, because you have the tear of the majority in your eye, and the way my brain is wired, this isn’t intimate.

My capacity for social interaction is limited. It’s an effort for me, even now, after decades of practice, to read the signals, and I quickly become exhausted and overloaded. One of the reasons I gravitate to the dancefloor is that, by and large, it offers me an opportunity for engaging with others that bypasses the social and moves directly into a space that I can read and negotiate with fluency. This is a place beyond what can be spoken, beyond the mask of social expression, a space that drops suddenly and sheerly, deep into the hinterland, the silent wilderness of emotion, of a wordless bodily knowing of which thinking mind is mostly unconscious. This is my natural habitat. It’s the place where the real me lurks, half-concealed in shadow behind the social forms. It isn’t a place I choose to live – though I wouldn’t choose to live anywhere else – does a lion choose to live in the jungle or a fish in the sea? It’s a habitat written into my genetic code.

My capacity for intimacy is profound. I have no doubt about that. I have had two relationships with people who, in hindsight, I recognise to be autistic. We never looked into each other’s eyes. It wouldn’t have occurred to us. But I experienced a depth and detail of intimacy in those relationships that none with a neurotypical person has ever come close to. I’m not saying that neurotypical people are less capable of intimacy than autistic people, though I do feel that in some ways neurotypical people experience and express intimacy differently. But I know that there are autistic people who are primed for an intense, surpassing intimacy that feels oceanic in it’s bigness and wideness and the fierceness of its tides.

In any form of moving meditation practice, we hold the intention of staying with our experience, of continuing to move with and into it, of continuing to witness it, so that gradually, moment by moment, day by day, year by year, we expand our capacity to include. Our bowl becomes ever more capacious. At the same time, balancing this willingness to be present to whatever arises, is a discriminating awareness that holds the potential to move us away from situations of harm and towards places, people and practices that hold out the possibility of knitting us into wholeness. Where this discriminating faculty is not present or not honoured is the potential for abuse.

When I look into somebody’s eyes and experience the opposite of intimacy, I know this won’t change if I work on it; I know it says nothing about my capacity to connect intimately in many alternative ways; I know that I am simply experiencing my own neurology. Well, I’ve experienced it now, and my sense is that experiencing it repeatedly in this way isn’t going to serve me. In fact, it feels masochistic – or maybe sadistic, because I don’t feel as if I ever consented, not really. I don’t feel as if I was given the opportunity to make an informed choice.

My own experience as a participant is always educating me as a facilitator. How can I create something like this in my own work or not create something like that? So in a way this is myself talking to me here, but I’m also talking to you, out-there facilitator. If I know the structure right at the beginning, I have the opportunity to make a choice about whether or not it’s going to be helpful for me to be in it, because I don’t want to be unnecessarily bruised. I can give informed consent.

For me, offering choice in this way means that we are willing to let our students be adults. We are prepared to honour their personal experience and their inherent ability to feel into what they need, even if they have just walked in the door and never encountered the practice we are offering before. It means we are holding the intention of being as alert as we can to all the subtle ways in which we might be imposing our own preferences and aversions, our maps, our ways and our styles, even our own neurology, on our students. In a sense, we are all imprisoned in who we are, so this requires many leaps of the imagination. I have to be comfortable in my ignorance of you, willing to let go of cherished notions about how I offer my work and how you receive it. I have to be willing to go beyond the point where I think I’ve already done all of this.

I found it very difficult to emerge the ending of this article. I think I wanted some sort of resolution, which, for me right now, isn’t there. I wanted not to offend anyone – always a killer. What I’m actually left with is a sense of conflict. I’m an out autistic in a neurotypical world. Part of me wants to fit in, because that way you survive. You even get to access some of the privileges: work, community, a nice house. The awareness of how absolutely crucial it is to acquire neurotypical behaviours, to be able to pass seamlessly, was borne in on me the day I started school, and I spent many years learning how to look normal and say the right things at the right times. The alternative was to be an outcast. Now, with a diagnosis, an awareness of (dis)ability politics and a commitment to neurodiversity, I’m trying to unlearn some of this. It’s painful and laborious, like peeling off filo-pastry layers of skin. I have naturalised a lot of neurotypical behaviours. Although they aren’t innate, I’ve repeated them so many times, they almost could be. I’m like a person who left her homeland as a small child and learnt a whole new way of life, but deep inside still moves to the beat of the old country. Or as an autistic friend of mine put it, it’s like being an undercover detective. In the end, the two lives become so ravelled up, you hardly know which one belongs to you any more.

And I still don’t know how to finish this article.

Whose practice is it anyway?

I love teaching myself. I taught myself Russian when I was sixteen, and I have taught myself Sanskrit. When I can follow my own thread, mark out for myself the territory and press into my own exploration, I feel liberated, as if there is finally enough room to extend and to breathe. I am autistic, and autistic people are generally autodidacts. We are also, on the whole, highly focused (some would say obsessive), self-sufficient and happy to do things for the most part alone. So neurologically – autism is hardwired: my autistic characteristics don’t change if I work on myself or meditate a lot, although both those things offer me skills to deal with the challenges of being autistic, just as they offer you skills to deal with the challenges of being neurotypical … Neurologically, I have a particular angle on what it means to practise and on the kind of relationship I want with teachings and a teacher.

I am also an astanga vinyasa practitioner: I belong to a tradition that is strongly guru-oriented. Astangis generally speak with reverence of their teacher, and when I first meet another astangi, a question that usually comes up early in the conversation is, ‘Who’s your teacher?’ My answer is always, ‘I am.’

I don’t in any way deny the valuable teaching I have received from many wonderful teachers, for which I am very grateful, but none of these people has ever felt like My Teacher. In the two instances when I have been very close to teachers (in the yoga therapy and dance movement areas of my work), both relationships have felt more personal, more fluid, more equal, and more full of the human flaws of both of us than the traditional astanga teaching relationships described to me appear to be.

For me a yoga practice is a somatic, psychological and emotional exploration within a physical framework. My mat is a place where my essential humanness has an opportunity to come out to play: my feelings, responses, compulsions and escapes, my crazy mindfucks and moments of searing beauty, my ego trips and the way that I navigate all of this. I’m an anchorite in a leaky coracle. There’s nobody else in the boat.

Because I want to witness all of this, when I choose to go to a teacher it will be to someone who mostly lets me be and just puts a finger on when the whole thing is threatening to overturn. It will be someone with the humility not to know where I’m travelling or whether what they can offer is what I need, but the willingness to offer it anyway, without attachment to if or how I use it.

I’m not sure that it started out this way or that the result is the product of the intention, but much of the traditional practice of astanga vinyasa appears to me to be unhealthily  focused on the word from Mysore, which many devout students observe like papal bulls. One of the most ludicrous astanga ‘rules’ to emanate from Mysore – and I have no idea if anyone at the Shri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute ever actually made it, and if they did whether it was intended as a general edict or as a particular instruction for a particular student – is that you shouldn’t warm up before practice. What?! I have no doubt that this works for some people, because almost everything works for someone, but I am fifty and hypermobile. Do I warm up before embarking on a highly gymnastic practice? You’d better believe it! It’s essential in order for me to be able to complete my practice reasonably safely. I also often teach stretches and strengthening exercises to indivdual students who I think could benefit from them, and I suggest that they do them before they practise.

If we give ourselves over without discrimination to a teacher, without consideration of whether an instruction is appropriate to us (you will know this not by evaluating it in your head, but by trying it on in your body and seeing how it feels), then we lay ourselves open to losing the true, experiential centre, the connection with the internal locus of our practice. I love receiving suggestions from a teacher, but that’s what they are: suggestions: generous offerings for the student to explore and implement if they work. If my practice consists of introjecting the teacher’s received word, what am I really practising? Isn’t it fundamentalism?

I would really like to be an anchorite. Every time I unroll my mat, I feel as if I’m rowing to the island: seabirds, rocks, unpredictable tides, and folded into the familiar wilderness, the tiny daily surprises. One of my motive springs has always been to resolve to what is essential; I am constantly paring down my life, not to diminish it, but to uncover the core of inner meaning and feeling that lies irreducible there. Paradoxically, this place is passionate, rich and expansive. This feels like a personal and mostly private undertaking. Too little contact with the outside and, it’s true, it could fatally involute, but too much and it could die of exposure.

I don’t care whether my teacher goes to Mysore or whether they know how Sharatt is teaching bharadvajasan this year. I do need them to have used their own practice over many years and through different phases of life to penetrate layers of their own understanding, to weather life crises, to expand, to deepen, to perceive with increasing subtlety. It is through engaging, regularly and over the years, with this ground of practice that, as teachers, we have something to offer students beyond the architecture of the postures, which are not in themselves yoga, but simply a context and an invitation for yoga to occur.