As lots of you reading this will probably know, I was diagnosed and came out as autistic (1) in 2013. Several of the blog posts here touch on my experience of being autistic as it relates to movement practice in different forms. Naively (and perhaps if I wasn’t autistic I would have foreseen this), I wasn’t expecting the gentle avalanche of requests that followed from colleagues, friends, and friends of friends for a ‘chat’ about autism. Some of these have been, poignantly, from closeted autistic people wanting to come out to me; some have been from people with autistic family members seeking ways to offer more useful support; some have been from professionals in the movement field wanting advice on how to work with autistic clients. All people with good intentions and a genuine desire for communication and greater understanding.
I have been touched that my experiences have resonated with other people and gladdened that there are those of you out there wanting to know more about autism and how to work in helpful ways with those of us on the spectrum. And yet at the same time I’ve found this desire for more of me difficult – sometimes invasive – if I’m honest. A foremost intention for me in writing is for authenticity and truth to my experience, and so I imagine my writing often comes across as intimate and confessional. And it is. But it’s also highly controlled. I’m selective in what I choose to share and how I choose to share it. And I’m autistic. Which means that ‘chatting’ to someone I don’t know well is never going to be high up on my list of easy and enjoyable experiences (I have social deficits and verbal processing delays) or one that I can take part in without expending a lot of energy.
It seems that autistic people are generally considered to be rare and exotic animals with mysterious behaviours and unguessable needs. And as the local tame autistic person, I’m regarded as a handy guide into the hinterland of the autistic habitat. Here we sit in the trees, hiding from David Attenborough and throwing banana peel on the heads of unsuspecting tourists … The thing is, unless you’ve spent your life meditating in a cave, you will already have met at least a handful of autistic people. We are living, working, parenting and participating in communities everywhere. If you’re a movement facilitator or a yoga teacher, it’s more than likely that any group classes you run already include people on the spectrum. However, because there is still a huge amount of stigma and misunderstanding surrounding autism, a lot of autistic people remain either undiagnosed or in the closet, so you may not be aware of who your autistic students, friends and colleagues are.
So this blog post is by way of offering a few suggestions for yoga teachers and movement facilitators working with autistic people. Please bear in mind that it’s subjective. While it’s probably safe to assume that some of what makes it easier and some of what makes it harder for me to participate in sessions, classes, groups and workshops will be general among those of us on the spectrum, I’m not a specialist in what other autistic people need, so if you’re about to start working with someone autistic and you’re not sure how to go about it, here’s my number one suggestion:
Don’t ask me, ask your autistic client
They are the expert on what it’s like to be them. Have a conversation – perhaps initially by email rather than verbally, as many of us find writing easier than speaking. (But check with the individual client: if they’re dyslexic, as many autistic people are, an email exchange may be difficult for them.) Ask them what they would like to get out of the sessions and what they need in order to be able to participate most fully. While there are commonalities, autistic people are individuals. As the saying goes, ‘If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person’. We wouldn’t expect all our neurotypical clients to want the same thing or to react in the same way. All autistic clients won’t either.
Most autistic people are hyper-sensitive to some or all of: texture, smell, sight, sound and taste. Whereas someone from out-of-autistic-spectrum may be able to disregard a sound or a texture they find unpleasant, an autistic person is likely to have limited sensory filters and may not be able to stow the sensory stimulation out of the field of their attention.
In general, make the environment as clear, quiet and unfussy as possible. Check in with your autistic client about fluorescent lights (they interfere with processing for most of us and may feel painful), incense, particular textures, background sounds (your autistic client may be bothered by sounds you hadn’t noticed and can barely hear) … even colours. I have a reaction to the mauve shades of purple that amounts to physical interference. They make me feel as if someone’s running a comb across my teeth. They jangle inside my bones and create a buzzy feeling in my head. So I’d rather not have a purple yoga mat. On the other hand, I know autistic people who love purple so much they’ll want to get down on their knees and lick your purple yoga mat. No, not really. Although we are usually highly oral (and I do sometimes want to put colours in my mouth), we also tend to be more fastidious than the average non-autistic person …
… which means that things you find pretty inoffensive may be literally nauseating to someone with autism. Nobody (I think) likes toe nail clippings on the floor, spitting when you talk, stale sweat, rubbish bins overflowing with empty fastfood cartons and snotty tissues, snorting and other overly demonstrative methods of mucous clearing … but whereas a neurotypical person may be able to tolerate this kind of ordinary grossness or place it out of field, an autistic person may not have these capacities and may be able to focus on nothing else.
A word on music
Sensory sensitivity has implications for those of us who facilitate movement to music. I may or may not like a track, but I can dance with it either way; this is an important skill for a dance practitioner that many of us have cultivated. However, if the track contains sensory triggers (for me usually very loud and insistently banging), I need to stop hearing it straightaway. Persisting in seeking ways to move with it will generally lead me to dissociate and / or melt down.
If you usually use music in the background, check whether this will be appropriate for your autistic client. For some of us, background music interferes with focusing and processing; for others (I’m one of these) it will be very, very stimulating. I can listen to music comfortably only when it’s possible to dance to it. If I can’t dance, I feel as if I’m going to explode – even if the music is ‘relaxing’.
Verbal processing delays
Many autistic people have difficulties and delays in speaking and processing others’ speech. Even if this does not immediately appear to be the case, check in with your client about their needs in this area anyway. Many of us have learnt to compensate for this deficit very skillfully and may appear – and actually be – highly articulate, but this does not mean that we are processing spoken language at normal speed and with the expected ease, or that we can do so in every context. Particularly if we are tired, stressed, overwhelmed by environmental static (other people talking in the background, strong smells, visual distractions) or bombarded with a lot of speech, we may be struggling to keep up and appear normal.
Someone with autism may find it difficult to decode and assimilate a long string of spoken instructions, so if, for example, you’re explaining the alignment of a yoga posture, it may be helpful to demonstrate it or have someone else demonstrate (quite a lot of us process visually), or use adjustments so that the person can feel it – but see the section on Touching coming up next.
Autistic brains are wired to focus intensely on one thing at a time, so language may be difficult to access if we are wholly absorbed in a physical process. I experience this as a kind of verbal drift, or as some words not being in the right boxes. I may stumble over words and say whatever comes into my head to fill the requirement for speech (even if the result has little relationship with what I’m actually thinking or feeling). It’s not uncommon for autistic people to lose speech entirely (mutism) in situations of stress. Last time I had a filling, the anaesthetic didn’t work (2). I went mute and so wasn’t able to tell anyone there was a problem. I have had similar experiences, when younger, with strong astanga adjustments in situations where I didn’t know the teacher well and / or the teacher felt to me very senior and carried a lot of kudos. (Even if you feel like a very new and inexperienced teacher, to your student you will almost certainly still carry kudos.) Check in regularly with your autistic client about how things are going from their point of view, and always – and repeatedly – communicate to them that their feedback is not only welcome but a crucial part of a two-way process. If your client can’t respond in words and seems generally frozen or passive, know that they are probably very upset, let go of the project, and offer them opportunities to calm down and find their ground once again. It may be an option for them to write, later, about what happened from their point of view and email their writing to you.
Some autistic people don’t use speech at all, and I’m hoping a few of you will comment on this post, because I do communicate by speaking (if sometimes reluctantly), so I feel unqualified to write about non-verbal autistic people’s communicaton needs, but I’d like to include them.
Before you envelop your new client in a warm hug, check whether they would like to set any boundaries around how they are touched. Some autistic people don’t like to be touched at all; others are happy to be touched in particular ways but not in others; some of us are definitely on the touchy-feely end of the spectrum. Light, floaty touch is unpleasant to many autistic people; some of us enjoy firm touch – which to me feels containing and offers a sense of body boundary that I generally experience only intermittently. But do check with the individual – it may be different for them.
Physical boundaries of course also depend on who’s doing the touching. The difference for autistic people is that our preferences may not be as socially determined as they generally are for those off-spectrum. I have good friends who I don’t like to touch me at all, whereas I’m sometimes happy to be physically intimate (on the dancefloor, for example) with a complete stranger. I can’t explain logically who is who and which is which; it’s just a feeling.
Be aware that if you have not checked with your client about physical touch – in a way that lets them know that their preferences are paramount, that they have control over how they are touched, that their wish not to be touched will not get in the way of the work of the session or offend you – they may be going along with a level of touch you have presumed to be OK but are squirming inwardly.
Sensitivity and sixth sense
Many autistic people are highly sensitive to the unspoken and may be very aware of what you are feeling but not saying, and cogniscent of any discrepancy. Others are actually psychic. Know that your client may be relating less to what you are saying and more to who you are being, so – while maintaining appropriate client–practitioner boundaries – you may as well drop any social or professional masks from the get-go and meet us as you are. We will appreciate your honesty and straightforwardness.
Don’t feel slighted if, for reasons they cannot properly explain, an autistic client chooses not to continue in sessions with you. I have friends I know to be excellent practitioners, but I cannot work as a client with them. I feel them – physically – as dissonant with me. Often, they feel ‘purple’ – for me, a very high-frequency vibration that I cannot assimilate. Some modalities of work feel like this to me too. This seems to be some sort of objective energetic happening on a plane of experience we don’t have language for and rarely acknowledge. It isn’t personal, so, as much as possible, don’t take it that way.
Cut the small talk
We don’t do it, so don’t expect it. Just get down to business.
Neurotypical brains are primed for socialisation in a way that autistic brains are not. We find it difficult to learn and retain social etiquette, or to get the point of it, although some of us become consummate actors, able to fake it by running memorised scripts. As I’ve got older, my repertoire of scripts has become wider and more sophisticated, and I have become highly skilled at juggling them. Unless I’m tired or distracted (when the scripts get jumbled and vocabulary dislocated), it all looks very convincing, but don’t be fooled – I am not using social language spontaneously. Don’t be offended if your autistic client forgets to greet you or doesn’t smile when you expect it. The chances are they’re not upset or angry with you; they may just have forgotten that these kinds of behaviours are significant in neurotypical relationships.
Don’t expect eye contact
Some of us have learnt to mimic neurotypical eye contact in social settings and may fake it convincingly. Don’t be taken in – we’re not enjoying it. Avoid exercises that require your autistic client to make or sustain eye contact. I have heard autistic people describe eye contact as ‘agonising’, ‘painful’ and – when forced – ‘cruel’. I’ve written more about my own experience of eye contact on the dancefloor here.
It’s intense in here
Before I was identified as autistic, I always had the sense that I was feeling a lot more, and more intensely, than everyone else. It was – and is – often overwhelming. Now I know that this is not just an impression but a physiological reality for autistic people. Know that while some areas of the autistic brain are under-connected (for me, those to do with numbers, direction and sequencing, for example), other areas are hyper-connected (for me, vision, written language, emotion). According to a recent study, the brains of autistic children produce on average 42 per cent more information than those of non-autistic children when in a resting state. No news to autistic people. And bear in mind that that’s in a resting state. When we start doing, thinking, processing, interacting and all the rest, 42 per cent multiplies exponentially. There’s loads going on inside here, so slow down, remember less is more, and give us time to assimilate.
Communicate the structure
Most autistic people find unpredictability difficult to deal with and need a sense of reliable structure. This is why I gravitate towards practices based on repeated forms: the four series of astanga vinyasa yoga, the Five Rhythms of Gabrielle Roth’s dance practice. If I’m taking part in a workshop, it’s much easier for me to integrate work if I’m given an outline in advance of what’s going to happen when, and what the intention is. A known structure offers me a container within which I am able to surrender and allow spontaneous emergence.
Don’t change the structure or the boundaries
If you have given your autistic client a structure, know that you risk losing their trust if you change it. Unexpected deviations are difficult for us to deal with and may completely derail us. Don’t vary times either. Most autistic people are punctilious about practical boundaries. We will uphold them exactly and will expect you to do likewise. If you tell your autistic client the workshop will finish at 6pm but it actually finishes at 6.15pm, they may be scared, confused or angry with you for not honouring the agreement about timing.
We give one hundred per cent
Autistic people generally have very high expectations of ourselves and will frequently offer far more than you anticipated or asked for. We are, in general, self-starters and have an abundance of the motivation for working alone and over time that neurotypical people may struggle to find. A yoga student on the spectrum may immediately establish a daily home practice – finding in it the ritual and repetition that autistic people generally need and seek to create in our lives. An autistic dancer may research the background to the work in depth and detail, come up with ideas no one else has thought of, and ask the important questions that are generally placed out of the frame.
‘I want to be alone’
Being with other people is very demanding for those of us on the spectrum, and we will quickly become fatigued and overloaded. If you are facilitating a group, include plenty of time for working solo so that we can calm down, centre and find themselves again. While it is a myth that autistic people dislike or don’t need contact with others – in fact we are each social according to our own unique pattern of preferences and capacities – unalleviated interaction with others is experienced as a form of torture by people on the spectrum.
At the same time, some organised group activity may be appreciated by some autistic people as a way of facilitating participation which they may find hard to initiate and sustain without an externally held structure.
Autism is exhausting
For an autistic person, processing speech and dealing with sensory stimulae takes a lot of energy, a commodity already in short supply (3). If your client is also hypermobile (see below), sitting, standing and generally being upright will also require extra energy. Keep sessions short-ish and offer breaks. Don’t expect an autistic person to participate in lengthy spoken communication, or a hypermobile person to stand for more than a minute or so, and make sure that there are possibilities for the hypermobile person to support their back if sitting.
Stillness and stimming
Most autistic people stim. A stim is something like a repetitive fidget – finger rubbing, hair twirling, face stroking, ankle circling. The word ‘stim’ is derived from ‘stimulating’ and was obviously coined by a neurotypical person, as it’s a complete misnomer. Stims are actually soothing – good god, the last thing an autistic person wants is more stimulation! After years of socialisation, I never managed to eradicate stims totally. Videos made of Phoenix Rising yoga therapy sessions for the four-yearly recertification required for PRYT therapists show me rocking and twiddling my thumbs. Over the past couple of years I have gradually thawed my neurotypical-mimicking holding patterns and allowed my stims back into public space.
Know that being still may not be an option for an autistic person, even if they’re trying very hard. If you have reified sitting still and see it as synonymous with meditation, presence or paying attention, your autistic clients may be about to bring you back to reality. Stimming helps autistic people to stay present. It assists us in processing the rolling boil of thoughts, feelings and sense impressions; staying calm and focusing. It’s inhumane to force an autistic person to be totally still – and if they are also hypermobile, prolonged physical stillness may well also be somewhere in the range from uncomfortable to acutely painful.
When I asked some autistic people what they would want a movement professional to know about working with an autistic client, most of them mentioned not issues around autism itself, but those associated with the co-existing condition dyspraxia.
Many – possibly all – autistic people are also dyspraxic. This means that we may have difficulty following sequences and in knowing where we are in space; our balance may be poor; we may appear generally clumsy, wobbly and uncoordinated, and we may have poor motor skills. A dyspraxic person may need to see a movement sequence many times in order to embody it. If you are demonstrating a sequence, they may be unable to mirror you, and they may find it difficult to follow left / right directions. If asked to replicate a shape you are making, a person with dyspraxia may reverse it or be paralysed by confusion. So keep any sequences simple, face the same way as your student when demonstrating, and be prepared to prompt and realign them again and again. Be patient. Remember, they are finding this a lot harder than you are.
Ehlers Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome
Many autistic people also have Ehlers Danlos / Hypermobility Syndrome (ED / HMS). I’ve already written at length about teaching yoga to people with hypermobility, so all I’ll add here is that, as in the general population, ED / HMS often goes undiagnosed in those of us with autism, so be aware that it may well be present even if your client hasn’t declared it in their medical history, and it will affect how you need to work with them, whichever modality you are offering, but particularly if you are teaching a set movement form.
This writing isn’t a list of things you need to get right for us. Most autistic people will be forgiving if you forget that Nag Champa makes them feel sick or they can’t stand being touched on their back. It’s the intention that matters. Generally, in my experience anyway, autistic people in group settings are expected to take care of our own needs, fit in and get on with it. We so rarely receive active enquiry about what would help us to be present and to access the work that we’re likely to be overwhelmed with gratitude that you even asked.
If you have been offered the opportunity to work with an autistic person, you are very lucky. Autistic people are often highly creative, unusually sensitive, off-the-wall and out-of-the box (box? … what box? … was there a box?). When engaged, we are focused like no other, and we have a phenomenal eye for detail. We will bring original ideas and open up new and unexpected spaces for you. Remember to check in with us regularly about what you are doing well and anything you could be doing differently, and enjoy the ride!
1. An excellent definition of autism is by Nick Walker: http://neurocosmopolitanism.com/what-is-autism.
2. A common issue for autistic / hypermobile people (there’s a significant crossover): http://hypermobility.org/help-advice/local-anaesthetic.
3. Research suggests that there are differences in the mitochondria of autistic people, pointing to a cellular origin for the issues of fatigue and low energy that are frequently an aspect of autism: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3885720.