Am I subversive? An autistic person navigates the Open Floor and wonders how inclusive we really are

I was described as ‘subversive’ in the Open Floor mentor group the other day. It set me thinking about all the ways in which autistic modes of being are constantly interpreted / misinterpreted in allistic1 culture – often so thoroughly and insistently that eventually we as autistic people incorporate the interpretation as reality. Throughout my life I’ve repeatedly been referred to ‘subversive’, ‘anarchic’, ‘rebellious’ and other variations on that theme. Sometimes it has been with affection; other times it has come with a backwash of judgement and disapproval. Up to now, I’ve pretty much taken it on and defended it, as if it belonged to me, but there comes a moment when a tipping point is reached. Something’s got to fall off the top of the heap.

To me, subversive suggests an intention to subvert. But I’m actually not interested in disruption for its own sake. What you’re witnessing if you see me engage with Open Floor is just an autistic person engaging with Open Floor. I am really searching out ways of understanding and offering this work that feel authentic and meaningful for me, ways of being in it, both as a praxis and as a community of practitioners, that feel nourishing and supportive rather than dysregulating and overwhelming. As someone autistic, I often know only vaguely and two beats behind everyone else what is the ‘normal’ (read ‘allistic’) and expected response; and even then it’s a kind of intellectual apprehension; it doesn’t register on my internal compass. I seldom have an intrinsic sense of the ‘rightness’ of it being the way allistic people presume it’s going to be. So I am always wobbling on the pointy edge of producing what you expect me to produce or allowing the expression of what naturally wants to push through to the surface.

It’s challenging to be in a curriculum which is so fond of referring to itself as that, and in which the language of ‘teaching’ and ‘student’ is so valorised. Autistic people are most often our own teachers. We will research every angle, but in order truly to know, we have to take the whole thing apart and reinvent it, generally in wild, strange and unanticipated ways. We take nothing as given. As one of my autistic clients says, ‘It’s never enough to be told; I have to go through it myself to know for certain.’ This is why innovators and ground-breakers – those people who revise cultural, scientific and artistic understandings – are often autistic. Yet while the results may be revolutionary, the autistic person is usually far more absorbed in the stuff of their specialism than they are interested in what society makes of their break-through productions.2

It felt really, really good to shuck off ‘subversive’ ­and reframe it as what it actually is. And I’m grateful that the mentor group is the kind of receptive space where it feels possible to up-end perceptions in this way, knowing that different realities can be received and held. Not all spaces are like this.

I’d love for there to be more genuine inclusion on the Open Floor. My experience is that while there’s a wish and a willingness to include up to a point, it doesn’t extend far enough to motivate most of those who organise and facilitate actually to do things differently where this entails some disruption to their own habits and preferences. You can be included if you’re willing to make all the accommodations yourself. If you’re unable to stand, for instance, (I can’t for long), you can sit down during the standing circle, but – as if you don’t actually exist in the group – there will still be a standing circle.

It has been an enormous struggle – over many years of remaining upright through pain, fatigue and dizzy-faintness – for me to be able to stand up (sit down) for myself in this simple way on the dance floor. It takes A LOT of self-confidence to offer yourself as the big sore thumb in a large international workshop with a high-profile teacher who has not made any enquiry into the special needs of individual dancers on the floor. Make no mistake about it, this is a powerful statement. A teacher who is more involved in control than in listening and receiving may judge you as lazy, uncooperative, challenging, or, oh yes, subversive. Even in a small workshop with a relatively unknown facilitator, power dynamics are surely in play. Many of the people we as facilitators hold in our dance spaces are drawn to movement practice for reasons that make them vulnerable in multiple ways. They need our help in listening to their authentic needs and in holding their genuine boundaries. We have to take care that we are not only talking the good talk but are really engaged in helping them to do this work. For all of us, the extent to which we are managing to offer this kind of supportive inclusivity must be an ongoing open question.

It’s not that I haven’t received help like this – I have, and I’m super-, heart expandingly-grateful – but it was over a decade before I was able to make known that I needed it. It was like the crackling of glacial surfaces and an ice age coming to an end. We are all growing older, wiser and more decrepid, and as a result some of our spaces (I’m speaking here of the Five Rhythms and all of its children, of which Open Floor is the youngest) are becoming kinder, more open-minded, less attached to the delivery of cherished teachings and more responsive to the needs of the dancers in the room. I feel so anyway. I hope so.

I’m in another mentor group. We are seven autistic women. I told the group my ‘subversive’ story. These were a couple of the responses:

I totally recognise that. I’m often described as awkward, contrary, rebellious, perverse or non-conformist. Some are disapproving and others admiring, even envious. I’ve kind of taken on that identity with pride, but reframing it now, it’s all about our intention being misconstrued. I never set out to be rebellious, but I guess I’ve taken it on because I was being seen that way. There have been more than a few times when I wanted to say (and sometimes have said), ‘Actually that’s not my intention at all.’

I recognise this only too well. I get misinterpreted by a certain kind of person who thinks that my desire to play with concepts and excitedly share information is trying to prove I’m cleverer than them and that my willingness to do things that frighten other people is me being ambitious and having ideas ‘above my station’. I had a supervisor who was a classic example of this. I’m not ambitious in the way he believed. My motivation is around services for clients, or my desire to learn new things, or be creative, not to empire-build or grab opportunities for personal promotion.

It seems that it’s difficult for the neuro-majority to really ‘get’ that the way they process and perceive things is only one possible way of processing and perceiving. If you want to make an autistic person incandescent with rage, try telling them, ‘We’re all on the spectrum.’ We are not. People who are autistic – and only people who are autistic ­– are on the autism spectrum.3 Maybe the recital of the dread sentence is well intended; presumably it’s a misguided attempt at empathy; the problem is that it whitewashes and belittles the very real and unique difficulties that autistic people routinely face in allistic society. As one autistic woman commented, ‘You wouldn’t go up to someone in a wheelchair and tell them how you sprained your ankle once so you know how they feel, or say to someone with Alzheimer’s that you are really forgetful too.’

As I feel for an end point to this writing, it strikes me that ‘subversive’ as a descriptor is really a way of excluding. What ‘subverts’ is the thing that the school or the teacher or the teachings or the practice container is not yet elastic or expansive enough to encompass. By bringing our difference, our unexpectedness, the uniqueness of our perceptions, our left-field, autistic, one-directional determination and ‘cussedness’, together with our absolute commitment to honesty and authenticity, we can challenge the container to grow. And if it’s a good container – a vital, generative, evolving one – it will respond.

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1. Allistic: ‘non-autistic’. This is a good article about the language of autistic and other neurologies.

2. Steve Silberman’s acclaimed book Neurotribes is a a brilliant discussion of this.

3. I like this – very autistic – explanation of the autism spectrum.

Containers not contents: reflections from the Open Floor

For me, dance movement practice is essentially a surrender to emergence. It’s what happens when I slide away some door-like part of consciousness and allow movement to unspool through me. This arising-into-form is both essentially of me – so very personal – and at the same time much bigger and beyond.1 Facilitating dance movement is the work of holding a strong but elastic container in which this unforeseeable choreography can materialise. The purity of the vessel is important. The work isn’t about imposing content, directing attention or in some way imposing something on the spontaneous pressing-through of impulse into movement. Even intention feels suspect.

An autistic person is a goat, not a sheep, and I have always needed to follow my own trajectory, to cut loose from the prescribed curriculum, the required texts. I remember the immense sense of relief when I started my PhD. Finally, there was only me following only my own string into the centre of the labyrinth.

I seem to be – am – doing something with the Open Floor that is different from the thing everyone else is doing, and although it feels obvious to me, it appears to be difficult for other people (except the people I’m actually doing it with) to grasp. It’s a lovely, lonely situation. During the mentor group meeting on Friday, I wrote down:

I’m not trying to teach anything, but to create conditions in which the mover can become more regulated, and so their body can become the teacher. This is an organic process. As the nervous system falls into rhythm, the process naturally unfolds.

On reflection, perhaps this is a difference between teaching and therapy. The therapist gives less energy to explanation and more to opening opportunity for becoming and discovering.2

I don’t go into a dance space to teach Core Movement Principles, but they are offering me a language to identify and articulate what I see emerging on the floor. I work a lot with autistic people and with people with developmental trauma (sometimes they’re the same people). In this context, Activate and Settle speaks to me of a re-tuning of the nervous system, which needs to be able to undulate fluidly between parasympathetic and sympathetic in order for there to be well-being in the whole person. Towards and Away suggests a capacity to touch into and out of painful places.3 Ground speaks to how we find ourselves here and now, on this earth, in this body, in this room. We have a relationship to where we are – physically are – now. Looking through the frame of the Four Hungers, I can see that where my Small Group are at present, at the beginning of their journey together, is in the first Hunger – feeling into a sense of safety, finding or re-finding connection with themselves, expanding into their own internal capacity to create and to enjoy – and that we need to open towards the second Hunger (I with another) only very slowly and with attention to experience in tiny increments.

Clarifying what it is that I do, letting go of the imagined, self-imposed and ill-fitting project, and putting my feet back squarely in my own shoes has been an essential recalibration in locating myself in Open Floor work. I’m grateful for the permission, space and encouragement I’ve been offered to find myself and to work from that place. Still, it’s hard to keep standing in otherness. There’s no one to bounce off without odd tangents, and I’m constantly anxious that I’m about to be kicked out or brought to book.

If I have any doubts about the orientation I’m bringing to my work, what lays them to rest is the responses of the people I’m working with. I’ve been deeply touched to witness them in the process of movement and to hear their reflections on how this work is changing things for them. There’s something here for me about the potency of simplicity – of setting it up, trusting that it’s enough and having the faith to step back and allow it all to happen. It does take faith not to intervene, suggest and control but simply to go on holding the structure. Only that.

Being on this training has been for me so far a complex confection of willingness and resistance, belonging and feeling outside, being present and being energetically absent without leave. But it has made me put myself behind my own dance work in a way that up to now I hadn’t. That work has been happening for about six years off and on, but it has never quite had the courage of my convictions. It was a missing piece of me. Now it is taking its place at the table.

More about my dance movement work.

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1. Dan Siegel explains the neurological mechanism behind the feeling of being moved in Mindsight. If anyone can find the page reference, please tell me.

2. Because I’m on the teacher track, I’m not able to refer to myself as a therapist, or what I do as therapy, under the Open Floor banner. This is tricky, because I’m a Registered Somatic Movement Therapist and a certified yoga therapist and I’ve been working therapeutically for longer than I’ve been teaching, which is quite a lot of years. I wonder what Open Floor teachers who already work therapeutically with movement are going to do with ourselves. We’re not psychotherapists introducing movement into speech-based work either. We already work therapeutically with the person through the medium of the body.

3. ‘Pendulate’ in Somatic Experiencing language.

 

Attention Autism: a strange piece of writing about schools (special and not), Open Floor and Thoracic Ring Approach, sharks, love, trust, process and not having a conclusion yet

All this year I’m dancing one Saturday a month in a special school. As soon as I walk through the door, something about being here allows me to exhale. In the classroom where I got changed yesterday, there was an A4 print-out from Attention Autism tacked up on a cupboard. (I googled Attention Autism this morning and discovered the rather wonderful Gina Davies, a speech and language therapist who offers training to carers and professionals working with autistic children.) The A4 in the classroom was a series of reminders for group leaders about how to be with an autistic child – don’t insist on eye contact, if you want focus make sure there’s no background noise … The special school is the only environment I’ve ever been in where my presence as an autistic person is overtly acknowledged. Everywhere else, if I wanted to be taken into account, I’ve had to explain who and what I am and advocate for my difference. It’s as if in the special school I could just settle. Just breathe and settle.

I’m in two ongoing processes at present. One is the year-long Open Floor group which is dancing in the special school’s hall and is facilitated by Sue Rickards. We’re focusing on wishes, hopes and dreams, or at least it says so on the tin. The focus that’s emerging for me is just being, which could be, in a way, the anithesis of a wish / hope / dream: not the leap to somewhere else but what’s right here, right now. It’s a softening, a dissolving; subtly tuning in, accepting, trusting.

Yesterday morning, the invitation was to do something differently, so in the hot middle of things, I left the dancefloor and made a cup of tea. I am not someone who just leaves in the hot middle and makes a cup of tea. Or, at any rate, I have not been that person. Then I came back in and sat in a chair. Sat in a chair, for god’s sake! Sat in it. For the rest of the dance. Radical acts! It wasn’t an old fuck-you!; it was a new attention to the quiet impulses of my body and a readiness to respond to them through simple actions. And at the end of it all, I arrived in a kind of embodied presence I don’t think I’ve ever experienced before: full, unsheltered, without pulling or distortion, expansive and at rest.

I have outlawed so many parts of myself. In 1968, when I started school, autism wasn’t yet a thing. It existed, of course; autism has always existed; but there was no language for it. When you belong to a neuro-minority and you’re five, and you have no words to articulate your experience or to understand your difficulties, or visible forerunners to be that thing that you are in such a way that you know it’s more, so much more, than just OK … how do you make it tenable? How do you survive?

My response essentially was to shut myself down. I stopped eating. I rarely spoke. I suppressed my own information to the point where I was no longer even receiving it myself. I created an alternative structure, which I hoped made me look sufficiently like one of ‘them’ to avoid being eaten by the sharks. I lived and breathed like a cartoon shadow two inches outside and above myself.

This kind of displacement of self from the stream of impulse happens in a physical body, in myofascia and bones. Which brings me to Darren and Thoracic Ring Approach, the other process I’m involved in at present. We’re focusing on unwinding my ribcage. In a sense, though, it isn’t another process so much as a different emergence of the same one.

Thoracic Ring Approach sometimes seems to me to be a bit like horse whispering, or maybe it’s that Darren is a whisperer – a whisperer of ribs – I don’t know. Anyway, it’s a very subtle physical manipulation, so subtle that it seems to be at least equally neurological suggestion. As I understand it, underlying the less functional adaptive patterns in my body are older and more synergistic ones. Thoracic Ring Approach feels like slowly waking up to the original synergy. Because adaptive patterns are formed around experience, this must also be a somatic process – waking up to myofascial synergy catalyses waking up to behavioural synergy (and vice versa) – and a cathartic process, involving the re-emergence, sifting and integration of memory and the feeling and release of emotion. It devolves from body, but it’s a series of tiny and far-reaching shifts and recalibrations resonating through a whole person.

I spent a lot of my childhood being a horse. I didn’t relate to human beings very much at all, and for a while I insisted on eating from a bowl on the floor. (Children, if you want to freak out an adult, pick up your food with your mouth: it really, really disturbs them.) It wasn’t until some time in my forties, perhaps, that I fell in love with people. It happened through moving and experiencing the congruencies that arise in moving-with. It happened through touch: that thing with feathers, granules, veins. I had to learn outside social contexts, because social contexts were alien to me and only made me feel more dislocated from my real experience. I learnt to trust human beings, and I am very grateful for it, always. Because I learnt through my body senses, I’ve acquired – I think – the most reliable kind of guage of who to trust and who not, and so far I’ve never got it wrong.

Partly I wrote this article because I want to name the people who are currently holding transformative spaces for me. It’s a big-small thing we can do for each other; it’s a sacred task and it’s also very ordinary and human; and I’m extremely grateful that there are people with the capacity to do it for me. I want to name those people and I also want to acknowledge the level of trust that’s involved in relationship becoming transformative in this way. So, here goes: diving off the high board …

Gratitudes and acknowledgements
I’ve known Sue for about fourteen years now. In that time she’s been lots of things, not least a foremost ally for me in the reclamation of outlawed places. More than once I’ve been on the dance floor doing something that never appeared on the instruction sheet, some part of me doubting whether this can possibly be allowed to happen or whether the sharks are already stirring behind the rocks, and I hear Sue’s voice in my ear: ‘Trust it, Jess.’ I love you, Sue.

In a way, what I love about Darren (and actually I love a lot of things about Darren) is just that he’s willing to work with me, even though – and actually because – I’m super-complicated. I love that he keeps holding the box and doesn’t try too hard to veto poetic licence, that I always feel listened to and never coerced (which isn’t all that usual in my experience of physiotherapy), that what we’re engaged in feels like a collaborative exploration on the edge of what’s known. I always have the sense that if we both pushed at the same time, neither of us would fall over. I think that’s a measure of right relationship. Thank you, Darren.

All you need is love Afterword
It’s Tuesday. I’ve had this cold since right after the last lot of thoracic ring re-aligning, and I can’t shake it. I’m struggling to embody what’s pressing through to the surface. I want to collapse. I know what I need to do in my body, and physically I can do it, but somewhere else the horse is refusing the fence. I feel overwhelmed and submerged, and I hate being in this place. It’s sticky and uncomfortable, like wool against the skin. I don’t have much perspective and I definitely don’t have a conclusion.

Every time I write, I know in one atavistic part of me that that I have surely infringed several strange and unfathomable rules of neurotypical conduct and that I am therefore forever beyond the pale ­– but more compelling is the urge for self-exposure. I’d be burnt at the stake for it just because I couldn’t help it. I feel suffocated within the bounds of what’s speakable within neuro-normative culture. I know, too, that the places where we feel most unacceptable are the also the ones where we can potentially be most loved and that if we don’t expose them, we remain essentially invisible and unformed. So even though it feels like waving a bloodied rag at the sharks, I keep on speaking.

Image by Kenneth Geiger ©.