When I was little my grandpa would call me “Whirling Dervish.” It’s because I was always spinning around in circles: spinning in place in the yard, spinning while pacing, spinning in my seat, spinning through the air as I skipped. As time has gone on my age has changed and the nickname has lost its grasp, but the movements have not. My body almost always wants to be in motion. I need to pace, to jump, to spin, and to skip. Sometimes I’m literally all over the place. I’m really big on pacing, and I’m pacing just about all the time, including in public places like in stores and waiting rooms and such. I sometimes think about myself as having a “loud” body – loud with movement.
This can be very frustrating sometimes. Sometimes it’s hard to sit still for more than a few minutes, which keeps me from getting things done, including things I would enjoy like watching TV or reading or playing video games. Other times it’s easier, I can manage to stay more still and stay seated. I’ve learned to sort of just go with the ebbs and flows of how my body wants to move at any given moment instead of trying to force anything, which wouldn’t help and would just make me more anxious. It’s like when you’re snowboarding and you come up on a patch of moguls you can’t stiffen up and try to ride straight down the slope. That’s a great way to lose control and fall. Instead you have to loosen up and follow the path of least resistance.
When my body is cooperating and I’m not stuck in loops of movement, which fortunately is the case a good portion of the time, I try to take advantage of it. When that’s not the case, I just go with the flow and come back later, or alternatively seek accommodations when this is not possible. I distinctly remember having a high-movement-body-day (wow that’s a clunky phrase, but I don’t know what else to call it) when I was taking the ACT my senior year of high school. I would get up and move after every few questions or so, something I could do because I was in a room with only myself and the proctor, approved as an accommodation. Usually I’d answer a question and then impulsively get up, slowly spin around as I walked towards a wall, touch the wall, and come back and answer another question or two. The test proctor knew me well enough and was understanding enough that she got what was going on. And this strategy of going with the flow seems to have worked given that I had an astounding overall score of 34 and had a perfect score in two sections. If I were in a normal test taking situation in a room full of people I would have had to put an enormous amount of conscious mental energy to stay seated, which is energy I cannot then apply towards revising paragraphs, solving math problems, and interpreting science diagrams. Letting my body move when it needs to, letting myself stim when I need to, is important for my overall functioning, even if it can sometimes be frustrating.
Often times I have very little control over my impulsive movements. This is something that even I hadn’t totally grasped until recently because it’s not something that’s often talked about, presumably because most neurotypicals have little trouble simply telling their body to stay seated and still and so most people have a hard time imagining what it’s like for an autistic person or someone with ADHD or similar to have a body on the move. But when I get up to pace, when I spin as I walk, when I jump up in down when I’m listening to music, these movements are essentially automatic and reflexive. I have little control over these things much of the time. This doesn’t mean that I feel as though I’m under the influence of some invisible force which is causing me to move against my whim as if I were possessed, however. These movements simply happen in the same way that you reflexively flinch when you are startled, or how you reflexively pull your hand away from a hot stove, or how you reflexively scratch an itch without thinking about it. They’re natural movements for sure, but they’re ones that simply happen and I have to put a lot of effort into stopping them. Sometimes I don’t even notice my movements. I’m too lost in my own thoughts.
Whenever I’m on the subject of what autism actually is on a biological level, I always explain that autistic brains have trouble interpreting, processing, and integrating incoming sensory information. Every single facet of autism can ultimately reduced down to differences in sensory processing and integration. This means that autism, despite the way it is often framed, is not a behavior disorder or a social skills deficit. It’s a neurodevelopmental thing – there are physical differences in the ways that neurons in autistic brains connect to other neurons vs in non-autistic brains. This sensory aspect of autism is becoming more well-known, but what has often missed the spotlight is what should be one of the most obvious outcomes of differences in sensory processing: motor differences.
The brain works on many trillions of feedback loops in which sensory information is taken in and processed, and then this sensory information triggers a resulting motor pathway. It is no wonder then that a difference in sensory processing and integration would result in motor differences as well. Motor differences in autistic people have been known about for decades, usually in the form of clinically identifiable motor apraxia, which is something that I have by the way. In order to coordinate movements, your body relies on input it receives from multiple different sensory systems, and so if your brain has trouble integrating and processing sensory information then of course you’re going to have trouble coordinating your movements.
But I think that motor differences in autistic people go beyond just coordination. I think that motor differences also exist in areas such as motor planning, initiation of movements, and the ability to stop impulses and, generally, control your body. I think that it is very likely that executive functioning challenges (which are pretty much ubiquitous with autism) are if not entirely largely the result of motor challenges involving difficulties with ignoring impulses and the motor planning involved with starting a new task. This is just one example where motor differences can be used as an explanation for a common autistic trait that many people struggle with.
Especially over the last year or so, I have come to realize that a big thing that autism means for me is that in some ways I have a lot of trouble controlling my body, controlling, initiating, and delegating motor movements and impulses. Perhaps in many ways this is a good thing. With my brain in a constant sensory craze I am glad that I naturally re-regulate myself through my ever-moving body. But ultimately, it makes me more sure than ever that we absolutely have to move away from a behavior-centric view of autism and instead take a sensory-motor view. We have to work with the understanding that autistic people have trouble processing sensory and emotional input, and that as a result we may not be fully in control of our bodies and our movements.
I just realized that this post has almost the same message as my last post, only told in a different way. But that’s OK. This is something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. And I hope that something in here was useful or informative to you, as usual.
For more information on this topic, I highly recommend the following article at Neuroclastic: “Sensory Processing is Only Half the Story: Movement Differences in Autistic People”