Peaks of joy

The sense I get is, once this has progressed a little further, there will be so many pockets of space inside of me that, being no longer stuffed full of so much stored information, I will be at liberty to sit back and allow energy to flow freely in and out of them, the way the sea fills gullies and rock pools on the beach, leaving its subtle imprint yet so easy to flow out again, experienced by me as moments of inspiration and peaks of joy.

From my most recent post on Living Whole – Helen White

These are the concluding words on a post shared yesterday on “my other website”; words which I didn’t think about so much as allow to come through as what I am sensing happening in my reality, right here and now at the start of 2021 (contrary to so much gloom in the world).

I wasn’t intending to duplicate this post, writen for my health-related site Living Whole, in this blog but, on first waking this morning, I really knew I had to. The very fact posts written for one or other of my two blogging-outlets are increasingly valid on either of them tells me my right and left hemispheres are moving closer together, the apparent gap between them closing. The whole post, in its entirety, is shared below this introduction.

Its a post that links (or follows on) from my last post here, Cultivating joie de vivre and though its about how dancing has helped with autism, backed by my own experiences and research relating to how and why, its about so much more than that.

It’s really about changing a paradigm, from a world where competition and suppression of joy have become a way of life. And it’s about discovering how to open up that joy potential again; daring to disregard what mainstream has to say about these things and then daring to go your own joy-filled way.

This is very far from being a post “just” about autism and, besides, I suspect many more of us are neurodiverse than currently allow themselves to contemplate because of the way this is portrayed as “something going wrong” by so many mainstream sources; perhaps especially those of us who have long felt they are living in the wrong paradigm.

If you are one of those people prone to peaks of joy, to burst of enthusiasm and, yes, natural joie de vivre but who feels trapped in your body (or rather, your head) yet it feels somehow unnatural to have to be so cerebral, or like you have had to dial your natural exuberance down, to politely hide it away or curb it for your own safety all your life, locking so much surplus energy into your body, where it has this habit of “blowing” all of the inner circuitry, bit by bit, this post is for you and maybe now is your time to let it all out!

Photo by Allef Vinicius on Unsplash

When I was a kid, looking back through clearer eyes than I generally had during so many years of chronic fatigue and so much pain I was like a piece of wood, I think I had an enormous amount of energy and exuberance in me…but I quickly learned that it wasn’t considered appropriate to express it. I can remember feeling quite a free spirit, and fairly self-assured in my own way, in very early childhood, pre-school. However, the more I spent time at school, after a few early experiments, the more it seemed safest not to express these high spirits at all, in case it got me into trouble or drew unwanted attention…and I was very-much a child that wanted to deflect attention except to please people and have them think well of me. 

So, thinking back there were very few people that ever got to see that exuberant side of me because, even with my mother, it got toned down such a lot because we just didn’t do that stuff in our family; there was as sort of unwritten rule about over-expression. We were a crowded household: me, mum and three older siblings, plus my retired dad, yet whilst there was noise, a fair bit of arguing, there was seldom what I would call outward expression of joy. It would be a relief when anybody else laughed at, say, something on the telly and I would laugh along, not so much because I found it funny but because it was a welcome outlet to be like that for five minutes. I think that got me into a lot of trouble, for instance when I laughed at jokes that were clearly aimed at adults and I wasn’t meant to get them (things like Benny Hill) and then I would get teased by my brothers and hated the attention it brought. Cat calling or being belittled was the most likely outcome of times I was exuberant, there or at school; everyone seemed so eager to get one over other people or have the last laugh and I didn’t really get the rules. All in all, curtailment seemed the name of the game, to fit in and get by.

Living rigor mortis

So now I can see how “life” was a minefield I learned to navigate by holding myself more rigid, holding everything I felt in, not unlike how I learned to breathe really small because the girl who bullied me began a thing of saying I was a noisy mouth-breather. I didn’t really know what I was doing wrong so I practiced breathing with my mouth closed and in really shallow breaths so you could hardly see my chest fall and rise at all. That became the source of bad breathing habits all my life, ongoing, and it was the same with the rigidity. I became extremely cerebral while my body became this underused part of me. Once I was too old for scooters and bouncing balls against a wall, skipping games and that sort of thing, mostly played on my own because I really was that loner and, especially, once I got into the mindset of excelling in class or passing exams, my limbs became this superfluous part of me. It wasn’t helped by how my spacial clumsiness attracted sooo much derision from awful sports teachers who loved to make an example of people like me and so I did everything I could to duck out of anything that looked like physical activity and became this walking head, tied on to the top of a body that I struggled to relate to, apart from hating how it looked in a mirror. By then, I had learned not to speak my inner truth either, though different people got snippets of it; no one seemed to really know how to handle the full me (my best confident became my mother, once the older siblings had moved on but she died when I was just 28). Looking back, no wonder I built a high degree of rigidity into myself that later became a real problem…and chronic pain…later down the line. Its interesting: I pondered the topic of rigor mortis, as a living state in my pain-riddled body, in a post here, just a couple of years ago…

Thankfully, in my twenties, I found my outlet on the dance floor of certain nightclubs I frequented, assuming I could persuade my friends to go with me. I didn’t need them there to keep me company so much as to have the confidence for me to get through the door and, once I was on that dance floor, I felt safe or autonomous enough, and frankly oblivious to everyone, so that I could dance and dance until closing time. Feeling somewhat better for the outlet, I would return to my daily life of going to work, doing my best to be sociable as I had learned, though my surplus energy, from all the parts of me that remained unexpressed, would feel more and more cranked inward until the next time. After that lifestyle stopped by late twenties (coincidence?) my health issues began to occur; odd pains and electrical nerve signals gone haywire in my limbs, sensitivities to all sorts of things, endless rounds of vulvodynia and cystitis, major back problems, having to have loads of physical therapies that never seemed to help. It was the beginning of the era that lead straight into fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue a decade later, followed swiftly by multiple chemical sensitivities, electrical hypersensitivity and mast cell activation syndrome. My body was rebelling over the way it had been made a second-class citizen to my brain and could hold it all in no longer.

An autistic survival mechanism

At this point, I want to explain a few things I’ve observed about the way my body seems to function and how I have come to associate this with my underlying autism, which I only confirmed a couple of years ago. How I see it is that my body is as important to me, for cognition, as my brain and yet the system in which I was raised was heavily brain-centric. Between the amount of information I was expected to retain in order to conform to this neurotypical (NT) model of life, through school and higher education onwards, plus the sheer amount of additional information I have always had to store inside of me, specifically required for surviving an NT-devised world, I live in a constant state of information overload and this began very early on in life. The result has been that my body has been used as a storage vessel, not just for emotional memories (which, to a point, all humans do) but for surplus information I have had to retain for “quick access” on a daily basis.

When I say information required to survive, I mean, in any given situation, say at school, I would have to learn the task presented like all the other kids but also study other people around me in order to learn the appropriate NT way to approach or respond to this learning situation (in other words its social or collective context, which I seemed to lack access to). I learned that no information was ever presented in a neutral way; teachers always had unspoken expectations or agendas when it came to what you were supposed to gave back to them (for instance, a favoured tilt to the information, conforming to some pre-decided stance they structured their entire teaching model to) and then the other kids also had expectations for how we (collectively) dealt with the learning situation (classroom behaviours, which often eluded my comprehension). My only way through was to make a study of the teacher and their belief system, make another study of the kids and what they expected, and then set about mimicking them all whilst finding a viable middle place where I could please everyone and remain under the radar for unwanted attention.

If this also happened to be a group learning situation, as in, working in teams or pairs, there would be whole swathes of other, unspoken yet assumed, expectations to be met; so I had to watch out for, and model all of these, too (the reason I have always abhorred teamwork). None of this came naturally to me: my wiring made many of the behaviours and responses to situations I witnessed incomprehensible to me, or at least fairly illogical seeming, whereas to other kids they were apparently innate or, as it were, held in some sort of “cloud” storage for easy access, so they didn’t have to learn, and store on their hard drive, all the appropriate steps. Meanwhile, I had to lug all this data around and it felt overwhelming at times.

Bear in mind, I was also a child that was desperate to blend in, to do well, to shine intellectually (as there was no question I had that ability, if wired somewhat differently), to please and to not seem as though I was struggling. So I never (ever) asked questions of the teacher and did my absolute utmost, and this was all the way through the education years and in every single job, to appear utterly serene, as though gliding effortlessly through, always delivering good results. Imagine how hard that must have been, how bombarded with information from every conceivable angle I must have felt, both as a child and in adult life, whilst still trying to shine as someone who was doing as well as possibly could be, mingling appropriately, and with not so much as a hint there was an underlying issue occurring? The challenges I have described here are extremely typical of girls, and women, with Asperger’s!

So, as I said, it has become apparent to me that I have stored a lot of this surplus data in the body and have become chronically accustomed to using my body as some sort of overflow memory bank. Aided by the fact I am visual in my learning style, and that I have routinely used sensations attached to those visual memories to help me to recall information at short notice (I used the same technique to get through exam revision), attaching certain memories to body parts is an innate skill I have…if one turned against me in this paradigm of trying to cope in a world paradigm devised by NTs. So, every time I have undergone a trauma, even a minor one such as a social situation no going so well, or an exposure to something (such as a food type or chemical) that has thrown me off kilter, this information has been diligently stored up in the appropriate body part; a process that continues each day, from the moment I wake up. Thus, the body (or, this autistic body) has become a rigid stronghold or giant safety deposit complex. Having been taught at an early age that expressing too much was out of the question, its as though that expressive part of its potential was decommissioned then turned, instead, into a stronghold of memories deemed essential for survival in a harsh, often unfathomable, world. I’m left wondering whether, in some alternate reality, a whole other version of me is fluid, expressive and wholly unconcerned with burdening its body cells with retained survival behaviours or culturally appropriate responses, and whether that version of me has realised what it feels like to enjoy all the many gifts of neurodiverse wiring!

I wanted to set that context since it feels so powerfully connected to why I have found dancing so incredibly beneficial (see my last post Cultivating joie de vivre), on a whole range of levels, including the lessening of the more problematic autistic traits I was experiencing prior to starting the daily practice. In fact, these days, so many people are really starting to notice how helpful dance is for people with autism that there are anecdotes and studies appearing all over the place:

“Parents report that their children with autism enjoy musical activities and show more positive interactions with others through greater eye contact, smiling and speaking after engaging in a dance and music program.”

For Some Children With Autism, Dance Is a Form of Expression: Researchers are studying how movement helps children with special needs improve social communication and motor skills – New York Times, 19 Nov 2019.

Since taking up the twice daily practice myself (two lots of about 20 minutes, on my own, with headphones in), I have to concede, I do feel as though I find expressing my natural exuberance comes easier, in general, and my speaking tones are always far more naturally varied these days than they might otherwise be; in fact I sound pretty animated all of the time these days, to a degree even I have started to notice. This, in contrast with how I have had phases in my life, especially when my fatigue and pain levels were particularly chronic a few years ago (some of those time periods were quite prolonged) when my voice’s default was hardly ever varied beyond “flat”, or, when achieving more up and down speaking tempo (as I of course realise is required for social engagement) has taken every last ounce of effort I can give to it, resulting in deepest wipe-the-floor with myself fatigue after even the shortest of conversations trying to modulate my voice into sing-song sounds like that. The other thing that I can tell has altered is my ability to make eye contact and hold it for longer, a life-long challenge even with loved ones (I can assure you, it has nothing whatsoever to do with lack of sincerity or feeling, whatever people might assume, but I have always struggled in this regard). These days, since starting a daily dance practice, its as though all my vocal expressiveness has become much more fluent and natural, I can look directly at people for long spells and remain so much more present, offering more of myself to the conversation than just wooden responses learned by rote…a natural spin-off, I have no doubt, from spending all that time moving my arms about wildly, gyrating my body without a care in the world and generally having such a good time; no more imperative to hold myself into a rigid prison cell of a body, at least for a few minutes.

It feels like my life has been a long-running “all or nothing” dilemma; I couldn’t let out that kind of variety, exuberance, enthusiasm and so on (all forms of deepest self-expression) in my speaking voice or body behaviours whilst still holding so much emotion and trapped energy under lock and key, deep inside my body.

Photo by Kelli McClintock on Unsplash

Something had to give to enable me to be me…and the last few months have provided that very breach in the dam of stored up energy. Having started the process of letting it all out, it is all getting so much easier to be me day by day, and so I find that my “wiring” is no longer such a problem as it had become in recent years (burnout!), reverting to somewhat how I was in my earlier life only, this time, it doesn’t feel so much like a supreme effort, or as though I am faking it, when I cooperate more with various neurotypical behaviours going on around me. More to the point, I’m no longer trying to coach myself to fake it, or telling myself I have to learn to be neurotypical myself (I really don’t believe so!) but am remaining very much myself from now on. So, I can be more expressive…in my own unique way, and with far better amounts of confidence underpinning it, because of whatever neurological rewiring the dance practice is affording me, which includes a far higher and more integrated degree of fluency throughout the body. I really do urge you to read my other post Cultivating joie de vivre for much more on what grounding in the body can feel like, using the dancing method, since it is quite unlike other grounding methods you might try, such as meditation, and feels much more of an ideal fit to the autistic (or, this autistic, since I can only ever speak from own experience) model of “beingness” where body awareness can be quite acute and even advanced yet, in many ways, misfiring. Dancing is helping me to dig out those gifts and loose some of the unhelpful foibles.

Agent of transformation

Right at the very core of the power of dancing to transform is the way it contains the frequency of “joie de vivre”; the exuberant joy of life. There have been many times in my life when I have come to catch glimpses of how living with joie de vive is my most natural state…yet one that is not always well-received by the world (it can be “too much” for some people to handle when people are excessively joy-filled), yet the way this dance practice makes me feel, compared to how I know a lot of people are deeply struggling right now, helps me appreciate how (quite aside from being misunderstood) I am also the lucky one and that this base quality of mine is a survival benefit, one that is a very much needed quality in the world right now (again, see my previous post Cultivating Joie de Vivre for more on this). It is self-generated, harmless, loving yet powerful and I have already come to appreciate how healing and transformative it can be. Right now (and not for the first time in what has been a challenging life), this quality at my core is like a support float I am able to hang onto in a choppy sea.

Its healing potential comes from the fact that it helps me to re-engage with a body I largely cut myself off from in the early portion of my life and, in ways described in more detail in that previous post of mine, it grounds my energy into the cells of that body, making me more whole and more accepting of the various ways that I am so cognitively skilled via the body (I wouldn’t be so painfully sensitive if it wasn’t for the fact I am highly aware throughout all of my body senses), thus allowing me to integrate these skills alongside the presently over-dominant cognition portion of my brain (the Great Overthinker). In fact I would say at least half of my awareness comes from my body, not my intellect, and yet I have spent far too many years studiously ignoring that because its not deemed normal or typical. When I merge these two faculties together (left and right, masculine and feminine…), I become far less clumsy because the body ceases to be in constant comparison, or loggerheads, with my intellect and gains confidence. It then comes forth with its own skillset, minus the constant overwhelm of “too much going on” or the need to hoard emotional, survival-fixated, memory-data in tissues that are designed to be more fluid and intuitively responsive, in the present moment, than that (our bodies don’t want to be planning ahead for worst case scenarios the way our brains have taught them to be). Twice a day at least, I am the one driving the physical sensations, they are enjoyable and so I start to trust that “being” in the body is a joy and not a terror to be avoided. And, frankly, I don’t care what other people think when I dance; this practice is expressly for me and I fervently believe its power comes from its non-social context; at least at this stage of my self-driven therapy. I like doing things by myself, alright…time I stood up for that, the clue is in the title (aut= autos, alone), I won’t have that preference made wrong any longer!

Worth adding here that there is science emerging to suggest that more “social” dancing activities can be of benefit for autistic people because it helps to develop mirror neurones (there are numerous studies linking mirror neurones and behaviour mimicry), leading to stronger skills in mimicking others behaviours. Whilst its interesting how this is being explored as a positive therapy for severe autism, one of my challenges (as I have written about several times before) is over-developed mirror neurones, probably as a result of a whole lifetime spent so closely watching other peoples behaviours in order to try and fit in. Thus, when I go off to dance, I am doing so expressly in order to detach from the need to meet anyone’s expectations but my own and to explore that whole lush new territory of self-development. The question needs to be asked, is a therapy designed to help the autistic person to cope better with life in their own unique way, or is it designed to help them become more neurotypical; and, if the latter, (I am not alone in fervently declaring) I want nothing to do with it. Expecting autistic people to change their innate wiring and behave like people with completely different wiring is tantamount to labelling us faulty rather than fairly appraising that (not all but) so many of our handicaps stem from not “fitting in” to a dominant world paradigm. Coaching us out of our traits is no different to how left-handed people used to have their dominant hand tied behind their backs whilst being forced to use their right one, with the entirely predictable outcome that they did this alien thing rather badly when they could have been allowed to continue doing things as well as the next person, if in their own innately wired way. As above, different does not mean wrong!

As a result of making this dance practice a daily priority, yes, I feel “less autistic” because what people label autistic tends to be those behaviours that don’t measure up well against NT benchmarks or expectations. Those traits show up less when I have spent a lot of time dancing because I’m no longer locked into the territory of, intellectually, trying to fit myself into a way of being that is never going to be my way (square peg round hole); rather, I am far too busy excelling at my own way of being to worry about where I put my next foot, therefore the most typically overt (mostly social) “problem traits” cease to show up so overtly because I am happily in my own zone. The short answer is, I relax.

The conclusion of this study confirms similar, albeit this relates to adults with far more severe autism than mine but I can place myself at the thin edge of that same wedge:

“Our experimental study seems to suggest that combined dance/movement and music therapy could be effective if used regularly for the improvement of autistic symptoms in adults diagnosed with severe autism.” 

Effect of a combined dance/movement and music therapy on young adults diagnosed with severe autism – ScienceDirect

The fact is, my traits as stand-alone features (outside of a context where my body has got into some sort of existential panic lasting for over 50 years, hoarding data like its going out of fashion) are NOT a problem…except in comparison with neurotypical traits where, of course, they always come up lacking since I lack some of those NT responses and modes of being, including innate social skills, certain controls over “excessiveness” (including excessive enthusiasm, excessive joy) or the constant priority given to “head” over body. That’s because I have many of my own, unique, responses and modes of being which, I would argue, are equally valid and worthy. However, had I let them out at school, I would not have coped well with the way lessons were structured to be so desk based and repetitious or how feelings and expressiveness, even flexibility to routine, were deemed to be so inappropriate in just so many situations. I did well at school, or rather, I did well at playing the game of school though, meanwhile, this whole other part of me never got a say.

Free movement was trained out of me

Photo by Noah Silliman on Unsplash

Looking back, I can see that requiring children to curb so many of their tools for self-exploration and self-expression, so very early in life, is less than ideal across the board. What are we left with, other than follow the leader writing and learning tasks, highly structured musical performance and competitive team sports as a physical outlet. For an autistic child, this feels tantamount to cutting off a main limb or forcing them into a straitjacket until they conform to the NT way of being. Not having the regular outlet of more expressive movement on the curriculum was particularly stifling for me; we spent nearly all our time in the classroom, forced into dreaded teams or doing gymnastics using metal climbing supports (a nightmare for me with my poor coordination) but there was no dancing or any kind of fluid, expressive, movement factored in and, even during story time, we were reprimanded for not sitting up straight on the mats. I can recall just one brief spell of learning country dancing in a round at primary school and a term’s worth of expressive dance when I was about 13, by which time I was so self-conscious in a leotard, thus utterly mortified to have to prance around, in front of all the parents, that all joy was replaced by my abject horror at such self-exposure.

So the stark absence of non-team-based movement from the curriculum, during my childhood, was a sorry one, though at least we had access to percussion instruments and these were natural turf to me, whether you handed me a xylophone or a tambourine, I was on it with natural flare. I was also at home with listening comprehension of pieces of classical music, where we were allowed to speculate what feelings the music had been intended to convey; pieces that often stayed with me until adulthood from just one or two listens. Other kids seemed far less moved than I was and would use such lessons to chatter or mess around; but, for me, the time was almost holy.

The fact is that nearly /all/ children have an inherent love of learning about and making music. From singing to dancing to playing musical instruments, kids of every description and from every walk of life just naturally seem to gravitate toward music. But who really seems to get a giant educational benefit out of music? The very beautiful, very special set of promising minds that make up today’s growing autistm community. I started out helping children make music and found at one point that among my best responders to educational music programs were my absolutely wonderful students with autism.

Music Therapy and Autism: Does it Work? Yes! Here’s Why (and How)– Patty Shukla

All too soon, music became a thing for choosing as an exam destination, otherwise you had to drop the subject completely (and, honestly, I lacked the bent for turning it into something academic; I was all about the “experiment”and the “feeling” of it, in the moment) whilst dance was already nonexistent on the curriculum. I suspect (or hope) that things have improved somewhat since the 1970s and 80s, when dance was apparently deemed to be a primitive, extra-curricular, thing you picked up in your own spare time (unless you went to “posh” school and learned ballet). This is one of the reasons I offered ballet and dance lessons to my daughter from an early age; they were there for her as long as she wanted to pursue them, partly because I couldn’t, and I can still clearly recall myself watching her with such bitter-sweet pangs of sadness for the “me” that never got to have a go.

More than just that, when my daughter was little, we danced at home….and we danced a lot, just for the fun of it. Quite often, I would just swoop her off the floor, holding her to my height, or she would stand on my toes, and we would dance, twirl and laugh our heads off till we were dizzy and delirious, something I’m pretty sure she still looks back at as amongst her happiest early memories. We sang a lot too (she still does!) because it was a no-holds-barred kind of environment in our home; I wanted none of the constriction that I always felt was there in my childhood, where I was always scorned or shamed by siblings or peers if I let out these kinds of things. Both she and I agree (and we have talked about it many times) that such expressiveness is essential to our mental and physical health and she would, frankly, go nuts if she didn’t have that outlet to sing or cavort around with the people where she lives.

Playing all the right notes…not necessarily in the right order

Do I feel I am drawn to dance because my rhythm, tempo and spatial abilities are particularly good? Actually, I feel like they are somewhat challenged, at least in “ordinary” life situations. Whether its the necessary pacing required to interject appropriate words into a conversation, to navigate around an obstacle in the room, choosing the speed at which to tackle an activity so that I don’t burn myself out, or even the speed at which I should talk to people without risk of scaring them half-to-death with my intensity, these things are not my natural forte, even after 50 years of diligent practice. Put me on a hillside with mildly rugged edges and I feel extremely unsure of my footing and my left and rights can get in a real muddle in some everyday situations. Rhythm and timing, in fact, come into everything, as alluded to in the following paper on autism and dance, in which Pat Amos comments 

Everyday descriptions of social interaction are rich in figures of speech that derive from rhythm and timing in general, and dance or music in particular…Encountering socially maladroit individuals, we describe them as having two left feet, being out of step, being off beat, or stepping on our toes. “Timing,” we declare, “is everything.”

Rhythm and timing in autism: learning to dance – Pat Amos, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience

Amos continues:

The recognition of movement difficulties, however, has not necessarily led to accurate interpretations of their nature. A persistent belief is that sensory uptake at the level of the primary sensory organs must not function accurately; people with autism are sometimes described as unable to receive basic sensory information from their environment. To the contrary, a significant body of research confirms that the sensory systems function properly at their initial tasks of registering input (Minshew and Rattan, 1994), including the proprioceptive sense of limb position (Fuentes et al., 2011). It is the ability to make reliable, intentional use of this input that appears to malfunction…

Rhythm and timing in autism: learning to dance – Pat Amos, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience

I can relate; its not that I lack sensory input (on the contrary, I seem to be bombarded with it) or feel that proprioceptive skills are lacking (having considered this many times, I don’t believe this either) but that, to quote classic comedians Morecambe and Wise, “I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order”! There is a sort of maverick quality to my timing and tempo which, as an artist and the writer of speculative theories in my blogs, or even the participant in long-and-rambling conversations about metaphysics with anyone prepared to indulge me, often serves me well and has a certain genius to it but, in a world where I am expected to pass myself off as neurotypical, it can often leave me lacking in social and other “collaborative situations” (since even a chat with one other person is, really, a collaboration of sorts, thus all about timing and tempo, as per Amos’ quote).

Yet when it comes to responding to music I am, magically, far better at coordination…in fact, one thing I notice is, even when I am in severe pain, its as though that pain-body magically disappears when I dance and I am, for a few minutes at least, in a completely different body that works far better. To quote Patty Shukla again:

Q: When is a kid with autism not a kid with autism?
A: When she’s making music. Then she’s just a kid!
And it’s true. When they’re engaged in learning and making music, children on the spectrum are all but indistinguishable from any other group. We all laugh, dance, clap, sing and enjoy together. Nobody “stands out,” and nobody’s left out – we are all just one big, happy group engaging in something truly wonderful.

Music Therapy and Autism: Does it Work? Yes! Here’s Why (and How)– Patty Shukla

Harvesting my own neuroplasticity

Therefore, the benefits of visiting that much-more coordinated, far less compromised, body on a regular basis are huge; and the positive effects compound over time as my body learns to form new memories from dwelling in it, for up to an hour each day!

There is something about the way music engages with my nervous system that feels familiar and which affords me the confidence to claim a degree of mastery when it comes to mimicry of the beat and tempo, by internalising them as the very synaptic impulses that control my own (usually a little more discordant or effortful…not so you’d notice, but that speaks more to my degree of concentration) body movements. In the same way that I am a sponge to sensations, often playing them on loop internally until they become the source of sensory overwhelm, I can quickly learn and integrate a tempo and turn it into movements that looks like I half-know what I am doing in a dance. It is a kind of inbuilt musicality that gives me the edge. Included by Amos in her paper, this direct quote taken from another reference she draws upon, as cited below:

It is funny how we are considered strange or different, even though our recollection of complex patterns, memory for precise detail, and overall capabilities many times exceed those of the people who are pointing or staring.

Young S. (2011). Real People, Regular Lives: Autism, Communication, and Quality of Life, quoted by Pat Amos in the above paper.

I know, when I keep working at this daily practice, that what I am really working on is my neuroplasticity and this is also something Amos alludes to, not least in her conclusion, which summarises optimistically:

Documenting such plasticity, and identifying the types of supports and accommodations to which it responds, would be a significant step toward improving praxis so that people with autism can more effectively realize their potential.

Rhythm and timing in autism: learning to dance – Pat Amos, Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience

Patty Shiva, similarly gushes about music-making activities:

…there’s firm science behind making music and neuro organization, attention skills, full-body relaxation and more. And the possibilities are nothing short of amazing.

Music Therapy and Autism: Does it Work? Yes! Here’s Why (and How)– Patty Shukla

When I refer to this innate musicality in myself, I don’t mean I can easily become the maestro on an instrument, though I have self-taught a few instruments to an enjoyable, if rudimentary, level (but am hopeless at learning the “given” way, via finger positions and sheet music, since I just can’t seem to follow those kinds of instruction…the same with knitting patterns). What I mean is, I can quickly learn a rhythm and reproduce it, inside of me; and have been a life-long foot-tapper, finger drummer etc (a primary form of stimming in my case), so dance is somewhat related to that. Replication, as in, an ability to remember a piece of music from just one hearing and then continue to play it, over and over again, on the inside, is a strong area of mine (and, sometimes, a source of torture). Anyway, somehow, “I just know” how to move in sync with music and I don’t really care what it looks like (though I doubt its that bad; but what I’m saying is this isn’t done to woo other people), since its main purpose is that it allows a key part of me, that otherwise remains largely unexpressed and often locked up in the body, to slide out of tangled and highly constrained nerve ganglions that have probably spent decades trying to hold me into some sort of acceptable neurotypical shape. Its then as though pure exuberant energy is newly released, full of all the joy of self-realisation. So its fair to say, dance movement uncoils me at a very deep, emotional, possibly even existential, level enabling me to speak the inexpressible, doing the work of a thousand therapy sessions without a single utterance. The music, as it were, lights me up or turns me on!

Am I the only one so turned on, so to speak, by disco, specifically asked within the context of autist traits? It took just moments for me to unearth an article entitled How disco helped my autistic son in The Guardian newspaper in which his mother relays:

The great thing is that his dancing has helped him in many ways – it taught him how to socialise and how to deal with success and failure; his reading, writing and maths improved. In short, his brain’s wiring, which had been so horribly twisted in his early years, started to straighten itself out. “It’s transformed his life,” Sheila says. “Jimmy was the most profoundly autistic one, whose future I feared most for. Now he’s planning ahead, has broadened his dancing range, and hopes to go to ballet school.”

How disco helped my autistic son – The Guardian, 3 April 2010

So, is it having so auspicious an effect upon me and my coping abilities? Well, without its outlet, it sometimes feels as though an entire universe of sensations is caught up inside of my body, bashing against the outsides screaming to be let out; and the wooden, polite, highly rehearsed movements of everyday (neurotypically approved) human behaviours, interests, topics of conversation etc are like a very narrow doorway that is just too rigid to allow even a portion of all that diversity and enthusiasm through…more like a socially inept stampede if I were to give it the go ahead…so this calls for an outlet far more organic and expansive; dance. I tried with paint but the perfectionist part of me really doesn’t like abstract “splodges” and it simply wasn’t enough to move my energy through. Sports are out of the question: I don’t enjoy the competitive premise of them and I lack the coordination. Dare-devil activities are way beyond my spacial challenges or capacity for even more high adrenalin. My writing can be an outlet to a point, but so much of it has to be tweaked to make it accessible for others to follow (yes, I do write also for myself but, like the art, it only shifts small amounts of energy, slowly). Dancing, for me, is it!

Of course, by 52, I have become extremely adept at keeping that stampede from the door, but at what cost to my health? People that consider they know me reasonably well may say “you seem fine, normal or even on the quiet side, you don’t pass as autistic at all, you’re just like everyone else…” but they have no idea what it takes out of me, the extra preps, internal checks, the hypervigilance, post mortems and anxiety that go on behind the scenes; yes, all the extra, highly subconscious, exertion that seems to knock the stuffing out of my nervous system for weeks following any kind of socially-oriented event (even a dentist visit or zoom call). Its now hard to believe I once had an active social life and held down a demanding job but then I have allowed myself to let go of all the hard learned behaviours doing all that demanded of me. Almost forty years of all that is what almost wore me out to breakdown point. The result: chronic pain, deepest fatigue, such heightened sensitivity that the list of things I am sensitive to grows year-on-year. This is no life or, should I say, was no life, before I recalled my love of dance (you could say) in the very nick of time last April (one of the gifts to come out of the stir-crazy feeling of lockdown). The benefits of it just keep on giving.

Peaks of joy

By choosing the right tempo to dance to; by hand picking the rhythm that feels right for my mood, I become (at last) the master of skills that elude me in the most everyday of social situations and so I get to climb down from my cerebral prison and live in the body for a while. The more often I do this, the more whole and grounded I feel, so no wonder my other “grounded” social skills, including more variable facial and voice expressions, making eye contact, remaining more present with people, etc., become stronger after such a practice. I am no longer “sent to my room”, up in my head, because it feels safer to avoid social contacts (a lifelong learned habit); rather, I am coaxed out of my cerebral “room” for long enough to decide that I might actually want to stay down here and be part of the world, at least for a little while longer than I used to. 

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi on Unsplash

I remain, and will always be, the autistic person with high sensitivity and such definingly introverted traits that I don’t expect (or want) those to change, but I am able to mix those factors up somewhat more with the socially engaged skills, the more day-to-day kinds of animation, a more grounded kind of awareness without being so overwhelmed by too many sensory signals, a sense of having more control and many more choices when that kind of overwhelm comes my way, plus a wider base of interests that look somewhat more involved in the world than they used to. I am “off into my own world” less than I was…or, at least, some of the time…and my ability to switch tasks or change tempo to suit the situation is getting stronger; I don’t need so much warning to take part in collaborative tasks or to deal with the unexpected. All of these skills are getting stronger but strongest of all is a sense of becoming, more roundedly, “me”…as in, the person I always was, held in potential, without need to suppress or apologise for parts of me that are as intrinsic to who I am as anyone else’s natural born traits. No more straitjacket, no more repression of emotions or hoarding of learned behaviours and “useful” information (just in case)…thus so much more freedom and space. 

The sense I get is, once this has progressed a little further, there will be so many pockets of space inside of me that, being no longer stuffed full of so much stored information, I will be at liberty to sit back and allow energy to flow freely in and out of them, the way the sea fills gullies and rock pools on the beach, leaving its subtle imprint yet so easy to flow out again, experienced by me as moments of inspiration and peaks of joy.

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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2 Responses to Peaks of joy

  1. Ashley says:

    ‘there will be so many pockets of space inside of me’, Helen that is a wonderful expression! I imagine joy and air are the same. It makes me think that I am full of joy like the lungs full of air in hundreds of little compartments helping me to float out of the current gloom and doom! At 70 I’m not sure I can start dancing but I love being outdoors in the air, moving and free!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Helen White says:

      I love your response to my words Ashley, yes I can feel that too now you’ve said it…tiny balloons lifting me up and out, I have felt that sensation such a lot since the start of this year, a very much better feeling. Like you I’m looking forward to VERY much time spent outdoors this year, it makes all the difference.

      Liked by 2 people

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