Friday, 28 September 2012

Throwing shapes

I have a theory that issues with proprioception - knowing which bit of your body's where and what it's doing - plays a much bigger role in autism than we give it credit for.

Personally, body awareness is a really big deal for me: I run into door frames and furniture, misjudge steps and ledges, over- and under-reach when picking things up and drop them because I misjudge how firm a grip I'll need to hang onto them. My sense of where my body ends and the way it moves is really quite limited.
Where are my arms???
When I was little, I was only dimly aware that I had a body. Of course I feel hunger and pain and the warmth of sunlight on skin, but it's somehow a background thing rather than something always in my awareness. By way of an analogy, let's say you have an ancestor who was an ANZAC. Every so often you remember and you feel proud - on ANZAC Day and Remembrance Day, maybe when you hear the Last Post or see a military vehicle. But you probably don't walk around all day every day aware of your illustrious ancestor. That's the kind of relationship I have with my physical self.

So, if I'm not properly familiar with how my body feels and the shapes it makes as I go about my day... could that be why my body language sometimes sends off a very different emotion from the one I'm actually feeling? And why I sometimes can't properly pick up or respond to the shapes that others' bodies are making?

I find it really hard to copy the shape and movement of another person's body, say following the teacher in an aerobics class (not that I do such things). But one of the cheats they teach you in Body Language 101 is the importance of mirroring your subject's posture or body language as a show of empathy and means of establishing connection. So if you have a clinical suckage at doing that very thing... maybe that's where some of the 'autistic people have no empathy' thing comes from.

There are things the proprioceptorially disadvantaged can to do improve body awareness, albeit temporarily. Deep pressure - like lying under a really heavy featherbed - helps me, and I've heard talk of weighted vests that achieve the same effect but in a more portable form. There are exercises that stimulate vestibular feedback, mostly things that involve pressure on the joints. One quick and easy one is to press one hand against the wall at about shoulder height, arm straight, and lean in so your body weight presses against your wrist, elbow and shoulder joints. Try it. The arm that's done the exercise feels different to the one that hasn't for a while afterwards, and that 'different' feeling means I'm more aware of it. Clothing choices also help; tights and stockings keep me more aware of my legs than loose trousers of jeans do.!

A lot of autism therapy and interventionney things focus on social skills. But I wonder if working on improving body awareness might not give the social stuff a better chance of success. If nothing else, it'll reduce wear and tear on the door frames.