The benefits of movement for our wellbeing is a topic I talk about often. I've studied it, I've experienced some of the benefits first hand and it's an area of ongoing interest for me. In this post I'll tell you a little bit about my own relationship with movement and how that interest in movement evolved for me both personally and professionally.
Having interests that we can immerse ourselves in and gain great pleasure and self-regulation from are often a very important part of being autistic. You’ll likely have heard this referred to as ‘special interests’. As a child one of my special interests was ballet. I adored Margot Fonteyn, a British classical ballerina whose career spanned over 40 years from the 1930s. I gathered all the information I could about ballet and I began taking lessons. I would spend hours at home watching Margot and copying her moves. When I say hours, I mean hours. Daily. Special interests go beyond the realms of what might be considered pastimes or hobbies. They are so much more than. Ballet was blissful escapism for me and a form of movement that became self-regulatory and calming.
Autism can show up in physical areas including coordination, joint problems, muscle tension, flexibility issues and balance. Some autistic people may also be dyspraxic (I am) which can bring about further issues around movement and coordination. A combination of some of these factors meant that certain movements and positions were just impossible for me in ballet. One shoulder was always higher, one fist often clenched. I loved to dance but I found it increasingly difficult to move in certain ways, and not in others. That aside, I achieved a Distinction in my ballet exams. I can remember the feeling of elation so clearly.
Most of my physical activity as a child was heavily influenced by my interest in movies (an interest that has continued throughout my life). I’ll take you through just a few examples here.
'Splash', the movie. For anyone who didn’t grow up in the eighties, ‘Splash’ was a movie about a mermaid played by Daryl Hannah who fell in love with a human character played by Tom Hanks. I developed a deep curiosity for all things sea and mermaid. I discovered that I was at my happiest underwater, pretending to be a mermaid. Swimming is a great physical activity for autistic people as it relaxes the muscles and reduces stress, and it was certainly an activity that I took a great deal from both physically and mentally. (Side note, but did you know that the actress Daryl Hannah is autistic?)
Another movie that I became very familiar with was 'ET'. Riding a bike like Elliot and co soon became part of my 'ET' interest. Unfortunately, I was very accident prone. I broke my nose no less than three times by propelling myself over the handle bars. Hello, undiagnosed neurodivergence…
'Back to the Future'. Another movie that captured my attention for a long time. Though it didn’t couple well with my emerging physical challenges, I absolutely loved the sensation of skate boarding. Marty McFly I was not, but I was on that skateboard for hours and hours at a time.
I would include the movies 'Superman' and 'Super Girl' here but flying, well, just not possible. Unless of course you count my skill of flying over handlebars. I think these movies still impacted my relationship with movement though.
The main movement that has stayed with me through my life to date is dance, and indeed dancing has been shown to be beneficial for autistic people. It can help us to express our emotions through movement, and improve our concentration skills. It can also be a form of stimming for us. Stimming is often expressed through movements of the body when hyper-aroused. Autistic people might stim in a variety of different ways. Stimming can help us to focus and self-regulate, and can be necessary for us when we are in environments that are overwhelming.
Physicality is a hugely important and relevant area for autistic and neurodivergent people. Each of us will have unique sensory profiles, for example. My sensory processing plays a huge role in my chosen physical activities. Swimming is a brilliant activity for me. It engages all of my senses and I absolutely love it. Running? Not so great. Running can highlight many of my physical challenges with coordination and proneness to injury. Dancing brings me absolute joy and I can be mindful within that activity which is an added bonus.
I have come to realise over the last few years how movement in many forms is so vital to my autistic, and indeed ADHD, wellbeing. Upon that realisation, I wanted to explore what that might mean in a broader sense, and how I might bring it into my therapy practice as well as my personal life. I came across Dr Peter Lovatt (Dr Dance) by accident when he popped up on my Instagram feed. If you don't know about Peter, I encourage you to go forth and google. His approach to dance and wellbeing is utterly infectious. I’m an innately curious person, and when I came across Peter and his work I quickly found myself down a Peter-dancing-and-the-psychology-of-movement rabbit hole. Long story short here, but this led me to study the psychology of movement in practice led by Peter and his wife Lindsey earlier this year.
Autistic people are more likely to have co-morbid psychological and physical conditions compared to the general population (e.g. anxiety, depression, PTSD, hypermobility, joint problems to name a few). Developmental delay, motor skills, coordination, issues around pain are also often showing up. As neurodivergent people, we can almost guarantee that we’ve either had or are facing challenges socially, with our thinking in terms of areas like executive functioning, our emotions and self-regulation and our relationships with our bodies and movement. These areas are part of the diagnostic criteria in fact for autism and ADHD. Through studying the psychology of movement in practice, I’ve developed a therapy package that I believe will help my neurodivergent clients enhance their wellbeing through exploring movement that is meaningful to them within the process of neurodiversity-affirmative therapy. Some of my research threw up mindfulness, and it’s definitely a player in the game of understanding wellbeing. We know that mindfulness can benefit things like our working memory, and we know doing physical activity benefits the same area, so, imagine combining the two! Any physical activity that I do, I try to do mindfully. We can be so creative with mindfulness in terms of our physical activities. We can be mindful doing anything. For me, I find it easier to connect with mindfulness than I do with meditation. I can access a mindful state in a variety of ways, for brief moments or longer activities, and that keeps it interesting and therefore more likely to be maintainable in the long term. It also satisfies my autistic desire for routine, and my ADHD desire for variety within that.
So, there’s a little history about me and my own relationship with movement, and how I came to study it further in terms of neurodivergent wellbeing. It’s a topic that you can expect to see me post about regularly here and I’ll be sharing some of the knowledge and insights that I’ve gained about the benefits (of which there are many).
When you think about movement in your life, what comes up for you? What is your relationship like with movement?
Would you like to move more?
What are your favourite ways to stim that involve movement?
Are you a secret showstopping dancer behind closed doors with the curtains closed?
Do you enjoy being outside and moving?
Are there forms of movement you’d like to try but are yet to take the plunge with?
I’ll leave you with those thoughts for now. I hope you'll join me again soon for some movement themed neurodivergent wellbeing goodness.