Monday, August 24, 2015

Rockin' like an Autistic Kid

Somebody recently made the comment to me, "I had the music cranked and was rockin' like an autistic kid". And I thought to myself (in this order), that's funny. No, that's offensive. Wait, is that offensive? Hey, all the papers on my desk aren't aligned straight.

Here's the thing that struck as most important about his statement though. The rocking behavior is prevalent enough to be included in dumb puns in general conversation. That means pretty much everyone knows it happens. But I wondered if anyone ever really thought about why. I never really thought about why... and I do it too.

I am a card-carrying member of the autistic spectrum and a lifelong rocker. It isn't something you're likely to see me do since the full act is generally limited to when I'm going to sleep. Since I was a baby, I've rocked myself to sleep and I continue that behavior 40-something years later. It is also almost certain to happen if I manage to find a chair that rocks in some way. The alternate, lesser form of this (that often goes unnoticed because the neurotypical folks do similar moves) is shaking or sort of undulating a foot.

But why? It is such an innate thing for me and always has been and yet, I never really put any thought as to why I do it. Is it a stress-reliever? Sort of, but not entirely. Is it a way of blocking out the outside world? It can be, but not most of the time. I really tried to think about it for once and nail down the reasoning, but I found it makes more sense to explain what it feels like.

Rocking is just like breathing. It's that semi-voluntary movement that will happen whether you consciously control it or not. I don't always know when I'm doing it, but I always know when it stops. If I'm forced to stop, an internal tension will build up in me so fast that I feel like I'll have a panic attack. Just like being smothered.

There is a silent metronome inside my head, actually my entire body, that ticks away 24 hours a day. I don't hear it. I feel it. And I'm compelled to move with it in a way that brings order to my world. It's not my heartbeat or my breathing. It's not the song that's playing on repeat in my head all day. It's not the pace that I'm walking. Those things have their own separate and unrelated rhythm, though they will sometimes align for a little while if the beat is already very close. The speed of the metronome will change throughout the day as well, but there is no identifiable pattern. It doesn't get faster with excitement or slower with boredom. It just changes for no reason. Most of the time, I would describe it as a brisk walk or a little faster.

What will change with my mood or stress level is the intensity of the rocking. If I'm stressed out, the rock will be harder and each move a bit further. But the speed of the beat is unaffected. This can sometimes block out some external stress, but if I go too far, it can actually make things worse. It's a fine line.

The one and only scenario where the metronome stops entirely is extreme anger. Rage. I think most people experience these emotions very physically, even violently. For me, it is the only time I feel complete stillness. It's as though I've stopped breathing, and at times, I've found that I have. To be abandoned by my internal clock is a feeling I can barely handle. It's paralyzing. Thankfully, it's also rare.

Back in my happy place, there is another element to this feeling that is harder to describe. The movement has its own unique energy. I can't make it or make it go away, but I can very easily redirect it. The best example being when I shake my foot. I'm simply transferring the movement from my torso to my ankle. It's barely a conscious decision, but a necessary thing for practical modern life (and not getting awkward stares). The same kind of thing happens with my muscle jerks (or tics), which I have every day. I will feel the energy build up to what feels like a semi-voluntary movement, but I can sometimes change where the tic happens with a little concentration. Can't explain it. Just happens. All of this does seem a bit metaphysical. I think it sounds ridiculous too, and I've been feeling it for as long as I can remember. Too bad I can't channel that energy into laser beams or something. Because that would be awesome. 

I may have drifted off the subject.

Anyway, there. That's why I do it. It probably isn't any less mysterious and probably sounds even weirder than it looks, but that's what I got out of my little moment of introspection. That's why I like to rock like an autistic kid.


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