I. Options for those living with autism
Autism is not well understood, and those living with autism have limited options for care and support within the public infrastructure. Jay Kolls, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, writes that Autism affects 1 in 150 children. Paul Offit, Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Pennsylvania, acknowledges the perseverance and hard work of most autistic children and the incredible achievements of their families. Seeing these incredible achievements firsthand, Feldenkrais® practitioners are inspired by the families who bring their autistic children for lessons.
II. The Feldenkrais Method® for those living with autism
The Feldenkrais Method of somatic education uses movement to teach self-awareness and improve function. The fact that autism is characterized as a spectrum illustrates its genetic complexity. Feldenkrais practitioners offer skill and knowledge for working with complexity and specialized situations. With the Feldenkrais Method, we meet people in their uniqueness: the movements we develop together with our students bring forward improved functioning and greater ease. The precision combined with flexibility in Feldenkrais lessons allows us to develop movements tailored for each person. Thus, the Feldenkrais Method is well suited for those living with autism.
As the Feldenkrais Method gains recognition in the public arena, more families living with autism may benefit from the safety and effectiveness that the Feldenkrais Method offers.
III. Reversibility, ducks swimming by the road
It was a warm sunny day. I walked along a dusty road; at the edge of the road was a shallow ditch where a small creek flowed. To my surprise, two ducks were swimming in the muddy water. Serene and purposeful, they swam upstream, turned and swam downstream, then turned and turned again. The ducks moved along at a steady pace with me as I walked. It was a lovely rendition of the Feldenkrais principle of reversibility, the capacity to turn in whatever direction is appropriate in the moment.
On the other side of the road, cars were parked while people attended a farm market nearby. Small bits of paper and debris were scattered along that side of the road. A boy was carefully picking up the bits and pieces, tucking them into a small bag, then looking around to see if there was more to pick up. His movements were purposeful. However, his face did not show any expression. He went on to find the next object to put into the bag; the boy knew where to turn and when to turn around. I crossed the road and sat on a wooden bench by the side of the road, rocking a little forwards and backwards on my sitting bones to ease my back after walking. With the rocking, I could sense the tiniest adjustments of my head floating upwards, my whole spine aligning itself freely, my breathing becoming more comfortable. The boy’s mother came over and spoke with me; she was interested in my small movements. We discussed the Feldenkrais Method and her son’s autism diagnosis. She agreed with me that Max's* actions showed a promise of the boy being able to build on the principle of reversibility. The following week Max came with his mother to my studio for a Feldenkrais lesson.
IV. Feldenkrais Functional Integration® lessons
Feldenkrais Functional Integration (FI®) lessons begin by offering structural support for movements which tend to be effortful or painful. As the FI lessons proceed, the student learns more and more refinements of his skeletal organization. Even though Max pursued his chosen tasks with deftness, many of his movements were effortful and mechanical. Max also showed discomfort in social situations. I wondered how we might build on his repertoire with reversibility.
I was heartened by Moshe Feldenkrais: “If you come across something obviously new to you, in its form at least, please stop for a moment and look inward. Working out new alternatives assists us to grow stronger and wiser.”
I took care to respect all that Max had created for himself in his living with autism. Thus, I began the lesson with his mother while Max settled into the studio and observed from a comfortable distance. His mother was intrigued as I guided her with gentle movements in standing, walking, then seated in a chair. Towards the end of the lesson, we worked with a roller on a low Feldenkrais table. Max slowly became interested when he saw his mother with the roller.
V. The lessons continue
During their second visit, the lesson focused around Max’s mother with the roller in various configurations. Upon arriving for the third lesson, Max discovered a roller for himself in the corner of the studio. He began to turn the roller very slowly. We left Max to find his own way with the roller. The lesson for his mother continued.
In planning the lessons for Max, I remembered the reversibility of those ducks in the roadside creek, swimming one way, then turning the other way. My own sense of reversibility led me to discover just the right distance and just the right timing for working with Max.
During the next weeks, Max easily engaged with the roller, while I came closer, but not too near. He reached over the roller to pick up small objects I had placed on the floor. Our first study was with paper clips: Max leaned on the roller, picked up one paper clip at a time, and put it carefully into a box with little dividers. As Max explored the paper clips, I gently held the very end of the roller and turned the roller to connect with his movement at various angles. As Max reached for a paper clip with his right arm and hand, I followed the trajectory from his left foot through to his pelvis and ribs on the right side. I guided the roller a little downwards and forwards to encourage a gentle stretching along Max’s ribs. Thus, Max’s breathing filled out and he was able to rest his whole body into the floor. He no longer thrust his arm forward to reach for a paper clip, rather his whole spine became involved. His movements were more fluid, his reaching more comfortable. As Max’s movements became less mechanical, more integrated, Max also became more comfortable with my presence. During the next lessons, a similar process developed in various configurations. Eventually, Max discovered more reversibility, his repertoire of movements grew, and his overall ease expanded. Recalling the words of Moshe Feldenkrais, we found that “working out new alternatives assists us to grow stronger and wiser.”
With a raft in the rushing river, the swimmer can find support to rest and breathe more easily. With the roller, Max found a support for new kinds of movements. The series of lessons came to a close when summer arrived. At the end of the last lesson, Max carried his roller to the studio door then sat outdoors on the steps with a glimmer of a smile.
VI. A neurologist’s appreciation of living with autism
Oliver Sacks’s extraordinary and epic article in The New Yorker, "An Anthropologist on Mars," includes the story of his visit with the autistic scientist and scholar, Temple Grandin. (Sacks, 1993). Sacks brings to life the essence of this extraordinary and important woman, her being able to communicate about the differences and advantages of autism.
“She thinks that she and other autistic people, though they unquestionably have great problems in some areas, may have extraordinary, and socially valuable, powers in others—provided that they are allowed to be themselves, autistic.”
Sacks confirms that “Temple’s own formulations and explanations generally correspond with the range of existing scientific ones, except that her emphasis on the necessity of early hugging and deep pressure is very much her own—and, of course, has been a mainspring in directing her thoughts and actions from the age of five.” With her childhood ingenuity Temple developed a hug machine to bring a missing component to her living with autism: “She feels that the machine opens a door into an otherwise closed emotional world and allows her, almost teaches her, to feel empathy for others.”
VII. Closing and continuations
Just as Temple Grandin found comfort with her hug machine, Max’s experience with the roller at the studio opened the door to a missing component in his living with autism. Max and his family continue to enjoy Feldenkrais principles, movements, and the roller.
Katarina Halm, M.A., GCFP is a practitioner at Thinking in Movement Studio, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Find out more about Katarina at: http://happybones.wordpress.com.
Feldenkrais, Moshe. The Elusive Obvious. Cupertino, CA. Meta Publications. 1981.
Halm, Katarina. “Resonance and Dissonance in the Learning Process.” MA thesis, ITP, 1994.
Halm, Katarina. “Attuning to Natural Process Action Steps: How does one find the natural action, the unforced next step? Maybe with a Little Wind from Your Fingertips!” The Folio: A Journal for Focusing and Experiential Therapy. (2010): 111-129.
Halm, Katarina. “Feldenkrais® and Focusing, complementary practices.” 2013.
Halm, Katarina. “Thinking in Movement: phenomenological epoché from a Feldenkrais® perspective during a weekend with Maxine Sheets-Johnstone.” Pending 2015.
Haney, K. “Team Sports As Diagnostic Measure.” Journal of the Philosophy of Sport XXIX (2002): 121-135.
Kolls, JK. “Book Review: Autism’s false prophets: Bad science, risky medicine, and the search for a cure.” Journal of Clinical Investigation 119(4) (2009): 677–677.
Merleau-Ponty, M. Phenomenology of Perception. New York: Humanities Press, 1962.
Offit, P. Autism's false prophets: Bad science, risky medicine, and the search for a cure. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.
Sacks, O. “An Anthropologist on Mars.” The New Yorker. (1993, December 27).
Sheets-Johnstone, M. The primacy of movement. Amsterdam/Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing, 2011.
*Name changed to protect anonymity.
Picture of Feldenkrais practitioner with child ©2007, Rosalie O'Connor. Used with permission.