Autism, the Alexander Technique, and Me

Caitlin Freeman

Caitlin Freeman

As a person on the autism spectrum, I have struggled with sensory issues all my life. My mother describes that when I was a child, she needed to “tame me to touch like a wild animal.” When people would touch me, it felt like an electrical burning sensation.

Over time, my parents learned that I could tolerate deep pressure, and I gradually became accustomed to their touch. Unfortunately, everyone else’s touch still felt so uncomfortable that as a child and teenager, I would avoid other people to keep them from possibly coming in contact with me.

Predictably, my behavior greatly limited my social interaction. My extreme sensitivity to touch continued through my teenage years and into adulthood.

By my early twenties, I had severe sensory and social problems that I was determined to solve. The resources in my small town were limited, but there was one person nearby who taught the Alexander Technique. On the recommendation of a family friend, I started taking lessons in 2003.

Because of my aversion to touch, I was initially apprehensive about taking Alexander Technique lessons. Despite my fears, my teacher’s hands-on work was soothing, and I gradually learned how to calm my overactive nervous system.

Over the course of that year, my Alexander lessons allowed me to begin integrating my senses of touch, movement, and balance. Further, without my constant sensory distress, I became increasingly aware of the social world around me.

Because of the benefits I had received from my Alexander Technique lessons, I decided to become a teacher. In 2005, I began my training with Missy Vineyard in Amherst, MA. Every day in the training course, I had little epiphanies about myself. As I learned how to put hands on and how to receive hands-on work, my nervous system became increasingly regulated. Touch became a comfortable sensation instead of a painful one.

Caitlin teaching an Alexander Technique lesson

Caitlin teaching an Alexander Technique lesson

I became graceful for the first in my life, after having sprained my ankles eight times as a teenager. And I discovered the conscious choice that I had in my actions when I became aware of the time between stimulus and response.

My success with the Alexander Technique motivated me to work with other people who had the same sensory challenges that I had experienced. Being a person with autism gives me unique insight into the sensory issues that people on the spectrum face.

Since I have had many of the difficulties that my students experience, I understand how they feel, and I offer solutions that address their specific sensory concerns.

Here are two podcasts I’ve done for the Alexander Technique Podcast:

How the Alexander Technique can help People with Autism:

 

Teaching tips for Alexander Technique Teachers who have Students with Autism:

 

I’ve written a book, Autism and Alexander Technique: Using the Alexander Technique to Help People on the Autism Spectrum which you can can order it from Amazon.com here or from Amazon.co.uk here

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I currently teach the Alexander Technique in Pittsburgh, PA, where I specialize in movement education and sensory integration for people on the autism spectrum. I am also a professor at Point Park University, where I teach the Alexander Technique to performing artists. For more information, please visit my website: AlexanderTechniqueGuide.com, or refer to my book.

 

Presence and Performance

ID-100179293Over the past few months I’ve been filming Alexander lessons with a student of mine. I then edit the recordings down to 7 minutes to share them on YouTube.

Eric is a professional musician finishing his master’s degree at the Conservatoire Nationale Supérieur de Paris. For the first two lessons we worked on playing his two instruments: the baroque cello and the viola da gamba.

For the third lesson, we went outdoors and worked on something completely different: skateboarding!

For each lesson, he’d play a little music or skate, we’d do some classic Alexander work at the chair, and then we’d go back to his instrument or skateboard. Each time, he noticed after the chairwork that his practice had suddenly become “easier” to do.

Playing an instrument and skateboarding are completely different skills. So how can it be that work on “getting in and out of a chair” can lead to immediate improvement in both skills? This always seems mysterious, even miraculous, to people coming to the Alexander Technique for the first time.

The first part of the answer is that there is a common element in all the different skills you practice: you!

How you conceive your movements, and how you organize your body to carry them out, will be immediately reflected in the quality of the sound or the movement you produce.

Beginners, in their enthusiasm to get it right, or in their fear of getting it wrong, usually end up using too much effort. Playing with effortful arms will produce a screechy sound, while skateboarding with effortful legs will lead to postural brittleness and more falls.

When you play the cello your fingers, wrists, elbows and shoulders need to be free and available to conform to the demands of the ever-changing notes in the score.

Similarly, when you skateboard, your ankles, knees and hips have to be free and available to adapt to the ever-shifting gradient of the path.

And this leads to the second part of the answer: It might not appear so to the outside observer, but what we are working on at the chair is precisely this quality of being free and available.

Your habitual patterns of strain are so ingrained that they’ve become simply invisible to you, but with the help of an Alexander teacher, you will be able to perceive them, and then to stop doing them. Your habitual patterns are so ingrained that you bring them to everything you do, including sitting and standing. So the simple setting of the chair can become a rich laboratory for coming to know, and eventually to transform, yourself. (It’s kind of like how genius directors can stage epic sagas with just a table, two chairs and pair of actors!).

The progression from beginner to proficiency, and finally mastery, largely involves involves paring away excess effort. We associate busy, broad, ineffective movements (also known as “flailing”) with beginners, while masters in any domain have a zen-like calm and an economy of effort.

Perceiving your habitual patterns of strain, and then learning how to stop doing them, will allow you to become fully present. It will feel like there’s suddenly more “you” there to attend to the task at hand. Naturally, organically, your performance will then improve, whether it be at a sport, an art or any skill.

If you have seven minutes, check out one of the videos:

Here’s the lesson on viola da gamba:

Here’s the lesson on skateboarding:

Here’s the lesson on cello:


Ulysses Chuang a musician and Alexander Teacher based in Paris, France.  He has taken up my Parade of “P”s – Take Your Pick challenge.  Thank you Ulysses – and I hope there will be many more!  You can contact me through this Contact Page if you wish to contribute.

image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

A Dialogue with Mr Peter Habit

7374836_sPeter… “so I get the Alexander Technique now… I can do this, don’t you worry!! You want me to think your neck freedirectyourheadforwardandupsoyourbackcanlengthenandwiden… hey presto… how was that?

Kay  … “it’s not a mantra Peter!  It is more than words.. The direction needs to be thoughtful otherwise there will be no energy released for anything to happen.”

Peter… Uhhhh?….

Kay  “It’s simple, but I didn’t say it’s easy Peter… The trouble is  the way you know, is faulty, I’m afraid… it feels ok to you, but this doesn’t mean it’s right.  That’s because  I have allowed you to work this way for so long it has become habitual.  Hence your name  Mr Peter Habit….   As I have  explained you before you need to STOP interfering and listen until you get the idea… and even then you will need to  keep the directions in mind at all times.”

Peter “Whoa… you don’t expect much then?”

Kay “Don’t fret, Peter, it just needs discipline…  we will both be much better off as we will begin to feel as one and gradually cease to antagonise each other”

Peter ( with a groan) “when will that happen?”

Kay “It will take time and patience, but believe me it will  be worthwhile… it will take years off us.  We will have more vitality and find joy in living.”

Peter “It’s beginning to be interesting…. tell me again …what do I have to do?”

Kay  “That’s the beauty of it Peter, you don’t have to DO  anything …

Peter “Uhhh?”

Kay… “you just have to think to release some energy to free our neck so that our head can go forward and up and our back can lengthen and widen.” 

Peter “where can I release energy from?”

Kay “Trust me, you don’t need to know that at the moment, you just need to know that your thoughts can provide that release”

Peter “Right on!!!  Let’s get started, sounds better all the time”

Kay “Pleased to see you are at last by my side with this, But Peter , don’t rush in…. STOP AND THINK for a while first…..”

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Kay Cady lives in Denbury, in Devon, England She has taken up my Parade of “P”s – Take Your Pick challenge.  Thank you Kay – and I hope there will be many more!  You can contact me through this Contact Page if you wish to contribute.

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Image credit: feverpitched / 123RF Stock Photo

Peter, My Subconscious

Peter, my subsc

Who’s in charge?

In life we generally rely on our subconscious to direct our movement.  We  stand, sit, walk,  and bend automatically with no thought to  how we move.  Our subconscious  habitually does it for us, and it dominates us so that we don’t consider the best way to go about our everyday activities.

The practice of Alexander Technique encourages us to become more consciously aware, and to  learn the most efficient and energy saving way to move.  It actually brings us back to the movement patterns that were implicit as a child.

The Alexander Technique is simple and commonsense, but it is not easy because somehow we have to break the  habits of a lifetime that are deep in our subconscious, to allow the childlike movement to re-emerge.  How can we do this?

I will call my subconscious  Peter!

Peter sits on my shoulder and is my friend.  But he is a misguided friend.  MIsguided because I have  unwittingly taught Peter how  to lead me through  my life in ways that have  caused me pain and  ill health.   Unfortunately, on occasions Peter is not very helpful because he overrides what I know is the best way to carry out  any activity,  and takes over before I have time to think.

I need to retrain Peter.. he has been part of me for a long time, and he should be my friend and help me through life.  He knows me better than anyone else… even better than my mother, and he has been with me every single moment of my life,  enjoying my happiness, indulging in my sadness, he knows my every move……and he is not going to go away.

How can I  change him?  We all have the ability to change, even though we think not and Peter can change like the rest of us.   I  just need to be strong and  tell Peter to STOP interfering and give me time to rethink the best way to carry out my life. But this is a very general statement… because I need to stop Peter interfering not only  each  time I  make a move, but also when I react to a stimulus…  Wow… I can remember when I started to learn the technique how impossible that seemed.  It means that I have to consciously aware of my every  thought and my every movement and that requires discipline.

If you learn the Alexander Technique you will learn  a series of primary directions.  FM Alexander’s directions enable us to engage the conscious mind and override Peter’s decisions.  Ask Peter to listen and take note of these directions, so that his decisions become less misguided in future and  he is once again willing and able to help rather than hinder.

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Kay Cady lives in Denbury, in Devon, England She is the second person to take up my Parade of “P”s – Take Your Pick challenge.  Thank you Kay – and I hope there will be many more!  You can contact me through this Contact Page if you wish to contribute.

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Image credit: sognolucido / 123RF Stock Photo

Potential, Possibilities and Perspectives and Perceptions

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We could define health as “The body’s ability to constructively deal with all the stresses to which it is subjected”.  As I discovered, the Alexander Technique can be a powerful tool for tackling depression by giving concrete help on a day to day level.  There is no sensation or emotion that is not translated into a muscular response of some kind; these feeling states are the primary bases of our habitual postures and our individual patterns of behaviour.  In terms of alleviating the ubiquitous stresses and tensions of everyday life it simply does not matter whether we start to allow our minds to calm down and allow that to spread out into our muscles, or whether on the other hand, we can begin to allow the release of tension that we experience with the Technique to allow that same mental quietness.

Problems may appear to be confined or to be operating solely on the mental level but a large part of the problem is that because we give so much precedence to the intellect these mental routes and paths are all exhausted or over familiar.  The patterns are laid down and it can appear that there are no more avenues to explore.  We suffer from ennui and the feeling of being trapped at the same time.  Because words are not the language of the body all the well-known stories and limitations that we tell ourselves can be sidestepped as we can learn to see and experience ourselves in a new way.  In my own case I noticed that when I was able to release my physical holding patterns so my mental and emotional constrictions were correspondingly freer.  I was able to gain a new Perspective on my situation, life became a richer experience when I was feeling and Perceiving on more than one level at once.

We don’t claim that the Alexander Technique is a universal panacea for every kind of ailment, simply that our feelings and emotions are so intimately connected with our behavioural and psychological habits that working in this way through the body can be part of the healing process, it may not be the whole part, but it IS a part.  For me, at any rate it added a new dimension, a new Possibility; I discovered that learning how I could use my body with lightness and efficiency opened up new realms of Potentials that I had not previously known had existed.

 

Listen to a podcast with Daska, “How the Alexander Technique can help with Depression”:

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Daska Hatton is an Alexander Technique teacher in London, England.  She is the first person to take up my Parade of “P”s – Take Your Pick challenge.  Thank you Daska – and I hope there will be many more!  You can contact me through this Contact Page.

“Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net”