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