My Autistic Physicality

I didn’t know I used my muscles in strange ways until it was pointed out to me. I didn’t know it was a thing. I hadn’t seen it in the diagnostic criteria, though I may well have been asked about it. I would have answered that I move well, no issues.

My reflexes are fast, my muscles are satisfyingly strong. They do what I tell them. My joints are awful and disobedient, but my muscles can be trained.

I didn’t think I ever walked on my tiptoes either, until I realised that I always do when barefoot. Which is why I don’t like being barefoot on anything other than the warm grass in the summer.

But I do use my muscles strangely. I use them all. I’ve been comparing. When my husband lifts a glass, he uses the bare minimum of effort. No more than needed.

When I lift a glass, my arm is tensed, I am set. My hand grips firmly. One set of muscles working against the other. It’s not that I grip it gently, it’s that I grip it with great force, whilst at the same time using the opposing muscles to prevent me from crushing it.

When I hold things my hands end up imprinted with the pattern of the held thing. The steering wheel is gripped so firmly that my hands are turned white, and my palms a rosy red. This is not nerves. This is not anxiety. This is just how I hold things. I am tensed all the way up to my shoulders, and it is conscious.

How do I know it’s conscious? I know because of my clumsiness. I always thought of myself as meticulous, fast reflexes, quick reactions, excellent ball skills, but that only goes so far. I am meticulous when I am concentrating. So long as my conscious mind is focused, I can do it all, but the second I’m distracted? It all comes tumbling down.

It’s just another thing that is me. I was labelled as clumsy by a friend, long ago. It was fair. Every day I would make tea, and whilst I was making it, she would start talking to me, and every day I spilled it. Every single day.

When I told her about the concentration thing, her eyes widened and she nodded, “That explains so much.” She said seriously, “That time I asked you to put the mugs away, and as you were putting one on the shelf, I asked you something else, and then had to shout at you to stop, because you were starting to answer, with a mug in hand, now hurtling towards all the others on the shelf at breakneck speed. You would have smashed them all.”

I would have.

As a child I remember forgetting how to breathe when stressed. I would feel the panic of it and try to control the speed of my breaths. Slow them down. Until they were so slow I would feel dizzy and drunk. It was a mistake trying to control something I shouldn’t control. I have too much control. I needed to distract myself, not concentrate.

The same over-concentrating can make me forget how to walk. Usually I like to glide. I practised walking when I was young, a book on my head, perfect balance and control.

And then something happens and I look like a dropped squid, all tangled limbs thrown in all directions. I forget how one leg swings out as the other stands firm, I hurry. Like a cartoon character starting to run before they move, legs twirling.

Maybe the reason I stride everywhere is just to reach places quickly, before I notice I’m moving.

It’s an analogy for the whole of me. If I’m concentrating on any aspect of the world – masking my autism, working out what you mean – then I am careful and meticulous, but throw in stress, a distraction, exhaustion, and it all comes tumbling down. The difference is that I have no one to shout “Stop!” at the appropriate moments. It’s a mug-smash waiting to happen.

And that’s ok. It’s ok that I work this way instead of another way. I have great skills. I can place that mug perfectly, with great panache, if left to do it my own way with no stressors.

I can do anything I set my mind to, if I set my mind. When mind and body are in harmony, then so am I.

40 thoughts on “My Autistic Physicality

  1. THIS IS ME. I know that dyspraxia is extremely common in autistic people but I never quite saw myself in the descriptions. I am awfully clumsy, always tripping over my own feet and bumping into things and dropping plates and glasses and the list goes on… but I’m also very strong and controlled when it comes to putting furniture together, and I have very precise (and may I say beautiful?) handwriting, and I can even do eyeliner without mistakes. You’ve given me the answer. FOCUS.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. My handwriting is appalling! But mainly because my concentration is on speed not beauty. Unfortunately there have been times when not even I could read my own writing. Oops.

      Other than that, I’m careful. I don’t fit dyspraxia. I have more control, not less, just only control over the things I am focused on.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I love reading your posts because my oldest son is also on the autism spectrum. He is high functioning and sometimes it is easy to forget that he deals with issues like this. He is twelve and this is his first year in middle school. The transition has been difficult. It is difficult for him to maintain focus and not forget his assignments and books at home or in his locker. He walks into people in the hallways, he flails his arms, and has a hard time considering other people’s space. It is easy for others to label him as clumsy, or forgetful, and disorganized; but he is really just concentrating on whatever is going on in his head. He actually has an incredible memory and can focus sharply when interested.
    He also has some difficulty with fine motor skills, like tying his shoes, and buttoning buttons on jeans or shirts. The thing that makes it difficult is that at first glance he seems like a “normal” kid, and for people who don’t know they may think he is just slovenly or lazy about his appearance, or, again, clumsy and forgetful.
    I’m not trying to write a novel here, but I just wanted to say that I appreciate your candor about your issues with autism; and I hope that people will become more aware of the daily struggles you and others like my son face and become more open minded and less judgmental.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Nina. That change over to middle school was so challenging. I used to take every book I needed every day (it weighed a ton) because otherwise I couldn’t keep on top of what I would need.

      That idea that you end up with all those horrible negative labels (clumsy, forgetful, disorganised or just that you don’t care) is so familiar. If people just understood that our brains are working so much harder all the time, it would make such a difference to the world.

      I really appreciate you taking the time to post. Transition times are always the hardest. Understanding parents can make such an enormous difference to our lives. Being a pre-teen/teen is exhausting even without autism! I used to just come home and want to zone out and chill.

      Wishing you and your family all the best.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Thank you so much 😊 Even though I know a lot of people deal with this it is hard not to feel alone. It is hard to balance wanting to kill anyone who wrongly judges my child and letting him figure out the world for himself.
        Again thank you for being so open and honest about your life with autism. πŸ’™πŸ’™πŸ’™πŸ’™πŸ’™πŸ’™πŸ’™πŸ’™πŸ’™πŸ’™

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Nina, if your son tends to have issues remembering school books, I have a suggestion as an individual with autism who barely survived middle and high school, and only did so because of parental advocacy…

          Will the school let him have a second set of books? My mother begged my school’s to let me have a second set of books, 1 set for home and one set for school. It completely ended my forgetting books at school. My mother worked into my routine two folders too. One stayed in school the other stayed in my book bag. It was for loose assignments. She also got all the teachers to manually write assignments down and sign them in case I litterally forgot. The teachers thought I was being lazy and forgetful. My mother made sure to tell them I could quote the entirety of several movies at them, my memory was flawless. She told them I was forgetting because of social triggers in my environment that was causing me to be on edge and distracted.

          Rustling papers during tests would agitate me till I cried, I’d start to panic, and soon I couldn’t remember anything about the subject matter. Mom got me isolated testing accommodations. Being able to take my tests alone and in silence really improved my grades.

          I don’t know if any of this might help your son, but middle and high school was hell for me. If not for my mother, I probably wouldn’t have passed any of them or even survived them. As an adult I kind of feel responsibility to let people know the little tricks that got me through. Because I’ve found it either helps them or gives them ideas that work even better.

          I’m sure your son will do great with your support and love. And trust me, neither of you will ever be alone in it. πŸ’

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Thank you. The school system here doesn’t really let the kids bring text books home but that is a great idea about the folders. He has an IEP which allows him to take tests separately from the other students. I appreciate your taking the time to share tips. I will need all the help I can get. Last year was really hard but I’m hoping for a better year this year.

            Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Rhi,
    Excellent observations, which relate to many of us.
    In my case, the diagnosed dyspraxia (on top of dyslexia πŸ˜‰ ) is really weird, just to be gentle to myself. I’ve been horrible at ball sports, balancing, etc. I tried to play basketball, just to be called “the ballerina”, because even though my movements were really finely feminine, -of which as a rather towering and bearded male am very proud πŸ™‚ – I barely ever managed to get the ball through the ring…
    As yourself, it takes literally all my body to move a cup of liquid, which I always overfill and therefore spill, starting usually with stirring. My family keeps asking the same question for over 50 years, “why do you have to fill it that much?”.
    Well, I tried to pour less, but that means about two inches below the edge, which for me is half-empty.
    I knock things over, even though they are always in the same place, and my hands and shoulders are bruised of knocking against doors and doorposts, I need to hold the railings as I’m going down stairs, sit or hold myself onto something when I change shoes, etc.
    What’s interesting though, is that I have unusually precise fine motor skills, which are handy as I work in health services, to the point where I was/am able to things under a magnifier, e.g. horology πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Interesting. I was the tomboy, tearing around the football field and wielding a hockey stick like an axe 😊

      I am still always bruised and don’t notice when I bang into things.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Hahaha, would you believe they picked me for rugby in high-school, and ended up last line of defence, as it turned out, because of size only, not really the talent πŸ˜‰

        Liked by 1 person

  4. OMg Rhi, I think you’ve just taught me another thingie. Since two years I … at times, nΓ³t all the time … walk like someone who’s drunk. (someone in my local mall asked me once: “Hey girlie, you’re not gonna tell me you’re drunk at 10 in the morning already, are you?” I hadn’t noticed I wandered off my path. Other times I dΓ³ notice but can’t change it, nearly ran into a lamp post on the curb last year. (ppl. were pointing at me … OMG, the shame)
    I even went to a neurologist (had a CVA in 2005, thought it may have to do with that), but everything was okay. HΓ© sent me to a T.N.Ear-specialist, all well there too. So I left it there …. until now. THIS may be the explanation. Just weird it only happened the last 2 years, not before in my life. (at least not that I can remember, LOL.)
    With you it seems to be caused by overconcentration resulting in stress … did I understand that correctly?
    Thinking about it now : I had 2 major depressions over the last 2 years, yet I forced myself extra EXTRA to do things I used to always do. Maybe the results of those depressions were the cause. Think that’s a possibility?
    LOL, I notice that I’m always Γ‘sking you stuff that *I* wonder about, and then ask yΓ³u for help.
    One day I get this entire autism-concept, and shΓ³uld there be any questions left on your side, you may always ask me. Ha,ha,ha ….
    Have a good day, and thanks for the article.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. πŸ˜„ I like bouncing ideas around it helps me!

      For the walking thing, it’s more that if I’m stressed I notice something that is automatic (walking or breathing) and sort of “take control” of it, instead of letting my body get on with it.

      So on the one hand I’m better at doing things when I concentrate on them, unless it’s something automatic, and then I make it worse.

      I would definitely say that when stressed or depressed, any spare bits of your brain can get exhausted by just getting by. Which would leave less left over to devote to motor skills like walking. But you definitely did the right thing getting checked out. Always important when you notice something has changed, just to rule anything else out πŸ™‚

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Wow, just realise that I do the same, sometime I walk like drunk, without the usual dizziness, just funny, and bumping into walls and objects… I am always afraid people would notice, especially at work, but I learned to mask it by slowing down or pretending to check my pockets, etc…

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Thanks for the artice, I know just what you mean. In my case, it’s caused by poor proprioception, related to hypermobility (I have Hypermobile Ehlers Danlos). M brain does not “know” where my body is in space. So I think I’m walking through a doorway, but my arms aren’t where I thought they were, so I bash into the door frame on one side. You mentioned your joints… EDS overlaps with Autism fairly commonly (I think estimated 30% of Autistics have it?) and it’s EDS awareness month in May, so thought I should mention it!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. πŸ™‚ I do have EDS Hypermobility type too. All the best people do 😊 it certainly adds to my stimming, needing the physical sensations to “place” my limbs.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Reblogged this on Aspie Under Your Radar and commented:
    I’ve noticed, since my own DX, how very deliberate I can be, as well. It’s amazing, just how much energy I expend intentionally making movements and organizing my physical movements. I’ve done it since I was a kid, and I’ve noticed it, now and then, but honestly, only since really diving into the whole autism thing, have I gained a full appreciation of how much work it is for me to walk across the room. Or eat a meal. I’ve practiced and practiced so much, that it’s become second nature to me. But it’s still intentional, and I still need to consciously practice it. Some of these things, I’ve never internalized to the point where they’re instinctive.

    Just the magic of being me, I s’ppose πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

  7. I can really relate to this, but I also like your positive attitude.
    I can be very focused too, when I have no other distractions. But, if someone starts to talk to me, or move around me, my clumsiness reappears, I get very heavy handed etc. Similarly if I distract myself, if my mind wanders off, races ahead, which it does very often, I forget what I’m doing and that’s when I start dropping things because I think I just forget I’m holding them.. not great in the kitchen when trying to cook!
    I can often be really gentle and controlled, I play the piano and this is a great example of my ability to do this. Yet sometimes my force moving around is ridiculous. I’m quite a small person but when I moved in with my husband, he thought a herd of elephants had arrived. Spatial awareness also is a big issue as is placement of my arms for some reason. My arms are just average in length but I feel like they’ve been stretched to twice their length!
    All of this I knew about myself, but I put myself down, a lot, about it. It makes me very self conscious around people… Reading your blog has helped me to put it into context and actually it is just me, part of my autism, and I just need to be mindful of what makes it worse! (Mindfulness is something I am ‘attemping to learn’ to help with problems like these!) Thanks for a great post ☺

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Rachel. You’ve reminded me of racing ahead of myself. Sometimes I’ll be so far ahead in my plan that I’ll be performing the next action before I’ve finished this one. My finest moment was probably opening a door whilst still moving towards it. Lovely black eye I gave myself.

      You’re right, this is just the reality of who we are, as with everything there are good bits and bad bits. Being aware of the bad bits helps you deal with them productively, and maximise your good bits. Thanks again.


      1. Oh and I regularly pour drinks down my front because my hand was ready long before it had reached its target. I like to think I pull it off with style πŸ˜„

        Liked by 1 person

  8. This has me nodding in agreement. I am always tense myself, and when I do get super focused on holding something or a task I’m trying to complete, it is really hard to switch. And the tense sensation in my body doesn’t help at all. I used to not really talk about things like this because I wasn’t sure about having Autism. I’ve recently found out that my gut telling me I was Autistic was accurate thanks to a specialist going through a checklist with me. Now I’m just out here to learn new things and understand myself more.

    Liked by 3 people

  9. This was interesting. Another thing to add to my self-observation schedule I think! I don’t really fit the dyspraxia label, and I don’t really think of myself as clumsy, although in some areas I probably am. (I always have a mystery bruise or two somewhere.) I notice that I do the steering wheel gripping, too, but I always put it down to anxiety, I’m not a very confident driver. Also sometimes when I’ve been sitting somewhere, ostensibly relaxing, e.g. watching TV, I will suddenly notice that for the last 15 minutes I’ve been clenching my hand into a tight fist or pressing my knuckles into my hip or something. And this is not when I’m anxious, so I don’t know why. I just do it. Interesting to read what other people experience, as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you for sharing this – I can relate to so much of this and didn’t know it was all linked – many have just joked about it. I am not diagnosed however having training around (I keep my career/background on blog private hence being vague) and with many around me in a similar field it has often been suggested, also by those closest to me when my “quirks” are more obvious/or rituals it gets called. I’m currently having a lot of issues with tight muscles adding to an injury which has been odd. To be honest unless I pay for a diagnosis I am not getting giving one now as I “function fine” as it was eloquently put. So I’ll not know for sure although available tests point to yes. However as I have said before I love that you are being so raw and honest with your blog, I feel it is really allowing others to understand both you and either themselves or even a loved one who is on the spectrum. So try about all your qualities and skills too – I love this. Everyone brings something to the table, some of the greatest minds of our times had varying different mental health conditions or were on the spectrum or even physical disablements – not defining them but simply adding to who they are as a human. Continuing to enjoy your blog πŸ™‚

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you. It’s amazing how many parts of myself that were just “me” actually start to fall into place the more I learn about autism. It’s an interesting unraveling of what is “unique” to me and what is “autism”.

      I love the things that make humanity different, we would be dull indeed without it.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Oh yes! I relate to so much of this: clenched muscles for the simplest task, doing things OK with mega concentration and precision but totally unable to when distracted or disturbed. I even drive worse when others are in the car! Plus breath holding and other physical oddities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sounds very similar. Yesterday I had to go somewhere new and was asked to hold something. It was only when I realised how hot I was getting that I saw how every muscle from neck to fingers was completely tensed. I have to do them all so that the opposing muscles counteract each other and I don’t crush what I’m holding. I always worry I’ll crush a glass one day if I forget to do all of them.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. This is such an interesting post and one I relate to a lot. I also have HEDS and suspect I’m on the spectrum although not formally diagnosed.
    I think the tensed muscles are probably to do with the EDS, our joints are loose so we have to tense our muscles to keep them in place. This probably partially accounts for why people with EDS get so tired.
    Im also always banging into doorways and bruise very easily but that’s another EDS thing. However, like you my fine motor skills are very good. I work as a Silversmith which is very detailed and I also have a good aim! I play a mean game of darts!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, the bruises! I wouldn’t be me if I wasn’t permanently black and blue. A Silversmith? How brilliant, I wish I’d learned a skill like that.


  13. Sorry forgot to also add;
    I too grip the steering wheel of my car for dear life! I remember my driving instructor remarked about this 30 odd years ago!
    As others have said I could be ‘relaxing’ on the sofa but then realise so much of me is tensed up. I can’t even relax in one of those floatation pool things, it’s quite frustrating really.
    I also have a hard time doing things if someone distracts me. Especially if someone asks me a question. I’ve told my kids and partner not to talk to me when doing certain things otherwise I end up spilling and dropping stuff! There was a time when I couldn’t drive and talk to a passenger in my car at the same time. I’m a bit better now but still flusters me sometimes especially if I’m tired.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Thank you for taking the time to make this post, it is such a clear explanation. Physicality isn’t even a ‘thing’ on the ‘traditional’ triad of impairments line of thought. Even the more modern clinical thinking brings in over or under active senses but it doesn’t really cover the more general physicality aspects and the amount of concentration required in many physical activities.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are very welcome. It was only post-diagnosis that I realised any of my movements weren’t the norm. It’s definitely a field that needs further examination.


  15. Loved reading this – lots of light bulbs lit up in me noggin! Got a late diagnosis at age 42, still trying to get to grips with this. Anyway.. before diagnosis.. I did Tai chi for a few years. In the beginning my balance was atrocious and I’ll bet I looked drunk most of the time πŸ™‚ However after a looong time, I became aware that how I moved through crowds had changed. When I’m hydrated, fed, focussed – I feel I can move like an otter through waterweed. And my spatial awareness has improved. Lots of people seem to not know where their bodies are in relation to the world around them. I think ballet and tap dance as a wee one helped with the gangly awkwardness too. (Tai chi lessons became *really* interesting when the tutor casually mentioned ‘we are starting tai chi swords today…)


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