For many people working with those who have an autism spectrum condition, autism behaviours can be difficult to understand. This lack of understanding often translates into lack of empathy.
I explain the reasons behind rocking, bouncing and swinging in the hopes that a better understanding of these behaviours will assist supporters in understanding how to enable their autistic family members, students and patients to not just cope with their overwhelming emotions, stress, and pain through soothing themselves, but also to begin reducing the sources of stress and pain.
Before you consider curbing behaviours such as rocking, swinging or bouncing, it’s worthwhile to first look at why autistics do them more frequently than everyone else. Research has shown that rocking, swinging and bouncing are all soothing motions for human beings. Heart rate drops, deeper relaxation or sleep is achieved, stress levels drop and lymphatic movement is improved, among other health benefits.
This stress relief is why we rock, bounce and swing our babies to soothe them, and why the elderly often enjoy rocking slowly in a chair. For autistics, rocking, swinging and bouncing offer this same relief; these motions soothe stressed people and help them cope with the world around them. And most autistics have high levels of stress and resulting inflammation.
Human beings have two parts to their nervous systems. One of these parts is called the sympathetic nervous system and the other is the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system wakes us up, gets us moving, and makes sure we have the energy to run away from threats such as bullies. The parasympathetic system, on the other hand, lets us relax, learn, digest food, heal ourselves, and sleep well at night. Normally, these systems work in balance so that we can both get things done, and take care of ourselves.
For autistics, the sympathetic nervous system is on overdrive, while the parasympathetic system doesn’t get enough play time. Autistics are in a constant state of stress, which can be very overwhelming, never mind hard on learning, digestion, sleep, and other needs. No wonder the spectrum disorders come with a certain amount of self-soothing!
Behaviours such as rocking, swinging and bouncing are all methods for autistics to find ways to calm ourselves down so that we can function better. If you equate the degree of rocking, bouncing, and swinging to the degree of pain and stress being experienced, you’re on the right track to figuring out how to reduce that pain and stress, and reduce the need for these measures.
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