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Why Autistics Pace, Jump, and Flap

I have autism.  Through my life, I’ve found that most people, when they understand what is at the root of my symptoms, can shift from antipathy or shunning to empathy and support, in terms of their relationship with me and the other autistics in their lives.  I sincerely hope that you find the same thing, that sharing these blog posts and videos with the people who surround the autistics in your own life brings more kindness and connection.

So, why do autistics pace, jump, and flap?  

You’ve probably seen lecturers, or parents who are upset, or people who are emotionally over-wrought pacing back and forth, or around in circles.  You may even have experienced occasions when you found yourself pacing.  All humans pace when we have a high level of stress and tension, when we’re feeling very nervous, afraid, or intense about things.  

When things happen which we care deeply about, or when we’re trying to express things that are very important to us, our nervous systems may accumulate a high charge.  And we need a way to let that charge out.  Letting the charge out through physical actions allows us to calm ourselves enough to continue doing what we’re doing.

Now, jumping is another way of letting that charge out.  Have you ever been to a rock concert, or seen film footage from one?  Often, there’s a group of people standing up right in front of the stage, eagerly anticipating the band’s arrival.  And when the band comes on stage, members of this group (and sometimes the whole group) begin jumping up and down, flapping their hands as though they’re drying their fingernails, and letting out strange shrieks.  While they might look autistic, they’re not.  They’re so wound up, they have to physically release that charge in their nervous systems.

When autistics do this, it’s rarely to do with being excited about a band!   The only way an autistic could get anywhere near those loud-speakers is by focussing on something to the exclusion of everything else, for example the way John Elder Robison pulls one instrument’s melody out of a medley of other instruments.  The volume of noise would just be so overwhelming, without that kind of crutch. 

We autistics can deal with really loud noises or other sensory overwhelm by developing the skill of using our focus on a single thing to exclude every other sensory input.  That’s called monotropism.  It’s a coping mechanism (not a pathology or problem, grin).  But for the most part, you’re not going to find an autistic cozying up to a really noisy loud-speaker.

When you see someone pacing, or jumping, or flapping, you know that they’ve got so much ‘zing’ going through their nervous system, they need extra physical ways to let that ‘zing’ out.  That ‘zing’ can be coming from both internal and external sources of overstimulation.  Acting in these ways can make the difference between being able to stay present, learn, and interact, or having to leave or lose self-control (which none of us enjoys).  Allowing us to self-monitor and self-sustain in this way lets us participate much, much, better.

If you or someone you love could use more information on how to Thrive With Autism, please join us for one of our upcoming webinars;

Thrive With Autism Essentials gives you the keys to help the autistics you care about at home, school, and work.

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9 Comments

  1. I enjoyed your video and explanation very much. I shared this page with my FB fans and will refer autistc clients to your site. I help autistic clients with Neurofeedback whic.h re-regulates the brain

  2. Meadow says:

    I appreciate YOU! What a clear voice. Your message comes across pure.
    I’m a play-time therapist of 14 years, always learning more than I teach.
    Your words above made me think of Michael Brown’s (The Presence Process) take on ‘recovery.’
    — to cover it up again. Without addressing the root cause/charge, recovery is just another set of training guidelines to make something unpleasant disappear for awhile.
    If you ever need a friend in Portland, I’m here for ya!!! You Go Girl. THANK YOU!

    • Jackie McMillan says:

      Wow, play therapy… all I’ve got is a 1947 book that is brilliant. I’ll have to look up Michael Brown when I’ve more time for reading again. Many thanks for reaching out, and for your kindness; I can always use friends!

  3. N Johnson says:

    Thank you Jackie for all your excellent work, passion, and care for these things! Looks (and sounds) excellent. I love your straightforward, knowledgeable, and sometimes humorous approach.

    Our Toronto Redpath Group is still in it’s infancy stages (we may always remain there). Our get-togethers have been haphazard at best, this past year.

    However, I can’t help but think how GREAT it would be to have you come and share with us: Five Root Causes of Autism sounded excellent. Sorry I missed it.

    Maybe next Spring, 2014.
    Give us time to fan out the news a bit, perhaps draw others in?

    At any rate, blessings to you and thanks for all this excellent work and sharing!!

    • Jackie McMillan says:

      Hi Naomi, I’m so glad this is making a difference for you. There’s a group in London focused on supporting autistics in the workplace which I’ve just sent some of my materials on to; let me know if connecting with them would be useful to you. Blessings back; any effort, infancy or not, is worth the effort of trying to make a positive difference!

  4. Jess says:

    Hi Jackie,

    I took your wild food workshop on Saturday. I used to work as a teacher’s aide for pre-school children, many of whom were on the spectrum, in an inclusive pre-school with 15 classrooms. I’m passing this information to them as fervently as I can and am hoping they are able to share it where it is needed. Thank you so much!!!

    Jess

    • Jackie McMillan says:

      Thanks so much, Jess! As a teacher’s aide, you’d have seen the problem increasing over time; I know how frustrating that is…

  5. Bonnie says:

    Don’t all people get those feelings though? The feeling of being overwhelmed to the point where we just want to get up and physically shake or jump it off… but we don’t because it’s socially unacceptable behavior..? I feel like ALL people experience that kind of overload, practically daily. Is it that autistic people aren’t bothered by the fact that it’s socially frowned-upon and that’s why they go trough with the behaviors while non-autistic people don’t?

    • Jackie McMillan says:

      Good question, Bonnie… It’s true that all autistic behaviours are natural and normal human behaviours. We just do them a LOT more often, to the degree that non-autistic people are often triggered and aggravated by the degree of stress we express.
      We’re highly aware that who we are and what we do are socially frowned upon. This is actually one of the highest sources of stress, for any human, to feel bad and wrong without knowledge or capacity to make positive change.

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