• When I’m not exercising enough, a sense of isolation and alienation increases, as do feelings of restlessness and helplessness, writes Madeleine Ryan. (Hector Mackenzie)
I’m autistic and since I was a teenager, exercise has supported me. When I’m happy, it enhances the feeling, and when I’m drained or maybe even heading into meltdown territory - it soothes and relieves me.
By
Madeleine Ryan

23 Feb 2018 - 10:53 AM  UPDATED 5 Mar 2018 - 2:43 PM

I’m autistic and since I was a teenager, exercise has supported me mentally, socially, physically, spiritually and emotionally. Jogging and going to the gym have given me safe outlets to release pent up frustration and rage, and yoga has helped to calm and centre my body and mind.

While it’s a powerful thing to have a creative outlet and nourishing relationships, it doesn’t change the fact that socializing, commuting, writing, food shopping, emailing and communicating with my partner and family are hugely stimulating. If I don’t find a way to move this energy physically, I begin to take it out on myself, and others.

When I’m not exercising enough - or when I’ve only been doing yoga - a sense of isolation and alienation increases, as do feelings of restlessness and helplessness.

It becomes easier to think that I’m incompetent and out of control and to start behaving like it. So exercise gives me a way to process thoughts, feelings and sensations in a structured, safe way. When I’m happy, it enhances the feeling, and when I’m drained, disillusioned or maybe even heading into meltdown territory - it soothes and relieves me.

The key has been to find what exercise works and ensure that it increases my capacity to meet the requirements of life, rather than detracting from it.

In 2016, Emily Bremer and researchers from McMaster University and the University of Ontario discovered that exercise has many positive benefits for those on the autism spectrum.

According to their research, “results demonstrated that exercise interventions consisting individually of jogging, horseback riding, martial arts, swimming or yoga/dance result in improvements to numerous behavioural outcomes including stereotypic behaviours, social-emotional functioning, cognition and attention.”

If I’m jogging or going to the gym regularly, as well as doing yoga, it’s like moving meditation. I’m not at war with myself and with life.

I have to be careful, though. Sometimes I’m doing more downward dogs and crunches than I’m doing life. The temptation to live at the gym or on a yoga mat can be powerful, because the simplicity of what they involve is so seductive.

When I’m in the middle of a pull up or in standing in warrior pose, there are no verbal or non-verbal landscapes to navigate. There are no people, ideas, needs or feelings to figure out or keep up with. I can just be.

So the key has been to find what exercise works and ensure that it increases my capacity to meet the requirements of life, rather than detracting from it.

Team sports have never really been my thing because they require a degree of strategizing and socializing that I feel unable to truly let loose in. Having to coordinate movements, rules, teammates, coaches, uniforms, weather conditions and spectators can feel overwhelming rather than freeing. That said, I know autistic people who thrive on mastering everything that comes with team sports and they’re energized by the sense of competition they involve. The structure team sport provides enables them to feel safe. More than, say, setting up in a corner of the gym and pumping dumbbells ten different ways because that’s how I like to roll and that’s where you’ll find me.

Doing yoga at home is like giving myself a hug because I can choose whatever style suits me, and do it whenever I feel like doing it.

At the gym, lifting, pushing, pulling, crunching, stepping and stretching. A certain amount of social interaction and spatial awareness has to be taken into consideration on the weights floor and in the cardio room, too. It’s just that the stakes are a lot lower than in team sports. There’s more room to tune out the needs and expectations of others and to tune into my body and mind and what feels grounding and meditative.

I used to go to yoga classes – hot ones and room temperature ones – and I’ve found that doing classes online from home is way less of a hassle. I don’t have to worry about who I’m going to talk or not talk to during the time waiting outside, or where to put my belongings, or whether to use my own mat or the one that the studio has provided, or the amount of people that are going to turn up tonight, or the fact that there’s a different teacher from last week.

Doing yoga at home is like giving myself a hug because I can choose whatever style suits me, and do it whenever I feel like doing it.

It’s empowering to know what kinds of physical activity I enjoy, and to be able to give them to myself when I sense that I need to. Moving and stretching muscle is magical. It’s like the glue that holds all of the pieces together.

Madeleine Ryan is a freelance writer. 

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