an intro to my autistic perspective on sensation in dance

As an autistic dancer, movement is necessary; it lets me regulate, explore, and enjoy my senses through safe access to rigor. I have recently been investigating my relationship with sensation in dance spaces. I am looking at societal views on sensation and perspectives from the dance community, as well as my personal experience, so that I can understand my feeling self more fully and confront blocks within myself. 

I am autistic, meaning that my relationship with sensation is radically different than most of the population. My senses are woven together, and the boundaries between touch/sight/taste/smell/sound blur into a cacophony of information that can be both overwhelming and euphoric. In movement, the sensations in my body weave with the auditory input and there is no difference between body and sound, dance and music. It is continuous and colorful and wonderful. I am not resisting sensation or trying to separate information within myself. I let my insides blend in the way that my neurotype needs them to be, and I am momentarily released from external expectations. 

I was diagnosed with autism earlier this year, and have found this new information to be permission to get to know my sensing self outside of constricting neurotypical norms. Knowing that I experience my body in space in an entirely different way than the majority of my peers is exciting and feels like I’m being reintroduced to myself. My movement practice since then has been a constant questioning, an interview with my senses. 

In this interview, I have found that there are beliefs in my body that I did not consent to internalising. My reintroduction to myself has exposed systemic beliefs that are blocking my ability to fully experience my autistic body, and this research is my way of working through this.

 

 

SENSORY POLITICS
I am drawing from the ideas of Nolan and McBride in their piece, Embodied Semiosis: Autistic ‘Stimming’ as Sensory Praxis to sift through the barriers between me and my senses. I am particularly interested in this quote;

“Within this hierarchy of sensory learning, children are expected to ‘grow out of’ more carnal, sensory and embodied ways of knowing to embrace, instead, the more rational and ‘adult’ world of signs and symbols constituted not from their own sensory experience or self-selected objects of inquiry but from received, valued and codified social and cultural knowledge.” (Nolan and McBride, 2015)

Nolan and McBride argue that the sensory play stage, 0-2 years old, is something that is expected to be left behind with maturity. With this logic, the definition of maturity is simply a disconnect from real sensory experience. In the sensory play stage, our learning is gained primarily from felt experience. As we grow, we are told that the most reliable source of information comes from external sources. I have been taught that my body is unreliable. 

In school, I’ve always struggled with my auditory processing. My ears treat every sound as equally important, and I am therefore unable to prioritize a voice if there is background noise. This makes it extremely difficult to focus in classes, and also interferes with my test taking ability. If a sound is bothering me, I am incapable of doing anything but listening to it. In middle school, I failed a test because the boy sitting next to me had a cold and was sniffing every few seconds. That same year, I started having panic attacks at every school assembly. The sounds of hundreds of children shifting in their seats, whispering, sniffing, coughing, breathing… It felt like my head was going to implode from the pressure of the sounds and my body went into fight or flight mode. I did everything I could to get excused from the excruciating experience, but I was told that I needed paperwork for something like that. I was gaslit into believing that my experience was not valid unless recognizable to adults. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t give proof of the discomfort I was in, so I learned to invalidate my own feelings before anyone else could.

Eight years later, I am investigating how much of these messages has residually clustered in my body. I am discovering these lingering beliefs that are blocking access to my senses. I picture them as clumps of matter clinging to the corners of a complex map of feeling within me. When I envision this, I can take a step towards clearing by acknowledging. 

SENSORY POLITICS IN DANCE
In my early dance training, I threw myself into ballet, believing that it was the key to being a great dancer. I advanced quickly, and started training en pointe way too early, when I was thirteen. The ballet teacher I had that year was strict and cold, and although she left my studio after that year, it was still enough time for her to condition me to hate my body. The culture she created in her classroom was one of unsafe rigor. I remember being trapped between two bars, clinging with sweaty hands to the one in front while my leg was heaved onto the barre behind me, forced to stay in an arabesque far higher than my body was able to accommodate. The flexibility I gained that year still affects the way I dance today, but it was not gained in a consensual or healthy way. In that class, we were praised for pushing past our limits, and pitted against each other. Within the students, there was a romanticizing of injury that made me feel weak for listening to my body. In that one year, I lost the ability to detect red flags in my body. 

Although dance is widely seen and advertised as a way to get in touch with your body, my early experience with dance did the opposite; it severed my ties with sensation and numbed my ability to listen to my body. When I think of what I went through, I think of my peers who also endured that experience. I think of videos on social media that coach young dancers on how to do splits or more turns, and the vast culture in dance that teaches us to ignore our own sensations. In my experience with performance-based dance practice, my body has been an object for someone else to use or look at. I have felt this at my studio in my hometown, at auditions and intensives, and whenever I see dance content in the media.

 

A note that I will expand on eventually: I am also aware that this disconnect from bodily autonomy that I felt, especially in institutions, opens pathways that can lead directly to abuse. In spaces where we are used to our bodies belonging to someone else, any positions of power allow for dangerous opportunities for taking advantage of the normalization of non autonomy.

DISINTEGRATION
Dance has incredible potential for real sensory play. To counteract the culture of sensory numbing, I think we have to start with a loosening of language and meaning. Letting go of the definitions of right and wrong in dance has allowed me to feel that my embodied knowledge is important. I am no longer trying to be someone else in my movement. A release like this on a larger scale in the dance community could have massive effects on the way that we love our bodies and our movement. 

Recognizing the roots of my distrust of my body is allowing me to rediscover my sensory pathways. I feel deeply and massively and it is liberating to no longer be afraid of myself. Dance taught me that my body was unreliable. As I am letting go of the messages of my early dance training however, dance is now teaching me that my body is reliable, and even more urgently, critical to listen to and learn from.

SCORES/EMBODYING
I have been asking myself what it feels like to find pleasure in movement, and what that pleasure feels like. One of the first joys I found in my diagnosis was the permission I suddenly had to let go of verbal language, so I have been investigating how sensation feels when I don’t try to translate it into words. Although I am doing exactly that here, this practice stays mostly physical. When I interview my senses, I relax into a nonverbal, nonsymbolic state where I can acknowledge and pinpoint sensation without translation or description. I am intently curious about the origins of my sensations and how they travel, twist, wiggle, and blend. I see a map of my body lighting up with colors and shapes. I ask what feels good, and my body moves towards long, light blue yawning. I ask what it feels like to let my body do what it wants, and my body map explodes with colors.

I am treating my sensations like I am meeting them for the first time. I am sitting down to coffee with my body, and asking,

What does it feel like to tell my body to do something?

What does it feel like to let my body do something?

In what ways can I describe sensation nonverbally?

Can I be intentionally unintentional?

What does this really feel like?

Have I been told to feel this way?

Is my body telling me something? How can I resist translating that into words?

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