Autism and the body-mind disconnect

This is something that’s been on my mind for a while, and I’ve really wanted to sit down and get my thoughts together on it. When I first heard about the body-mind disconnect that is experienced by some autistic people, it all sounded a bit strange – but gradually I started to realise that it explained a lot of things that I’d been unable to fully articulate about my relationship with my body. 

Ever since I was a child I’ve struggled to get my body to do what I want it to do, to feel how I think it should feel, and to look how society deems an attractive body should look like. I’ve always blamed it on being overweight, and that definitely contributes to many of my issues, but it doesn’t quite tell the whole story.

Like many overweight women, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the reasons why I’m overweight. Obviously, eating too much and moving too little are the basic reasons, but why could I never seem to do anything about it? Why don’t I exercise? Why do I keep overeating? I remember chatting to a friend about this a few years ago, and having a big realisation that I overeat in order to feel my body. My friend was quite surprised by this, as she said she found the opposite – she ate to try and numb her feelings. “Hmm, interesting!” we agreed, and then thought no more about it.

Later, I was seeing a physiotherapist (for something completely unrelated) and she told me I had issues with proprioception – knowing where my body is in space. It’s quite common for people who are hypermobile (as I am), but again, I didn’t really think much more of it.

Fast-forward a few years. I realise I‘m autistic. I get a formal diagnosis. I learn about the body-mind disconnect. I slowly start to put things together.

I have real trouble ‘feeling’ my body. If I’m not looking at it, I can’t quite tell where it is. It’s like my mind is not properly connected to my body.

That will probably sound strange if you’ve never thought about it before. It sounds quite strange to me, and I’ve thought about it a lot.

This disconnect affects me in a few different ways. For example, this is how it affects my relationship with food:

– I have difficulty telling when I’m hungry, so often don’t eat until I’m starving, and then either eat far too much, or eat junk food because I’m so hungry.
– I have difficulty telling when I’m full, and often don’t get any feedback from my body until I’ve eaten so much it’s actually uncomfortable.
– If I do stop eating before the uncomfortable point, it sometimes feels like I haven’t eaten enough, because I don’t have any feeling of being full and satisfied. I then feel like I need to eat more, but when I do, I get to the uncomfortable stage and realise I didn’t actually need to eat after all. But by then it’s obviously too late!

The result is that I end up stuck in this cycle of eating too much, and not realising what I’ve done until it’s too late. 

The disconnect also affects my ability to exercise. My mind knows what it wants my body to do, but the connection is faulty. The message doesn’t quite get through. Either I can’t get my body to do what it’s supposed to, or I don’t realise I’m overdoing it until it’s too late, and then I spend a week in pain and hardly being able to move.

All of this mind/body stuff has really come to the fore for me recently, since I downloaded the Headspace app, and started learning how to meditate. I started out with the intention of learning how to manage my mind a bit better, but quickly realised the potential of using it to help connect with my body. During my second meditation session I actually did manage to feel my whole body all at once; it was incredible to suddenly have this awareness of where everything is, to actually be able to feel myself, to be fully present in my body. I haven’t managed to replicate that feeling again, but I have found it helpful to focus on my breath and feeling the breath in my body while meditating. Sometimes when I’m meditating I’ve noticed that my awareness of my body is completely off; I can be lying on my bed and concentrating on my breathing, but if I try and think about my body I perceive it over to the right of where it actually is, like I have this phantom body lying next to my actual body, and my brain is plugged in to the phantom instead of my actual body. I have to put my hands on to my stomach to anchor myself in to where my body actually is.

I’m still very much learning how to manage all of this, but if you’re in the same situation, here are some things I‘ve found useful so far:

– Tight clothing. I don’t always do this, but sometimes I just need to feel where I am, and wearing tight, compression-type tops can really help. It can be quite tiring, because it’s a lot of extra sensory input to cope with, but it’s quite exhilarating at the same time. I still don’t totally feel my body, but it’s better.

– Meditating. Learning how to meditate has given me a few tools that I can use at any point if I need to get a bit more in to my body, and I’ve now been doing it every day for two whole months, which is about the longest that I’ve ever stuck at anything!

– Exercise plans. I find that following a strict plan for exercise helps me know how much I need to do, and when to stop. The Couch to 5k has been really good, and helps me to push myself just enough, but not overdo it.

– Educating myself about food. I’m still struggling with this one, but I’ve been learning about nutrition and how to make sure I get the nutrients I need, and get rid of the stuff I don’t need. Doing it like this means I can work to a plan, rather than going by the feelings in my body. The main thing is if I think I’m feeling hungry, or haven’t had enough to eat after a meal, I try and have a drink instead. Sometimes having a drink of hot milk in the evening after dinner can ’trick’ my mind in to thinking I’ve had a sweet pudding.

Finding out that I’m autistic is definitely a journey, and a learning curve. I’ve been alive for the best part of four decades, and for the first time feel like I’m starting to understand myself.