Why Are Autistic People the Biggest?
One thing autistic people are known for is rocking back and forth … right?
Not really. It’s more of a stereotype, if we’re honest.
It often happens, though, to be strongly associated with autism.
And it is true that if you see someone swaying incessantly, there is at least a fair chance that they have autism.
Here is a brief explanation of why autistic people rock.
Rocking can be a form of” stimming”, which is a word used to describe self-stimulating behavior. It is a repetitive behavior often used for self-regulation, to seek sensory input, and to express oneself as when happy or when upset. In short, rocking is a way for an autistic person to calm or soothe themselves.
Some very good analogies would be a smoker, a soda drinker, or a coffee addict. When they get anxious, angry, or maybe even fearful, they will smoke, drink, or pot.
In essence, this is stymying for a typical-A person. An activity or addiction that makes them feel comfortable.
A Quick Warning
I want to throw out an early warning.
Whenever you discuss a topic that relates to disability, or perceived disability, some people may understandably be offended.
You may be talking about a loved one, or a behavior that someone is already self-conscious about. Answering the question, why do autistic people rock, I am not implying that rocking is indicative of autism.
I am not suggesting that there is anything inherently wrong with rocking, or autism per se.
Not everyone who has autism rocks back and forth, and not everyone who has autism.
That said, enough people with autism tend to do that, and enough people you see constantly rocking have autism to make that an often asked question.
To answer the question fully and completely as it has been asked, let’s look specifically at why an autistic person who is rocking does so.
A Quick Note About Shaking
This question asks about rocking, but you must understand that stimming can take many different forms.
It can be any number of things like:
Snapping your fingers
More subtle forms of shuddering like:
And any multitude of other physical movements.
Although it is referred to as stigmatic when referring to those on the autism spectrum it is something that almost everyone does and has always done.
Mothers rock their babies to soothe them. A stereotypical image of an elderly person would be of them rocking in a rocking chair.
What about you?
Have you ever bounced your leg, fiddled with your hair, touched a pen on your desk, touched your feet to the floor, or something like that when you were anxious or overly energetic?
Have you ever wiggled to calm yourself down when you are crying deeply?
These are all ways to wince, and are often done for the same reasons as someone with autism stimulants.
Shaking is simply another form of this.
Does This Mean An Autistic Person Is Too Much When They’re Stressed Out?
It may mean that…but it may not.
As I said earlier, wobbling in the way of swinging can be done for a multitude of reasons.
An autistic person who swings while under severe stress can also swing when excited, when sad, or even if they are just bored!
Swinging is often done as a way to shut out the world.
It can be used as a way to limit external stimulation, as well as to distract from internal thoughts. Sometimes it is even done out of habit!
My point is that there are an infinite number of reasons why someone will calm down at any given moment.
Over time, you can learn to recognize what it means when an autistic person you know is shuddering. You may know them well enough to see subtle differences.
It would be the same way you feel a friend or the mood of a loved one the moment they walk into the room. Even before they say anything, or you have had a chance to see their face.
What Are Some Other Examples of Why Autistic People Rock?
One reason would be self-regulation.
A common feature associated with an autism diagnosis is sensory processing disorder.
This is where the brain does not receive sensory input in the same way that a neurotypical person does.
Bright or flashing lights can physically hurt your eyes. Loud noises can hurt your ears and/or completely disrupt your thoughts.
A neurotypical person may see these things as discomfort or distractions and may ignore them. This is not always possible for someone on the spectrum.
You may be able to block out the sound of the vacuum cleaner, or the background noise of many people in a crowded area just by ignoring it. A person with autism may need self-regulation to do this.
By rocking, an autistic person can block out sensory input that they cannot handle, and replace it with self-regulated sensory input.
The rocking action gives them something to focus on other than their surroundings, thus minimizing the effects of these external factors.
Another Example Of Balancing Is Seeking Sensory Input.
Think about experiences that make you happy.
Maybe it’s eating a piece of chocolate or listening to your favorite song on the radio. Swinging as a way of seeking sensory input is one way that a person with autism can experience those same types of joy.
The same thing that makes you want to dance to a song or air drum to the beat, is the same thing that makes an autistic person want to rock back and forth.
The good feeling that comes over you when you take that first sip of coffee in the morning is the same thing they feel when they are still specifically looking for sensory input.
By rocking they are doing it – feeling good.
Sometimes a person with autism can do this in conjunction with something that already feels good so that they process it the way they want to.
A song may make them feel good, but by rocking it provides that good feeling in a way that their mind can process better.
When someone sways or chimes in as a way of expressing themselves, it is the equivalent of clapping your hands when you are excited, or stomping your foot when you are mad.
Clap your hands when you have good news, an autistic person may sway excitedly in large back and forth movements.
You might tap your foot or pound your fist on the other hand when you’re angry, while someone who swings to express themselves might swing quickly in small movements.
You hold your head in your hands because a close friend has just died, and the autistic person swings slowly in a long, slow manner.
Should I Stop My autistic child From Swinging?
The short and easy answer to this is no.
Why do you want to stop your autistic child from rocking? Why do you want them to stop themselves from calming down, reducing stress, staying calm, or being happy?
Are you trying to make an autistic person look “normal,” or do you want them to live and function in a healthy way?
Let’s look deeper.
We can all think of countless social circumstances where swinging might be considered inappropriate, such as at dinner, at a wedding, at church, or in other similar contexts.
Some people may argue that these are not good enough reasons to stop someone with autism from swinging, and that society should be more accepting.
Who cares what other people think?
For the record, I belong to this category.
The way I see it, if you can’t accept the behaviors associated with my son’s autism, then let’s talk about your socially unacceptable behavior of rudeness, arrogance, and ignorance!
What about other scenarios that involve rocking?
What about on a plane or a bus? While I agree that other people can look and talk all they want and I will just ignore it as rudeness and ignorance, is it fair to other people if my child is so distracted that it is disruptive to them for an extended period of time?
What about the autistic person’s personal thoughts?
What if they are personally embarrassed because they are rocky and people stare, or Does it make it harder for them to make friends and they wish they could stop?
In cases like that, it would be perfectly acceptable and potentially beneficial to teach someone to redirect their stimming in other ways.
Notice that I am saying “redirect” and not “stop”.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with stimming, or rocking as a way of stimming, and as I pointed out, we all do it to varying degrees.
When Someone With Autism Is Too Much, Is It Intentional or Subconscious?
Often, someone on the spectrum may not know that they are wobbling. They can easily be so caught up in their thoughts that they are subconscious that they take over as their mind tries to relax.
Other times they may realize that they need to relax, and begin to sway as they focus on relaxing.
Think about when you do something that would be considered stymying. Let’s say you tap your foot.
Suddenly you find yourself tapping your foot and you didn’t realize you were doing it?
Does your mind stop for a moment before you tap your foot, making it a conscious thought?
I think both scenarios are true.
With that in mind, people with more severe autism may not realize they are swaying.
Or they may know they are, but think no more about it than you would when you scratch your arm.
You scratch your arm, scratch it, and don’t think about it. If someone said, “You’re scratching your arm. “You would say, “Yeah, so what? Yeah, so what? It itches,” and it wouldn’t be a big deal.
Can Autistic People Overcome Swinging?
No, autistic people don’t outgrow it. They don’t get stronger either.
Have you outgrown your stimming behaviors? It’s a natural thing that all people do to varying degrees.
When you ask this question though, I think what you are really asking is, Does someone with autism rock less often and will it be less noticeable as they become adults.
In that case, the answer varies and is unique to each individual.
It depends on how severe the autism is, how great the need to rock is, and to some degree whether or not the autistic person wants to change their stimming behaviors.
Many people with high-functioning autism have learned to hide their stimulants in order to be more “socially acceptable.”
They do the things we described earlier, such as foot tapping, thumb tapping, or any number of other things so that the rocking is less noticeable.
Their need to rock is not reduced, their autism has not changed, and the act of shuddering does not stop.
It is important to note that in this scenario, it is a conscious choice by the individual himself and not something forced upon him.
Rocking is a way to reduce anxiety and stress, and forcing someone to stop, or making fun of them for doing so will only increase the stress and anxiety, and increase the need to stop.
Autistic spectrum disorder is a very real diagnosis.
The behaviors associated with this cognitive disorder are equally real.
Symptoms such as sensory processing disorder are not visible. They cannot be seen, touched, heard, or felt, and therefore are often judged by others.
An autistic person who rocks back and forth to relieve pain and block out the bright lights above is no different from the person who is rubbing his hands together due to arthritic pain.
An autistic person who sways with joy when listening to your favorite song is having as much fun as you are when you dance to yours.
Someone with autism who sways in their seat in a restaurant that is full of sounds, smells, Lights, and lots of action going on is no less of a person than you who wiggles and squirms during a dental procedure.
Our paradigms are our reality.
Once you accept that someone with autism not only sees the world in a different way, but actually experiences it in a completely different way than you do…then perhaps your paradigms regarding autism will open you up to a whole new perspective.
I want to take this time to thank you for reading this article. If you would like to know more about how you can help others, then I urge you to read another article I wrote called understanding autism vs awareness.
And please don’t keep a secret from us.
Janice is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Special Education. She also holds a Master of Science in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) from Queen’s University, Belfast. She has worked with and case managed children and youth with autism and other intellectual and/or developmental disabilities in home and residential setting since 2013.