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5 minute read Autism identity

Body Image and Autism: a personal reflection…

Is your body an ok place to be?

Does it feel safe?

Are you even sure it is you in there?

Our body image is not just affected by the messages we receive from other people, but by our health, life experiences, upbringing, and personal values – and many more things besides.

Body Image has been a topic of concern for many years. We are bombarded with unrealistic images of unobtainable bodies whenever we switch on the television, view advertisements, or access social media.  

The image that we form consists of several factors:

  1. How we perceive our body. How thin, tall, fit, or attractive we are. This may be accurate or inaccurate.
  2. How we feel about our body. Do we like how it is and how it works?
  3. What we think about it. Perhaps we think we should be fitter or healthier, or maybe we’re just right?
  4. The way we treat our bodies. How we care for ourselves, whether we exercise, harm ourselves intentionally or unintentionally, our relationship with eating.

Autistic people may experience all the same type of things in life that affect their typically developing peers, and they will be subject to the same media portrayals of ‘perfection’’. In fact, autistic people may be more likely to experience adverse life experiences such as relationships breaking down; employment and school issues; and poorer health outcomes – simply because their particular neurology puts them at a disadvantage. The way each of us perceives, thinks about, feels towards, and treats our body is complex and made up of a multitude of different factors.

I believe there are some additional factors to consider for autistic people. We may be more likely to experience ‘face blindness’ and have difficulties recognising individuals. We often have strengths in focusing intently on specific topics of interest, we may experience perseveration and a reliance on routines and rituals that help us organise our worlds. This could be responsible for some autistic individuals becoming excessively focused on diet, calorie counts, or exercise regimes. It may make breaking habits that are harmful towards our bodies more difficult too. An autistic person’s sensory processing may impact on their body image as well.

From a sensory perspective, I’ll explore my own experiences and reflect on how they have affected my life.

Proprioception

This has a significant effect on my relationship with my body. My muted sense of where the various parts of my body are in relation to each other means I am frequently misjudging doorways and bruising my arms in the process; I trip over my own feet; and I lift and throw with totally the wrong amount of force required. I find negotiating stairs and escalators very tricky, and if I can’t see my feet, I may as well not bother.

These type of proprioceptive experiences are well documented in accounts from autistic people. They undoubtedly impact on my self-esteem. I am not graceful, or elegant; ever. I don’t dance in public, I’m rubbish at sport, and even walking across a room requires the same kind of internal self talk one would say out loud to a blinfolded person navigating the same route! What I think and feel about my body is never particularly positive. My perception of where my body starts and ends is muted too. I recently cleared out my wardrobe and found a coat that I had bought. It was way too big. In fact, it had always been too big and my husband recounted how I have always bought clothes of the wrong size.

The image I have in my head of my size is not accurate. Not just in the fairly typical way many of us look back at old photos of when we were younger and slimmer, and wish we were as “fat” as we thought we were back then. But in a very genuine way where I have no idea whether I will fit through gaps between cars in car parks, or be able to choose which clothes size to try on in a shop. It is not just a self-esteem issue where I exagerate my weight, but a fundamental difference in how my senses work. I have no idea what size I am – and all those other factors like peer pressure, the media, my health and relationships play into an already wobbly body image.

Interoception

Knowing how I feel inside, and which emotions I am experiencing, or what my body is telling me I need to do – eat, rest, go to the toilet, and so on – these sensations are frequently muted too. I don’t know if I like you, I’m not sure if I even like me half the time either!  

Until recently, when I looked in the mirror, or at a photograph, I had no strong sense that the image was of myself. I remember as a child thinking deeply about what makes people separate from each other. I must have been around seven years old (because I remember the exact spot in the exact street where this ‘revelation’ hit me) and it struck me that I was everyone else and everyone else was me. I cannot put it into words accurately, but it was an incredibly powerful experience. When I reflect on it, I still can’t quite capture what it was that I had discovered, but I know it is something to do with interoception and identity. I had incredibly clear ideas about who I was – I always did, but they were logical, thought-based, and completely detached from any feeling of who I was. I could have been anyone – where did Emma start and end?

This year I taught myself how to recognise myself. I had already begun a process of reflecting on photographs and noticing in a very mindful way that they were of me. I also built up to the point where I could see myself on camera for the inevitable conference calls the Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to  partake in. It was a painstakingly slow process, but I can now watch myself in a short film. Prior to this, I was filled with dread, horror and nausea whenever I saw myself. I could not connect in any way with the image in front of me and I found it terryfying that a stranger was saying my thoughts out loud, or was wearing my clothes.

I have embarked on a process of learning about my interoception. I need to take it slowly. Recognising my emotions and bodily functions as my own, feels as terrifying as when I recognised my outer body as my own too. On both occasions I experienced a massive sense  of overwhelm in the days and weeks after my sensory renaissance. A mixture of novel delight, fear, and wonder. Mixed with an almost painful sense of self-awareness. It felt important to gently nurture this and not push myself too hard.

My other senses play an important part in creating my body image too. All of us experience the world through our senses. When acting ‘normal for me’, my brain processes this sensory information in muted or intense ways, compared to typically developing people. When I have additional sensory, social, or cognitive demands to process, my sensory processing can become even more extreme. This means that my world feels inconsistent, unpredictable, and disordered.

The way my brain processes the visual information about how I look varies from day to day. Some days I can smell myself strongly – particularly if I have been unwell or terribly upset. I give off a distinctive chemical body odour. I can frequently hear my heartbeat and the blood rushing through my body. My sense of touch is hypersensitive, and I flinch at a light touch. This makes me upset because it appears like I am rejecting the very people I wish to seek comfort from. All of these factors influence how I perceive my body and how others perceive me. This impacts on how I am treated and how I respond to others too.

No reflection on body image would be complete without discussing food and eating. My gustatory processing works in such a way that I have very particular needs when it comes to flavours, textures, and combinations of foods. I have written about autism and food elsewhere, but in brief, I tend to prefer certain colours of food. I lack the imagination to think up original meals and tend to opt for familiar foods. My sense of taste fluctuates, and I can find particular flavours are so extremely unpleasant my body reacts as if I have been given poison!

My need for routine and familiarity (in order to calm my chaotic world) can result in restricted diets. My anxiety and sensory processing can encourage me to avoid mealtimes. As a teenager, my poor executive skills led to me being disorganised and eating quite a limited diet. This resulted in weight loss and poor health. My energy levels frequently soared then crashed in response to my unhealthy eating patterns. This probably had an effect on my emotions and self-esteem too.

Each of us will experience a complicated mix of factors all interplaying to help influence our body image. Our internal and external body awareness will give us a ‘sense’ of our bodies, and our thoughts, beliefs, and feelings about this will play a part too.

As autistic people we may experience additional influences on our bodies – in the form of our atypical sensory processing, and our need for routine, ritual, and repetition. We may intuitively know how to regulate our senses and emotions too. This may be in uniquely autistic ways. Many autistic people find repetitive movements, sounds, visual images, and other sensory input is fantastic for helping with focus, relaxation, stress relief, and joy. These activities can bring a sense of peace and predictability to our bodies and make them feel ‘safe’ and ‘connected’ to our whole self. This is certainly my experience anyway. Unfortunately, these activities may be seen as inappropriate, or a subject for teasing, scorn, or punishment.

Imagine living in a body that feels clumsily out of your control; that shifts its shape from day to day in front of your eyes; that reacts physiologically to the ebb and flow of a restricted diet and rigid exercise plan; and recoils  uncontrollably from flavours or touch.

Go back to my opening questions. Is that body a place that feels safe to you? Is it an ok place to be?  When what you ‘know’ doesn’t match what you ‘feel’, because you feel nothing but know everything – are you sure it is even you in there?

Is it surprising that so many autistic people are diagnosed with eating disorders, or self-harm, or are vulnerable to abuse? How do you even consent to another person entering the space of your body when you don’t know where that starts and stops?