We were walking together following the path in the woods that we knew so well. This day, we walked together without saying a word. We could hear our feet touching the ground at each of our step. And we could hear the sound of birds or of rabbits moving in the bushes. We walked along the path looking at the trees around us and picking up some edible leaves on our way. We stayed silent.
Our walks were usually filled with words, facts and stories. He was autistic and would recite the same stories over and over again, talking about the same facts, anecdotes and details. We would walk together while he would for example recite the plot of one of his favorite cartoons, talking about the personalities of some cartoon characters or of some people he knew, or he would recite the series numbers of the trucks of a road construction company that he really liked.
By repeating the same stories over and over again, he was sharing his interests and his way of perceiving the world, it was his way of interacting with the people around him.
It was also a way for him to simply practice his vocabulary. By telling the same stories he would sometimes involve new words, new ways of describing the same things.
Sometimes, repeating the same stories over and over again seemed also to help him analyze his own thoughts and clear up his mind and then he would move on to other stories.
It was also a way of reassuring himself and dealing with his emotions, expressing through words his joys, excitements or facing his fears, worries and anxieties.
Indeed sometimes it seemed to help him focus his attention and create a barrier to some anxious thoughts so he would be in the present moment.
This day, he didn’t talk; his mind seemed to be quiet. We were simply walking together, connecting and relating to each other in silence. He seemed to be free from his anxieties and fears or to be able to deal with them without the need to repeat stories over and over again. He was simply happy in his environment and communicated a sense of peace and joy of being.
How can we help autistic children to get to this state of mind, a quiet and clear mind that is able to deal with fears and anxieties?
Walking has been shown to influence the way our brain works and functions. Indeed, physical movement changes the structure of the brain; it enhances its plasticity, its ability to form new connections or to modulate existing connections. (See science of learning)
Walking releases the stress by calming a region of the brain called the amygdala implicated in processing stress, fear and anxiety. Walking also helps our brain to not be overwhelmed by our thoughts and to clear our mind. When we walk, the brain can pick up more information and walking can allow one's thoughts to come and go in a way they don't when a person is focusing on something specific.
Where you walk makes a difference too. Exposure to nature has been shown to decrease stress levels. Nature is particularly important for autistic children who are often overwhelmed in urban environments by a lot of bad sensory triggers (like artificial lights, noises, smells, and large numbers of people…).
Indeed studies have shown that their amygdala is usually over-activated by these bad sensory triggers. As a result, walking in nature helps autistic children to release their stress so they are able to interact with their environment.
Walking gives us a time for free exploration. Indeed walking allows our brain to think and to be creative. In fact, researchers found that compared to sitting, walking, either indoors or outdoors was shown to boost creativity.
It’s also about following the child in his way of interacting with the environment and to build trust and confidence with him. It’s about observing and truly listening to the child so you can be in osmosis or synchronization with him.
And when you have this deep connection with the child, you are able to accept the silence as also a way of interacting with him. And you can just be here in the present moment with him without putting pressure on him to interact with you, just sharing the silence and being connected in the same way you would share words. In that state, you feel something which cannot be put into words but which is the nature of beauty and love.