Written by Karen-Anne Manghan
I am an autistic woman, I have been working in the autism field as a mentor, adviser and advocate for many years but I trained as a Pilates teacher in 2016 with the aim of providing more autism friendly teaching and classes.
I came to Pilates in 2002 after an osteopath suggested the method may help with postural issues caused by the double hip dysplasia I was born with, I was lucky to find class which met my needs early on, but I did find that when the teacher changed it became a less autism friendly space. I tried many different classes and teachers over many years and I found that very few where well differentiated, either because the teaching was ‘one size fits all’, or that there was an expectation to be social and therefore caused me to feel uncomfortable. Like many autistic people, I experienced bullying as a child in relation to my poor physical prowess, I have always struggled to catch a ball or ride a bike and as a result I avoided sport and exercise classes for most of my life.
Despite the challenges of finding a suitable class, I was hooked on Pilates and keen to learn more, I researched the rehabilitative nature of the method and how I could utilise it to improve my wellbeing. I was also learning about co-occurring physical differences that some autistic people experience, such as hypermobility, hypotonia and hip dysplasia. Pilates has helped me to improve my mobility, correct postural issues and manage some of the pain caused by endometriosis, but it has also helped me to me develop better co-ordination, body awareness and confidence.
As an autistic person, I value my independence greatly; I enjoy doing for, and by, myself. The idea of being dependent on others or having to be cared for causes me a great deal of fear and anxiety, I am highly motivated to maintain my mobility but my modern day lifestyle often does not support this, as Joseph Pilates said ‘civilisation impairs physical fitness’. I am not interested in teaching ‘fitness Pilates’ or in the body beautiful, my focus is to improve the quality movement, with the aim of helping the body to become more efficient and therefore less likely to suffer injury or pain.
Joseph Pilates developed his method by taking the most effective aspects of many other physical conditioning models and combining them, he created his own exercise equipment and was inspired to do so whilst working in a hospital with injured soldiers during the first world war, which he used to help rehabilitate their bodies. Originally named ‘controlology’, the Pilates method is logical form of exercise, which has made it very accessible for my autistic mind and body. I often describe my autism as the inability to exist in a moderate space, this also applies to my body, which is both hypermobile and experiences muscle rigidity. As with everything, autistic bodies move either too much or too little, our energies are either overwhelming or virtually nonexistent.
My Pilates practice gives me the opportunity to self regulate, slow down and focus on the minutiae of the movements when over stimulated, or allow myself to be stimulated by the activity with under stimulated. This has been hugely beneficial to my mental health, especially my anxiety, for me my practice creates a space for me which is entirely without judgement and I try to recreate that for others through teaching. I believe that Pilates can be autism friendly when taught with care and understanding, that the method can improve our experience of our autistic bodies, encouraging us to develop pro-preceptive awareness and improve co-ordination.
It is my aim to bring more autism friendly Pilates to more autistic people.
The Pilates method teaches you to be in control of your body and not at it’s mercyJoseph Pilates
Karen-Anne Manghan is an autistic Pilates teacher, specialist autism mentor, trainer and adviser.