Sensory-Rhythmic Attention as Neurodiverse Attunement: Rupturing Normative Communication and Method

From the Series: Disability as Rupture

Close-up photograph of a piece of knitting. The photograph focuses on unraveling red loops of yarn poking out of black fabric. Different patterns of red, green, and black knitting appear in the foreground and background of the photograph.
Detail from an untitled ethnographic knitting project, 2021. Image and knitting by Rebecca-Eli Long.

Josh stood at the top of the hill, spinning. With arms held up high, his torso shifted back and forth as he moved. After a long time working with autistic children and adults in the United Kingdom, I experienced his dance as a pleasurable embodiment in time and space, an immersion in the ways his body responded to its own centrifugal force. I could almost feel his pleasure in tuning with the contours of movement and could certainly appreciate the world-making enacted through this immersion in bodily rhythmic communication.

Sensory sensitivities are widely experienced by autistic people, who in response frequently engage in “stimming” practices (or self-stimulating behaviors) with the surfaces, textures, sounds, and feelings of one’s environs. Tapping fingers on a table, feeling flowing water, spinning, humming, and singing—such mundane practices are inculcated in autistic ways of being, becoming a part of who that person is. Such movements were described to me as pleasurable habits and, at times, as calming responses to what can be overwhelming sensitivity to stressful social and architectural environs. As Thomas, an autistic advocate and budding horse trainer, would often tell me, stimming was not something to be stopped or trained away, but instead a way of fulfilling a need.

Many autistic people describe attuning with human and non-human environments via rhythmically infused movement practices. In their video work, “In My Language,” the late autistic writer and advocate Mel Baggs reflects on normative assumptions regarding communication, sociality, and personhood. They perform for the viewer ways of attuning through sensory-rhythmic attention to worlds of texture, touch, and feeling. Reflecting on their body language and movement in time—that is, their own particular rhythms of sensory preference, in contrast to clock time—they tell us (2010, 1), “I have a body language that some others — usually autistic people — can understand... I can tap out rhythms in general or those of my favorite numbers. (I really like the rhythm of seven, for example.)”

In detailing a moment from my fieldwork and quoting Baggs’s reflections, I wish to acknowledge the joy to be found in moving with the nonhuman aspects of our worldly inhabitations, rather than offer some kind of spectacle. Rocking, tapping, and moving for pleasure are lived sensory practices that have for too long been denigrated as unimportant, or in the context of autistic people, deemed pathological. Such sensory-rhythmic attention is problematically pathologized as “stereotypy” (aimless repetitive behaviors) in definitions of the condition, marginalizing deeply human, sensorial ways of being and making worlds. These inhabitations were fundamental to my research interlocutors' understandings of both autism and a kind of extended sociality and personhood (Malcolm 2019).

I spent 16 months (2015-16) conducting fieldwork at riding centers in the United Kingdom and United States, offering services for autistic children where normative modes of interaction were actively inverted. The usual drills of moving up and down the paces in a formalized tempo inherited from military forms of horse training were jettisoned. Sessions were instead designed around each individual’s sensory embodiment and followed the child’s directives through a quiet woodland trail. Language was not expected and sensory embodiments were very carefully attended to. Through eight months of participant observation in weekly sessions with four-year-old Jack, his horse Sylvan, the practitioner who rode in the saddle with him, and his mother who walked alongside, I joined in an evolving, shared embodiment via the rhythmic movements of the horse as it variously walked, stopped, or trotted, shifting up and down in pace.

Over the months, I got to know Jack’s ways of expressing his pleasure or displeasure with the turns we took with huge smiles and laughs or high-pitched squeaks. With his own rhythmic body movements, he defined the shared rhythm through which we collectively moved — scooping his hips in the saddle and rocking ever so slightly back and forth when he wanted to shift up and leaning back to slow down. As we moved, Jack sometimes fell asleep in the practitioners’ arms. He ultimately set the pace and the means of communication in which we all engaged. This kind of non-normative rhythm and means of communicating became an affordance for enacting neurodiverse temporalities of shared social time.

Tempo can act as a disciplinary force, creating docile bodies through entraining normative modes via the development of habits and routines—the classic example being the exercise classes of the gymnasium (Foucault 1979), and in the context of autism therapies, the Applied Behavioral Analysis session in which a specific prosody and interactional style is learned. Yet through inculcating alternate, non-normative spatiotemporal movements, shared tempo—or equally, ruptured tempo—can act as a moment of resistance (Freeman 2019): a living, breathing metaphor for how it might be otherwise. Jack set the tempo, threw the pulse that we were to follow. Unlearning normative modes of speaking and linguistically driven tempos of back and forth, I was inculcated by Jack and Sylvan into their sensory worlds, and their own ways of not “speaking” or being “heard,” but rather setting a tempo of feeling, and of being felt.

For those people who choose to tune in to their meaning, such engagements can be modes of communication across a constellation of embodiments. By following these ways of being, rather than trying to alter them, non-autistic people can attune to sensory-rhythmic modes of attention, which offer non-normative modes of meeting. In so doing, they become living affordances and meaningful allies to autistic people whilst acknowledging the distributed nature of sociality and personhood.

Such an approach ruptures prevailing anthropological emphasis on spoken conversation in participant observation as a route to describing (visually mediated) “perspectives” or “points of view” and prioritizes leaning into modes of being with. These methods give a new perspective on the multiple scales (and temporalities) of the anthropological method of participant observation, shifting from “stepping in” and “out” of the perceptions of those in focus to “tuning in” and “out” of relation with research interlocutors (Malcolm 2019).


Baggs, Mel. 2010. “Cultural Commentary: Up in the Clouds and Down in the Valley: My Richness and Yours.Disability Studies Quarterly 30, no. 1.

Foucault. Michel. 1979. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by A. Sheridan). New York: Vintage.

Freeman, Elizabeth. 2019. Beside You in Time: Sense Methods in the American Nineteenth Century. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Malcolm, Roslyn. 2019. “Rhythms That Matter: The Kinetic Melodies and Matterings of Autism and Equine Therapy in the UK and USA.” Doctoral Thesis. University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh.