The Walking Cure

By Ralph Smith


A few nights ago we went for a long walk in an abandoned railway bed. For us, nowadays it's not so rare as it once was to have another autistic person as a walking partner. For me, I'm no longer surprised to hear my concerns echoed precisely, or to sense a kind of "resonance" or intuitive recognition in our company, in our conversation— in our songs, our recitals, our sensibilities altogether. That's what our walk in the railway bed was like, for me.

In this case, it was the combination of right company and extended walking that worked a kind of magic. As we went along I joked about my theory of "the walking cure" for autistic people—a play on psychotherapy as "the talking cure"—my retort against all "causal" theories about autism. If my joking was a premonition of sorts, when the moment came I was reminded of something I'd written years earlier, about a feeling I hadn't known in decades:

Traveling on foot and knowing the place and distance, I could go with a sense of self and movement intact. This arrangement fit my ability to perceive, and so to trust, and so to experience.

At a certain point in our walking, as the sky was nearing twilight, I noticed that a characteristic "fog" had lifted from my senses. Next I was gesturing and exclaiming about the sudden sense of "earth" and "gravity" and "trees," about a feeling of personal presence. A true feeling presence had emerged (again) as my very appropriate condition. For the first time in a long time, I woke up to my environment, to a mislaid sense of personal experience.

Revived (and now gone again) was a sensibility that is my rightful experience: a sense of space and a sense of presence, of appropriate awareness in self. This facility is stolen every day in many ways; stolen from everyone, in degree, but especially from those whose ability to settle within themselves is by circumstance made all but extinct. In this way, stolen not only from me, but from all others who are called "autistic."

My discovery is continuing right now, in the sense that I realize, here, that my objection to turning autistic people into "robots" is not against promoting a wooden self-affect or some kind of automaton-like behavior. (These behaviors, by the way, often seem inevitable because autistic people have no choice but to model or "map" social mechanics, since we lack the so-called "higher order" cognitive ability that is automatic in non-autistic people. A parallel might be all the added-life-hassles like assistive devices and social-services paperwork that many disabled people must contend with, while non-disabled people might seem to "breeze" through everyday existence.

The objection to turning autistic people into robots is, in fact, a simplistic interpretation (which I've heard more than once) of a more sophisticated objection. The objection—our objection, I think—is not about "rote" learning raised to its highest possible level. Our objection, really, is about the routine deadening of the "spirit of self."

I mean that there are worse things than being a "robot." The term "zombie" is more accurate, and more chilling, more painful, because it's closer to human. Autistic people are human; but our human qualities can be respected, even "revived," only if we know that these qualities are in us to begin with. Maybe I'm a pretty smart guy by some people's standards, but I was never smart enough to realize that in perfecting the rote ideal I allowed the death of—and completely forgot about for a long while—one of the best parts of me.

©2002 Ralph Smith.

~My indebtedness to the writing of Donna Williams ("Nobody Nowhere: The Extraordinary Autobiography of an Autistic," and other books) is especially evident in paragraph three. For readers interested in learning more about autism, I recommend not only Williams' books, but this link. -R.S.


Ralph Smith lives in Ontario with two cats and a computer stuffed full of research on neurological and developmental disorders. He researches Autistic Spectrum Conditions, with side trips into cross-disability cooperation. His hobbies are equally "driven," including a keen interest in clay sculpture, graphics and anatomy. Read Ralph's other BENT piece, Lots of Love and Gentle Thoughts.


BENT: A Journal of CripGay Voices/September 2002