The Autistic pace of life in the ocean

Thanks to wonderful Autistic conversations I think I am beginning to understand why I feel so much at home in the ocean. To date I had not connected it to healing from Autistic trauma, but now I see the connection with increasing clarity.

Firstly, that much I knew already, besides the air and remote mountain regions, the ocean is one of the few environments that at least superficially is not shaped by humans. But of course in terms of pollution and pH, and in terms of the growing number of fish farms, this is no longer true.

Secondly, and this is the part I am only fully realising as part of Autistic dialogues, the pace of life in the ocean is much more in tune with the a of life that is compatible with humans cognitive capacities and limits than life in human urban environments.

Let me explain:

The universal law of underwater movement

The density of water (800 times higher than air) means that drag is very significant, which means that all living creatures move much slower in water than on land. Also any jerky movements only cost extra energy. Underwater life is about going slow and making smooth movements, or simply staying still, observing the environment with all your senses. You can learn how to do it by observing the fishes around you.

You learn the universal law of movement intuitively. You learn how to not disrupt the flow of life. Any fast movement, and whatever you were curious about has disappeared into a crack in the reef, or is moving away from you with streamlined bodies that are several times faster underwater than any human, fast disappearing beyond your limited horizon of visibility. Moving fast underwater amounts to a violation of a law of nature. You are immediately recognised as a threat.

All you need to do to be part of the life of the ocean is to slow down and follow the universal law of underwater movement.

For me the universal law of underwater movement has become associated with the feeling of being at home. This feeling is reinforced by the taste of salt water. If I have an addiction it is the addiction to being immersed in water and tasting salt water.

I think for an Autistic people the universal law of underwater movement acts as the braking assistant/buddy that we so often lack in W.E.I.R.D. human social environments.

The ocean environment has healing properties for Autistic people.

Orientation and proprioception in the ocean

Because the human body consists mostly of water, i.e. has the same density, you don’t notice any difference in blood pressure in your head, no matter which way you are oriented. Any position is just as comfortable as any other.

You are floating in space, completely effortlessly. This only reminds you to literally take it easy, and to go slow, because the high level of drag means that there is absolutely no point in attempting to go fast, especially if you have a SCUBA tank on your back – which weighs nothing, but which slows you down with further drag.

When you are free-diving it is even more important to go slow, because you can go much further/deeper by going slow – attempting to go fast only increases oxygen consumption and limits your range. A corollary of the universal law of underwater movement:

Underwater, less effort lets you travel farther!

Vision and scope of visibility in the ocean

Visibility is often limited to less than 10m, sometimes much less, and at the very best 40 metres. This means the visible world is small.

Brightness and contrasts are rapidly reduced with increasing depth. The world starts to look very different 10m below the surface and beyond. Blue becomes the dominant colour, and even if you look up, the source of light from the surface is very pleasant to look at, never too bright.

Also water tends to feel cooler than air. It is so pleasant to immerse the head under water after having had a migraine. No bright lights, and your head is being cooled from all sides.

Sounds and scope of hearing in the ocean

Sound travels more than four times faster underwater than in air. It means human ears can’t determine where sounds are coming from, but it also means sounds travel over great distances, and you always hear things that are far beyond the sphere of vision.

The underwater world is a world of mysterious sounds that have no origin. You are embedded in the soundscape of the universe. Anything that makes a sound is making its presence felt everywhere at once. Sounds become completely divorced from our sense of space. They simply exist, and it is only by accident, when you visually see something, like a parrot fish picking at the reef, that you can connect specific sounds with a spatial location.

The sounds of the ocean can become familiar like the sounds of a forest. They can underscore the feeling of being home.

Pressure in the ocean

The water pressure at 10m is twice the air pressure at surface level. This means that all the air in all air filled body cavities is compressed to half the volume at a depth of 10m, to one third the volume at 20m, etc. When you are free-diving you feel the compression in your upper chest, and this gives you an intuitive sense of depth that is reinforced by the change in colours around you. When SCUBA diving you breathe air at the same pressure as the surrounding water, then the change in colours is the only indicator of depth.

You can train your Eustachian tubes to open up and equalise the pressure in your ears when diving down, without needing the manual “blowing your nose” assistance.

Furthermore, humans, like all air breathing mammals, have a dive reflex. This means that our heart rate slows down when immersed in water, especially when we are holding our breath. When free-diving you can train yourself to feel your heart rate, and you can use meditation practice, to calm down as much as possible, to maximise your level of comfort and your underwater range.

Again, slowing down allows you to go farther.

Being in the ocean is pure Autistic joy. It is a safe space in the non-human world, it is a space that allows us to recover from the human madness of busyness.

Autistic trauma peer support

In 2022 the Autistic Collaboration community is in the process of co-creating and operationalising peer support services for Autistic Trauma based on the lived experiences of Autistic people all over the world.

We invite our Autistic peers (you) to contribute lived experience to the Autistic trauma peer support project, as needed anonymously, so that we can co-create services around the diverse needs of Autistic communities.

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4 Responses

  1. Fantastic article, Jorn!
    As an autistic person myself and someone eternally fascinated with the ocean (in a landlocked city, though), the way you bring up how it feels to navigate underwater gives echoes of how I often try to prevent or deal with nervous collapses; I refer to myself as “going in underwater mode”, where I slow down on purpose in order to give my body calm. Free-diving is something I haven’t had the chance to partake in, your descriptions of the practice itself, how it feels to you and how it relates to an autistic pace of life were evocative, to the point of homecoming.

    Thank you so much for sharing this!

  2. spending all my free time alone with the ocean, in this time period was also perhaps the only time i have known full recovery from autistic burnout.

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