freestyle skateboarding as self-developed autism treatment

While thinking about whether or not I’m autistic, I realized you could describe skateboarding as a form of “stimming.” I’ve always felt there was something really special and helpful about skateboarding, but it’s new to think of it in the context of autism. The first thing I found when I started checking the internet was that there’s a charity that holds skateboarding clinics for autistic people. I just ordered their documentary:

The NEXT thing I thought was that Rodney Mullen is probably autistic. This video section was inspirational to me in high school:

People at skateparks have told me that I skate like Rodney Mullen. Not in the sense of being amazing, but in the sense of focusing on a more technical side of skating: caspers, switch/nollie/fakie tricks, manuals, flip tricks on flat ground. The thing about watching Rodney Mullen skate is that he invented most of the tricks he’s doing. He was the first person who had the idea of 360 flips. If I remember right, he lived in rural Florida and became the world champion of freestyle skating by practicing alone in his garage. “Freestyle” is the style of skating in the second half of the video, which is set to The Doors – People are Strange.

It’s said that autistic people have a fascination with spinning objects. It’s very interesting to hear him talk, with the idea that he might have autism in mind:

The first time I saw that, it tripped me out that he started talking about group theory. I once read a book about abstract algebra when I wanted to understand cryptography better for work reasons. To me, it’s fascinating that the inventor of all the tricks I’ve been doing for the last 26 years really likes the concept of symmetry. I’m pretty sure non-skateboarders wouldn’t pick up on some of what the Rodney Mullen skating footage is showing. Everybody has a preferred stance: regular or goofy-footed. Regular-footed means your left foot is naturally forward. Forcing yourself to do a trick with the opposite foot forward is called skating “switchstance,” and it’s difficult in the way that writing with your non-preferred hand is difficult. Each trick can be done in variations going forwards or backwards, off the nose or the tail of the board. That means there are 4 ways of doing each trick. Rotations can be either “frontside” or “backside”, where frontside is counterclockwise rotation for regular-footed people. The board can flip along 3 different axes, independently. There’s a combinatorial aspect of skating.

Watch the video again and pay attention to whether his left or right foot is in front. Certain tricks are satisfying because something rotates and then rotates back the other way. A crazy-hard example would be the kickflip to underflip at 0:38. At 0:42, he’s doing a switch 360 flip. The board spins 360 degrees around 2 axes, and he’s doing it with the “wrong” feet for him. It’s done so well that it’s like a mirror image of his “regular” 360 flips. That’s the very next trick. The video was edited that way to demonstrate that he’s ambidextrous with an intermediate-level flip trick, which is advanced. Not every kid at the skatepark can 360 flip. Maybe someone is there at any given time that could switch 360 flip, let alone over a gap.

The 1 minute point shows him doing all 4 variations of a half-cab nosegrind to revert in the same direction. It’s harder to come off that way because, during the grind, one of the wheels is below the surface and one is rolling on top. If you come off the way he’s coming off in those tricks, the rotation would be naturally blocked by the wheel bumping into the edge of the obstacle. If he was exiting the grind by reversing direction and turning 180 degrees, he would trivially roll off the obstacle instead of having to hop. The truck is like the fulcrum of a lever, balancing weight between the front and back feet. If too much weight goes on the front foot, you stop and pitch forward instead of sliding.

In another sense, you’re doing a full-cab (backwards 360), where the front truck taps the obstacle at the peak of the rotation. The difference in perspective is that you’re focusing on the jumping and rotating instead of the foot that goes with the truck that’s grinding. Sometimes the “secret” to landing a trick is that sort of perspective shift. You discover that somehow, focusing your attention on one aspect of the trick lets you do the whole thing.

Some of the satisfaction of watching skate videos is definitely the sense of picturing yourself making those movements, like a sort of rehearsal. People imitate the videos. Mirror neurons. Rodney Mullen wasn’t imitating, though.

You see the same tricks from multiple angles. Another thing is that, when I’m watching footage of goofy-footed people, I’m trying to rapidly see the mirror image of what’s on the screen in my mind, so that I can picture myself going through those movements with my natural stance. Jerry Hsu is goofy-footed and does a lot of epic switch tricks. It takes a lot of those sorts of geometric transformations in my head to appreciate everything that’s going on here (see the link for more on transformations and perspective taking). Anything with his left foot forward is that much crazier:

I’ve wondered if skateboarding helped my math skills. I see a connection between all these regular/switch issues and logical negation, flipping a graph over an axis. Spins and congruence mod 360. Frames of reference, e.g., the way that your body and the board don’t rotate with respect to one another during a 180 kickflip:

The inventor of the 180 kickflip acts sorta weird and has a fascination with group theory. I think I get it. Compare bowl skating. To me, this expresses a totally different personality:

It’s more aggressive. It proves something to do more dangerous tricks, to get up after harder falls. You can’t do it in some isolated place with some flat ground. You have to be at a central place, the bowl, and take turns. Some of the turn-taking is implicit, and you can drop in at the wrong time and “snake” somebody. People tend to become territorial about their local park. If someone is just that much better than everybody else, or thinks he is, he might monopolize an obstacle while somebody films his epic struggle to land whatever it is. It’s more like the attitude of the original Venice Beach people, who do not seem to be autistic. They seem like they might beat up somebody autistic.

Rodney Mullen’s single most important innovation was to bring the ollie, or no hands aerial, from ramps and pools to flat ground. He didn’t have any special facilities to go to.

I decided to start rollerblading again recently, after 20 years. The way I structure the sessions is by doing basic tricks regular and switch, then doing them alley-oop, regular and switch, then doing a half cab into them, regular and switch, etc. It’s enjoyable that doing tricks switch is easier in rollerblading, because my feet are getting symmetrical stimulation. I don’t like spending 30 minutes where every trick is putting weight on just the outside edge of my right foot, always sliding in the same direction. I don’t see that most people around me are neurotic about the symmetry in the same way. Some people don’t put any time into learning anything switch.

There’s an OCD-ishness and a perseverative aspect to skateboarding.

You’re giving yourself a lot of vestibular stimulation. I wish I knew more about the cerebellum, because that’s also where a lot of CB1 receptors are. Try to imagine how it feels to do these things:

There’s a similar combinatorial aspect, but no flip tricks. They’re attached to your feet. Instead, there’s an emphasis on unpredictably jumping from one grinding position to another, mid-grind, possibly more than once. It’ll involve spinning and rearranging foot positions. There are several different grinding surfaces on the boot, and the tricks are different combinations of those, e.g., left foot on outside sole (“soul”) and right foot on inside edge. Part of skill is mastery of a bigger volume of the space of all possible combinations of things.

I suck at flatland BMX, but I try. It’s also a bunch of loners wearing headphones, culturally:

Most flatland tricks were invented by Kevin Jones, a spotlight-avoiding recluse who became world champion by spending all his life alone in parking lots on a children’s bicycle. Autism and odd, obsessive behavior.

Of course, most skateboarders don’t have autism. I don’t know if Rodney Mullen has autism. I probably have autism, but I don’t yet officially have autism. Still, there’s something extremely soothing about skateboarding. From the A.Skate testimonials:

Skating has been a God-send for my daughter Shelby. After excelling at surfing, skating was our next step. At our first Askate clinic we were nearly derailed by sensory issues…but everyone persisted and no one gave up on her. We worked to get her to sit on the board and she melted into it once we got moving. Now skating is a part of our every day life; she is standing on the baord for longer and longer periods of time everyday. After skating, she is so much more open neurologically. We see her making huge strides in social interactions, communications and fine motor skills after her board time. The friends we have made through Askate are for lifelong. Autism is a disorder that isolates not only the child but families and siblings as well. Through Askate we are part of a community of amazing parents, children, and volunteers supporting each other each and every day. God Bless Crys for realizing what worked for Sasha could help so many other children.

I think that’s right. Like other mental health treatments, skateboarding has things about it that would be helpful for a variety of mental problems. It’s “behavioral activation therapy” for depression. It puts you in controlled situations of forcing yourself to do things that make you anxious. It promotes a feeling of mastery. It provides a way of being better than other people at something to compensate for other areas of life. It grounds you in your body, if you tend to dissociate. It gives you a socially acceptable…ish way to injure yourself, if you need that.

Skateboarding’s success rate is less than 100%, since Elliot Rodger talked about skateboarding in his manifesto.