Why Do People With Autism Often Walk On Their Toes?

autistic boy toe walkingYesterday, I caught myself toe walking, and it sparked a fascinating conversation in our community. It turns out there’s a lot others need to learn about this!

Toe walking in autism is often linked to sensory sensitivities, motor coordination challenges, or anxiety.

I have light touch sensitivity and am very ticklish (don’t even think about it!). I don’t like having socks and shoes on, and my ankles have been inclined to roll all my life, so toe walking often felt more stable.

In my teens, walking barefoot helped me feel calm and grounded like nothing else. I loved the feeling of the earth beneath my feet. But put me in a high school hallway, and I’d instinctively go back on my toes, or stomp as I walked, eager to escape the sensory mosh pit that was the passing period.

I often compare toe walking to a runner at the starting block, waiting for the ‘pistol’ so we can sprint or tip-toe away from danger.

My colleague Amy Lukos shared that toe walking is due to the activation of the Tendon Guard Reflex, which is part of our fight or flight response. Give it a Google; it’s quite interesting. This begs the question: why are we in fight or flight mode so much? Why don’t we feel safe in the world?

Our community discussion included stories of physical therapy and surgery to correct shortened Achilles tendons due to toe-walking.

Imagine if these folks learned to regulate their emotions and calm their anxiety as part of managing their toe-walking. I’m grateful in that my programs teach how to do exactly that.

The bottom line is that the shared experience of our community points to sensory and anxiety as the reasons for the toe-walking. Of course, motor issues and hyper-mobile joints (that’s another conversation) can factor in as well.

But please remember, this is more than a simple behavior or quirk of autism. It’s part of the always-in-alarm nervous system we’re wired with and have to go through the exhausting daily process of trying to achieve a modicum of calm and focus with. Especially with such a long list of people wanting it from us.

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