As climbers, we all understand the benefits our sport brings to our daily lives. Climbing, both indoors and out, gives us a community, builds our physical strength and has numerous benefits to our stress levels and personal mental health. For those with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs), these positive aspects of climbing are particularly important and helpful.
Autism is a condition defined by the National Autistic Society as 'a life-long developmental disability that affects how people see the world and interact with others.' Autism is a spectrum condition, so it affects everyone differently, but some challenges are shared by many. Often, children with ASDs can find communicating with others and social integration with their peers difficult. Not only this, but having a disability can often lead to a perceived difference, affecting self-confidence and potentially creating a sense of exclusion. At a young age, sport, exercise and physical play with others is less accessible to autistic children because they find it harder to relate to other people and others often find it hard to relate to them. Without being able to easily participate in physical activity, they can struggle to enjoy the rewards of being active and a member of a sporting community, something most of us take for granted. Many charitable organisations and outdoor instructors across the UK are therefore beginning to use climbing as therapy for children with ASDs.
I spoke to outdoor instructor, Luca, who worked as a support worker and outdoor educator with Autistic children. He suggested that climbing outside had two main positive outcomes for the children he worked with: 'problem solving skills' and 'pro-social behaviours'. When learning to climb, children are working in a partnership. For example, belaying isn't the most exciting part of climbing, but gives them a huge level of responsibility for another person, allowing them to enjoy themselves and feel a sense of achievement. Climbing a route requires problem-solving skills to assess the most effective method of reaching the top. However, all aspects of being outside for a day necessitate planning. Luca noticed that even by teaching children how to pack for a day out climbing, they quickly learned how to do this themselves. These self-caring skills are transferable to many everyday situations.
Luca also advocates climbing as a method of improving children's determination and resilience, characteristics that those with autism can struggle with in normal learning environments. He suggests that 'climbing can provide excellent opportunities to learn these skills [resilience, determination] which help not just in climbing but in life generally.'
Similarly, instructor Dean Russell, who teaches climbing to children with ASDs with 'Adventure Awaits' in Bristol, UK, has noticed a variety of improvements. He makes sure to keep a defined structure to his sessions, each with a goal to work towards and a focus on particular skills, such as flexibility and hand-eye coordination. Climbing requires complex motor-skills. When we're climbing and moving our hands and feet independently, we are developing our cross-lateral movement, balance and hand-eye coordination. These are vital to maintaining posture and muscular equilibrium, which are key to keeping us healthy throughout our lives.
What also seems to improve, in Dean's experience, is the children's focus: 'Getting prolonged focus in, let's be honest, an environment (noisy, busy, bright colours, etc) that shouldn't be a space that works for children on the Autistic spectrum, probably says a lot about the power of the sport.'
The feeling when all external problems melt away and all that matters is reaching the next hold is hugely relaxing and meditative. For children who struggle to concentrate, it is an enjoyable, but effective way to practise avoiding distractions. Even tying knots and belaying are excellent practice in performing a task that requires constant concentration. The potentially dangerous nature of the sport also helps younger children to learn how to follow instruction effectively and communicate seriously to climbing partners. From chatting to parents, Dean learnt that the children taking part in his sessions were often calmer after a climb and slept much better.
The most important therapeutic benefits of climbing, probably to all of us, are the emotional, social and mental impacts. The climbing community is one of the most accepting and kind I've ever encountered. Climbing is (if you want it to be) a non-competitive, self-driven sport in which beginners are welcomed just as warmly as the elite. Moreover, climbing can help children with Autism defy negative expectations and build confidence in their own abilities. The instructors who help children with Autism get started in climbing introduce them into a supportive community where their world need not be limited, and they can enjoy the sport as much everyone does!
With special thanks to instructors, Dean Russell (www.adventure-awaits.co.uk) and Luca.