Tom Dufton - Climbing with Tourette's Interview


28 year-old Tom Dufton is a climber and instructor based in Stoke on Trent. He recently appeared on the BBC 2 programme Employable Me - featuring individuals with neurological conditions overcoming the struggles of finding employment - talking about his experience in finding work as a sufferer of the widely misunderstood Tourette's Syndrome.

Tom Dufton  © BBC
Tom Dufton

Tom's appearance on the programme has changed his life for the better, increasing his self-confidence whilst simultaneously spreading awareness of neurological and hidden disabilities in the workplace.

Prior to his recent adventures on TV, Tom discovered climbing and realised that the focus required to climb had a dramatic effect on his tics. He later secured a job working as an instructor at Awesome Walls Stoke, all the while learning to become more comfortable in public situations. In this interview, Tom talks about Tourette's, TV programmes and how climbing gave him a new lease of life.

When were you first diagnosed with Tourette's?

I was first diagnosed at the age of 14. My tics began at 6 years old, but because my parents had not heard of Tourette's Syndrome, they believed it was just phases/habits that I was going through. For years this went on and I took a lot of stick from a lot of people. They just kept telling me to stop and that I did not need to do it! I secretly knew although I never thought about it directly that I could not stop! It wasn’t until I went away camping with Air Cadets that my parents realised something was very wrong. I came home and due to the lack of sleep (worst thing for someone with Tourette's) I was a complete mess. I could not stop moving and making noises. My mum typed my symptoms into Google and every link that came up was about Tourette's Syndrome. We sought medical help and a diagnosis, but on the NHS I would have had to wait around 2 years to be seen. My grandpa ended up offering to pay for me to go and see a private doctor. Within 6 weeks I was diagnosed and on medication - I will never forget the moment I found out.

Tom bouldering at Churnet  © Tom Dufton
Tom bouldering at Churnet
© Tom Dufton

How does the condition affect you? Was it difficult as a young child at school?

The condition affects me in many ways, more than people would imagine. Apart from the obvious vocal and movement tics (motor tics), I suffer with severe depression and anxiety at times. The tics are physically tiring, and can be quite obvious. Subtlety is not my strong point, for example I am the worst player of hide and seek! I can struggle being with groups of people I do not know, especially in a professional/work setting. As well as the Tourette's Syndrome, I have other conditions that come with it, for example I have severe Obsessive Compulsive Order (OCD), I have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and an extreme form of Bi Polar called Ultra Rapid Mood Cycling. The latter being the most challenging to deal with. With Bi polar your moods go up and down over a day or two. With Ultra Rapid Mood Cycling, my moods change over just a few hours. I can be on top of the world when I wake up, and by lunchtime I can be manically derpressed, and then by bedtime be on a complete high again. This condition has been my most debilitating because of the lows I have experienced. These make life very difficult to manage day to day. However, I am now on medication for that as well. I literally rattle as I walk with the amount of tablets I take! The medication has helped enormously.

When and how did you discover climbing?

I discovered climbing back in 2008 when I began a foundation degree at university in the Lake District. Someone from my course took me to the Langdale Boulders and I did The Crack. I became immediately hooked and never looked back. Unfortunately I did not complete my course and left University due to undiagnosed conditions. However, my love for climbing remained. Back in Stoke, Awesome Walls opened a bouldering centre in Longton, literally 10 minutes from where I lived. I applied for a job as an instructor, and was taken on. My climbing and training continued from then until the present.

Tom bouldering at Cratcliffe  © Tom Dufton
Tom bouldering at Cratcliffe
© Tom Dufton

How did climbing affect your condition?

Climbing has had a massive impact on my Tourettes in many ways. Just actually being on the wall stops the tics completely. When someone who suffers with Tourette's is occupied and their mind is totally focussed, the tics stop. No one knows why exactly, but it definitely works. Also, the sport has given me a lot of confidence with being in public situations, and I am not afraid to go to other walls that are less familiar. As well as this it allows me to focus on something positive in my life and is something I enjoy immensely. It helps me keep a positive mindset. It’s one of the few things that really helps me relax and enjoy being me.

You previously worked at Awesome Walls. Are the climbing community generally supportive and understanding of your Tourette's?

I have returned to Awesome Walls to earn some money whilst being back at college. I have to say the people I work with are genuinely amazing people to be around. They are 110% accepting, and embrace me as the person I am. I have never worked for a company where I have been so understood and accepted. It’s a credit to the staff, the manager, and Dave and Steph Douglas. Dave and Steph are also just as accepting of the Tourette's, and have made me feel extremely welcome and happy to work for Awesome Walls. If I could work in that situation forever I would. In terms of the community, I have made life-long friends who again accept me for who I am and we have such a good laugh at the centre or outside. The community in the climbing industry is second to none. We all share a common ground, no one judges anyone for anything. I feel privileged to be even a small part of that community. I have such a huge amount of support from some of the best people I have had the pleasure to meet! I feel completely confident within this community.

Climbing has given Tom a new outlook on life
© Tom Dufton

Tell us about Employable Me - how did it come about and what did you get out of it?

Employable Me was a case of being in the right place at the right time. I was told to contact Sheffield Awesome Walls as the team producing the programme had caught wind that I had Tourette's and worked for the company. I ended up with the contact details of the casting director. I contacted her at first by email and then by phone. We chatted for a couple of days, and they said that my story was really interesting. Originally they were looking for mentors for the programme. I was then asked if I would like to appear on the programme itself. As you can imagine I jumped at the chance. The first day filming was to see if I got on with everything and that it was going to work for the programme. The BBC were happy with me and the filming then continued for a good 6 months. I was shot doing all sorts. The film crew would be with me for the weekend. I cannot praise the professionalism and kindness of the filming team. I was incredibly well looked after. In terms of what I got out of it, a range of things come to mind. I learnt most from the occupational psychologist who came to show me my strengths and abilities that I did not realise that I had. This was the pivotal moment when I realised I had potential, and in ways I would never have guessed. This brought me a huge amount of self-belief, and drive to reach the potential I did not know I had. All the abuse I took at school, all the knocks, and the way I was made to feel that I was never going to succeed had been kicked into touch. This is the most significant thing I have taken away from the experience. I believe in myself.

What was the response like following the show's broadcast?

The response to the show was just out of this world, incredible! My phone actually froze because it could not keep up with the amount of messages that were coming through. I had my own hashtag on Twitter that was going like the clappers. I felt so humbled and touched that people had so many nice things to say about the programme. I will never forget what everyone said, I hold it very close to me. Also it is strange because I have been recognised quite often, even abroad, which is alien to me as you might expect. Yet I cannot thank everyone for the kind words they have had to say. The BBC actually prepared us for any negative responses that the programme may receive, yet up to now there have been none. I really cannot thank the general public enough, also the huge support from my close friends and family which has been second to none!

Tom learning the ropes as a tree surgeon
© Tom Dufton

What's next for you?

I have started studying Forestry and Arboriculture at college. This came about form a close friend who is a tree surgeon who suggested it would be a good career move. I investigated it and decided it was something I wanted to do. I am at the end of my first year of a two year course and thoroughly enjoying it. I am continuing to climb, and still have as much passion for the sport as I did at the beginning, if not more. Life is good right now, and I am enjoying the positivity and relishing any chance that comes my way.

Unfortunately Tom's Employable Me episode is no longer available on iPlayer, but you can view the trailer below:

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7 Jun, 2016
Great article. Have met you Tom numerous times at stoke wall, and with all the staff there, all brill guys. And yes you are completely right about climbing, in the main completely accepting of everyone, no one cares about our differences, and in fact embraces them. You talk openly and candidly about your mental health, we all need to do more of that. Cant think of any other group of people other than climbers who embrace difference, great isnt it...... And the churnett pictures are pretty good to...
7 Jun, 2016
Wow! What an illuminating article - on so many levels. Thank you UKC.
8 Jun, 2016
watched the documentary, cool surprise to see this article about tom- glad things have turned out well, seems like a great guy
8 Jun, 2016
Great article, it never stops amazing me how positive the focus of climbing can be. Thanks for sharing that Tom, I'm glad the climbing community has been so accepting.
10 Jun, 2016
Tom's such an engaging and likeable personality that, even on an initial meeting, the occasional tic isn't the most interesting thing about him. I don't know whether climbers are necessarily more accepting than other groups or the general public. It would be nice to think so, but in this case I think it's more that Tom makes it easy for us, rather than the other way round.
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