ARTICLE: Unmasked - Climbing and Autism

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 UKC Articles 17 Jan 2023

Chris Shepherd writes about climbing on the spectrum and how the sport has helped them to lean into their difference, rather than conceal it entirely. 

'While I don't know a single autistic person who's genuinely an island, the connections with the mainland wax and wane with the tide, and climbing can make traversing these ephemeral strips of land more manageable.'

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 MeMeMe 17 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Really good article.

You could add to your list of resources. They've got quite a lot of information and contacts plus a forum if you want to get advice from a bunch of people who have personal experience of autism.

In reply to MeMeMe:

Thanks Chris for writing this, it will help me greatly next time we climb together. 

 JamesCW 17 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Thank you for writing this Chris. My partner recently received an autism diagnosis and you've articulated really well many of her experiences within climbing and in the rest of the world. Useful advice too. I'll try and thank you in person next time I see you at the Works.

 spenser 17 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Here are some other helpful resources:

Diagnosis - Psychiatry UK will provide an NHS funded diagnostic assessment via the right to choose process, the wait for this was around 3 months (I had an assessment early December):

Therapy/ Counselling - The ANDT provides a directory of autistic therapists/ counsellors/ psychologists spread around the UK (all private unfortunately, however I have found that I have made more progress working with an autistic therapist for an extended period of time than I was able to make with the NHS provided therapy which was unfortunately poor and difficult to access in Derby).

Autistic Self Advocacy Network has some helpful resources on their website:

This has some good resources for people looking to be allies or to understand the condition:

A useful glossary of terms can be found here:

I definitely find trips to the wall can feel overwhelming some times, more so since a sustained period of burnout, I'm slowly starting to climb again, but I still find it feels quite overwhelming a lot of the time.

In reply to UKC Articles:

Well, I enjoyed reading this refreshingly open story and its viewpoint enormously. Well done.

In reply to spenser:

> Here are some other helpful resources:

> Diagnosis - Psychiatry UK will provide an NHS funded diagnostic assessment via the right to choose process, the wait for this was around 3 months (I had an assessment early December):

Thank you. Really useful. Someone close to me has had a preliminary autism assessment and was told that the wait for formal diagnosis is two years. Right to Choose wasn’t mentioned. How annoying.

 gekitsu 17 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

thank you for writing this, chris!

as someone most likely on the spectrum, many of your experiences ring true. especially how well climbing as an activity or the community around it tends to work for folks like us. i don’t think i have ever encountered a space where i could just strike up conversation (dare i say naturally?) before i visited climbing gyms.

my working hypothesis is that on one hand, the both of us being at a climbing gym implies some sort of common interest in this activity, and that takes out a lot of the obscure guesswork underlying most generic social interaction. (and this would probably hold true for plenty other places that are dedicated to some sort of topic or activity)

but on top of that is that climbers seem so much friendlier to many things that make us ‘weird’ in most other social situations: here, everybody is working out minute beta tweaks to make the thing go. we fit right in!

it’s such a validating feeling to see somebody else come to so strikingly similar a conclusion than what i was pondering for myself.

In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article, Chris!

One bit in particular I feel makes a really important point that is perhaps missed by many people:

> Maybe I'm not making a compelling argument that many autistic people actually value social interactions, but the take-home message here is while I don't know a single autistic person who's genuinely an island

A person in my life that is on the spectrum and would to some outwardly appear to not enjoy social interactions, was hit by the isolation of the lockdowns as hard as most people.

Post edited at 22:55
 spenser 17 Jan 2023
In reply to Thugitty Jugitty:

There is an NHS document explaining the process somewhere, you may have to educate your GP on the subject (it really depends how competent they are, mine have not been great unfortunately).

If you pop me a message with any questions about the process I am happy to explain.

 spenser 17 Jan 2023
In reply to gekitsu:

Another big part of it is that autistic people often find socialising easier when they are able to focus on a thing they are doing. For a long time all of my friends were people I would do specific things with, I have a few friends now who are also people I can just chat with (mix of ND and NT folk, but all very special people I am lucky to call my friends) and life feels much more fun, I am also able to spread my need for social interaction across several people which takes pressure off individual people.

In reply to UKC Articles:

I got a late ASD diagnosis at 58, my experience of the world makes so much more sense.

Interestingly it was still diagnosed as Aspergers (by the unit in Sheffield during lockdown)- which I prefer, as I suppose , due to the stigma.

I work in the healthcare sector and the traits it brings probably help me perform my role well, and cope with the repetitive, technical nature. I totally get the social; aspects, gear organising etc. Collecting and organising stuff. Also I'm the cook and shopper at home and tend to like buying even numbers goods etc.

I also teach clinical skills, and I will often mention my quirks in advance to my students, they seem to enjoy and engage with my behavioural oddities and teaching style which often leads to crappy diagrams on bits of paper, whirling arms and my rather flowery (hopefully amusing) vocabulary in challenging situations.

Strangely, my erstwhile climbing partner, who was a psychiatrist, never engaged on the subject, even when asked directly.                                                                                                                 Not sure whether this raises questions about them or me really, I tend to follow things doggedly/ personally/vocationally rather than in an academic/ dispassionate manner.

In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article. Lots of resonances! 
and a fun read. 

 mav 18 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Just want to praise this article. My teenage son is elsewhere on the neurodiversity spectrum (ADHD) and I can see similarities in lots of what you describe. 

 Andy Moles 18 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Nice one Chris, good read.

Though speaking of excess stimuli, that picture of Si in leopard print...

 hugo glover 18 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

A fantastic article, much appreciated and also really heartening to read all the comments. My kids and I have all found the sunflower lanyard a great help in having more confidence with asking for and accepting help when needed.

 Hooo 18 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article. For me it's probably the closest thing I've read to describing my situation (although by no means exactly like me).

I realised I was what is now called neurodiverse from an early age, when it dawned on me that if I spoke to people about how I viewed and coped with the world they would call me weird. It was never investigated or labelled, I just did that thing familiar to many ND people of using my above average analytical intelligence to compensate for my missing emotional intelligence. It was bloody hard work, but I'm now capable of passing as nearly normal. I see no point in getting diagnosed now, I have no need of a label.

My daughter is diagnosed autistic with AD, and I find communication with her very difficult. A lot of people see the autistic label and think we all have something in common, and so should get along. This couldn't be further from my experience. The key term for me is the "diverse" in neurodiverse. People with autism are all different. We are also generally quite hard to get to know, so as a result I am close to very few neurodiverse people. Nearly all my friends are NT, because they have the necessary skills to deal with me.

If there's one message I'd really like to get out there, it's to NT people that simply haven't grasped that some of us look at the world in a different way to them, and that there's nothing wrong with us for doing so.

In reply to hugo glover:

I'm learning so much from this article and thread, I didn't know about the sunflower lanyard, great initiative. 

 simoninger 18 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Great article, really nicely written. I'm father to two autistic children (one non-binary), although it took us 14 years to realise.  Your advice about listening to people's actual experience is really crucial, because it's very easy to think you understand why someone might be tired, or overloaded, or not sociable, and it's possible you really don't.

 Hati W 18 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Wonderfully written and very helpful article, thank you Chris!

 Chris Shepherd 19 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Thanks everyone for the kind comments. I'm glad that it's resonated with some people - I wasn't sure it would because each person's experience of autism/neurodiversity is so different.

It's also nice to see so many resources being shared - I wasn't aware of many of these and will use a few of them going forward.

If anyone is in a position to influence policy or start an initiative at a wall, club etc, feel free to drop me a line.

Post edited at 13:24
In reply to spenser:

> There is an NHS document explaining the process somewhere, you may have to educate your GP on the subject (it really depends how competent they are, mine have not been great unfortunately).

> If you pop me a message with any questions about the process I am happy to explain.

Thanks for your kind offer. The GP has agreed to doing the appropriate paperwork, albeit through gritted teeth (blah blah queue jumping blah). 

 spenser 19 Jan 2023
In reply to Thugitty Jugitty:

It's not queue jumping given that you just move into a different queue that anyone else could move into as well, there would be no need for the process if the NHS had dedicated adequate resources to the area, unfortunately they can't because of government stupidity.

 flaneur 19 Jan 2023
In reply to Chris Shepherd:

Interesting, informative and entertaining! I'd recognised climbing attracted, tolerated or welcomed (take your pick) the neurodiverse long before the term existed. I've never read such a clear explanation as to why.

I also learned about "the French exit" which I have sometimes employed but, despite my nom de guerre, didn't know it had a label.

 gekitsu 19 Jan 2023
In reply to spenser:

yes, that rings very true.

 Cocobanjo 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Chris Shepherd:

Very good article but I would ask that the link to Autism Speaks in regard to finding out more about what causes autism is removed - most of us who are ND do not support them and they do in fact advocate in a very harmful way - with talk of curing autism - we do not need a cure, it is not cancer.

Also it would also be good if you added that neurodiversity is a term that also covers people who are neurotypical.

I'd love if it walls had sessions for NDs or other with hypersensitivity - listening to rage rock at really busy times makes me very anxious.

 spenser 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Cocobanjo:

To follow up on this, here is a flyer from the autistic self advocacy network which explains why the community would be better off if Autism Speaks didn't exist:

RE: walls having sessions for folk with sensory processing issues I'd counter that they should instead try their best to be inclusive by default, it's something which really gets on my nerves with supermarkets having "autism friendly shopping hours" which are at 10 AM on a tuesday which totally ignores that plenty of low support needs autistic folk have jobs but struggle with sensory issues still. If they actually cared they'd turn down the volume on the crap music and dim the lights a touch at all times (don't get me started on companies insisting on increasing the density of desks in open plan offices, I used to work in a pretty nice office which caused occasional issues, Atkins took over and suddenly they forced us to increase the desk density and it caused me to have shutdowns most days each week).

In reply to Chris Shepherd:

One other important takeaway from your article:

> Recognise people's boundaries: if your autistic climbing partner says they'd appreciate, for example, some personal space, a breather in their climbing day, or to be home for a particular time, that may be because these requests are related to their core routines. Deviation from these routines may make them highly uncomfortable, although they may be too polite to say so. If in doubt, ask them whether or not this is the case, and where possible, allow them to direct these details to minimise their discomfort.

Basically, it tells me that I (ADHD, impulsive as all hell, treats times, schedules, and routines as mere suggestions most of the time) would make an absolute nightmare climbing partner for someone on the spectrum.

 tim.fairhall 21 Jan 2023

Cogent, illuminating and beautifully written, thank you

 Hooo 21 Jan 2023
In reply to spenser:

To be fair to the supermarkets, the autism friendly hours have to be when no-one else wants to go, because (for me at least) one of the major issues with supermarkets is the other people.

I'd like to see all in-store sound systems banned though. Is there anyone (even NT people) who actually likes listening to shite while they shop? I keep earplugs in my bag at all times.

 john arran 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Hooo:

> I'd like to see all in-store sound systems banned though.

Could do worse than proposing that in the run-up to Christmas. It likely would gain plenty of support!

 Chris Shepherd 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Cocobanjo:

Thanks for flagging this up, I had no idea the organisation was so toxic! Please bear with me while I request for that link to be removed.

I hope it's clear from the body of the article that I'm firmly opposed to any notion of "curing" autism. This was just lazy referencing - I searched for a definition, picked the first reasonable one and didn't look into the matter further. This in contrast to the academic papers which I read/skimmed in their entirety.

If anyone would like to suggest an alternative link I'd be very grateful.

Post edited at 17:22
 Fat Bumbly2 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Hooo:

Not just the shoppers - imagine working there - especially on the run up to Christmas.

 Hooo 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Fat Bumbly2:

Doesn't bear thinking about. I do genuinely think about how privileged I am that I have never had to work in a place like that. I wouldn't last a day.

 Wilderbeest 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Hooo:

Every time I’ve popped into my local Tesco express I’ve really enjoyed the music they have been playing…always different soundtrack and some great tunes. 

 Hooo 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Wilderbeest:

I think you've answered my question then. Some people like it...

Is it really fair to subject everyone to it though? If a shop played my favourite tunes it would piss a load of people off. It would probably piss me off too TBH. 

 Wilderbeest 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Hooo:

Well my local express really does play a wide variety… so I get different sounds/genres each time. Things have moved on a bit since I worked in a store.

Essentially you’re right though 😀

 spenser 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Hooo:

My point was that they should be inclusive by default! The existing times are fine, they just need to have times outside normal working hours where the music is turned down/ off as well!

 spenser 21 Jan 2023
In reply to Chris Shepherd:

The above is fairly reasonable on the subject, some other info which matches what myself and the other autistic people I know seem to believe on the subject (under "Autism Research and Therapies"):

 Misha 21 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Interesting article. I’ve often wondered whether there is a higher proportion of climbers who are ‘on the spectrum’ compared to the general population.

I suspect there will be a fair few climbers (and people in general) with fairly mild autism which manifests itself through certain autistic tendencies, while other autistic tendencies are largely or entirely absent (I might fall in this category). A lot of people probably don’t even realise (and wouldn’t admit) that they might be ‘on the spectrum’. At some point ‘along the spectrum’ ND turns into NT but it’s bound to be a fairly grey area and I suspect a lot of people inhabit that space.

The question of music at climbing walls is a good one. We don’t really need it, though personally I don’t mind. Sport headphones to counter the noise are an option but a bit of a hassle. I often find though that I don’t notice the noise when I’m really focused on the climbing (same thing with traffic and bird song outdoors). This is perhaps another reason climbing is attractive for ND people - the possibility of losing yourself in the bubble of the activity. 

 Hooo 21 Jan 2023
In reply to spenser:

That is a good point! It hadn't occurred to me that spaces should be autism friendly by default. I guess I'm just so used to there being places that aren't, it hadn't occurred to me that it doesn't need to be this way.

 ljohnson78 22 Jan 2023
In reply to Misha: 

This may a helpful way to explain the differences between autistics and neurotypicals. It is essentially a brain wiring difference. It's not possible to be a little bit autistic and there is no linear scale. 

 Jim Cooper 22 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Without realising it is something other than just me, I have used the "French Exit" for about 65 years. Reading just now that it is also a response of others in situations of social stress, is one of the greatest reassurances I have ever had. I doubt if anyone would consider me on the autistic spectrum but maybe, as others, I am successful masking. 

For me this is one of the best articles UKC have ever published. Is there a "Sunflower supporters" lanyard? I want one. 

 Holdtickler 22 Jan 2023
In reply to Jim Cooper:

Can someone please explain what a "French Exit" is? Sorry if I missed something.

 spenser 22 Jan 2023
In reply to Holdtickler:

I suspect the more usual usage of it would be fleeing a relative's house on Christmas day without announcing your departure.

 Ram MkiV 22 Jan 2023
In reply to ljohnson78:

Not helpful for me - I can't be the only person totally confused by what that insta link is trying to show....

In reply to Ram MkiV:

It is just saying that the term “autism spectrum” refers to the fact that autism presents differently for everyone who has it, and that the “spectrum” therefore is not a linear scale that includes neurotypical.

When people say they are “a little bit on the spectrum” they are misunderstanding what a spectrum disorder is, and usually just mean they are a bit introverted, which is very different to having autism.

Post edited at 20:47
 Steph Sly 23 Jan 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Love this article Chris. The content is excellent nd I thoroughly enjoyed your writing.

 Rampart 23 Jan 2023
In reply to spenser:

>   Atkins took over and suddenly they forced us to increase the desk density

Everyone got thinner?

 Andy Reeve 23 Jan 2023
In reply to Ram MkiV:

> Not helpful for me - I can't be the only person totally confused by what that insta link is trying to show....

I think it's saying that the Autism Spectrum is actually made up of several independent spectra. So you could be Autistic with keen special interests and particular sensory needs but no difficulties with social processing, or the opposite of all these,  or any other combination. The circles in the diagram are meant to represent this although I can see how these could confuse the matter, as all the spectra will be linear. 

The post is also urging people away from terminology like more / less autistic and high / low functioning. Personally I think this is more of a separate issue. I'm happy to be persuaded otherwise, but I can still see how and why you might want to summarise all the spectra into a single "needs more support" vs "needs less support".

Great article, Chris. I learnt loads - thanks.

 spenser 23 Jan 2023
In reply to Rampart:

Not quite, they just made our desks less wide which increased the volume in the office (more people in the same amount of space), not the most miserable office I have ever worked in, but definitely one of them.

 spenser 23 Jan 2023
In reply to Andy Reeve:

There is a big difference between support needs (the generally preferred language from what I've seen) and functioning labels (seen as outdated and discriminatory).

The main difference being that support needs recognises that people like myself who can get by on a day to day basis still need a bit of help (adjustments in the workplace, understanding that we may need to wear ear plugs in louder environments, understanding that expectations around things like eye contact based on neurotypical norms just aren't going to be met, patience if we get overwhelmed etc) while they don't offer any verdict on the intellectual capabilities/ value of people who aren't able to live independently. Functioning labels suggest that people like me don't need any help while they invalidate the capabilities of people who need more help.

People's support needs will vary on a day to day basis, sometimes I can go out to a loud pub and have a good time, other times I would wind up whimpering in the corner when I get home and the main difference between the two days would be stress related. Equally going out bouldering I can have  a ball, or wind up a gibbering wreck despite being at the same crag in similar conditions doing the same problems. It definitely needs patience and understanding from friends, colleagues and climbing partners to accommodate, but I deeply value the friendship and understanding of the ones who are helpful and accommodating of my difficulties.

 Ram MkiV 24 Jan 2023
In reply to Andy Reeve:

Well, that all makes a lot more sense than the instagram post!

 Chris Shepherd 01 Feb 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Hi all,

I'm still trying to get that Autism Speaks link changed. I've contacted someone within UKC but they haven't got back to me yet.

If a moderator happens to see this post and could take some action - be it directly modifying the article or flagging this to someone who could - I'd really appreciate it if they could do so.

Post edited at 10:38
In reply to Chris Shepherd:

Hi all, 

The link has now been updated, apologies for the delay!



In reply to UKC Articles:

Thank you for this funny, compassionate, insightful article.

A chain of events got me thinking that I might have autism and a climbing friend suggested I read your article.

This is devastatingly relatable and I will need some time (and several lists) to come to terms with it. 24 Feb 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

Not directly related to this article, but does anyone know what has become of the charity 'Autism at height'? I think Georgia Pilkington was an ambassador for it, and there was an UKC article mentioning it, but I cannot find anything on the Internet about the charity.

In reply to Punkey_Muzzle:

I'd recommend reading Tony Attwood's book The Complete Guide To Asperger's Syndrome. It's a little old now but is written specifically *for* people that think they may have autism.

I realised it about six years ago now, it's been incredibly liberating to understand that the uneasy feeling of experiencing the world differently to everyone else is actually real and has a clinical explanation. It's helped me personally, socially and professionally to understand it, and it's been very rewarding to use my experience to change processes in the workplace to better hire and accommodate people with autism.

I can't remember exactly which passage it was in that book that was the light-bulb moment, but it was quite overwhelming for a few minutes with decades of experiences suddenly shifting focus and being seen in a new light. 

 George.D 25 Feb 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

As someone who is directly affected by this issue, this is an interesting article and relatively unique in its approach. Thank you.

Would be great if you could stop using the term "French exit" though - it's not a term I find appropriate (cringe whenever people use it) or in keeping with a tone of inclusion. As pointed out above as well, it would also be good if you could clarify that neurodiversity is a term that also covers people who are neurotypical.

Post edited at 17:03
 tintinandpip 25 Feb 2023
In reply to UKC Articles:

I don’t think I have ever seen a UKC thread receive  58 replies without it being hijacked and taken in a whole new direction. 
I suppose I should have anticipated that. 

 Chris Shepherd 01 Mar 2023
In reply to tintinandpip:

And now it's my turn to do some hijacking, in order to a) source some suggestions for autistic (and more broadly ND) inclusivity at climbing walls and b) potentially create an online communal space for ND climbers.

a) I've been invited to speak at a BMC/MCofS webinar to UK climbing wall stakeholders (Tuesday 28th March, 10am) in order to introduce the concept of autistic inclusivity. I'll have 15 mins plus some Q&A time.

I've gathered some suggestions from friends about how to make climbing walls more inclusive, but would like to represent as many people as possible. Here's my proposition:

b) I'm thinking about creating a lightweight Discord server for ND climbers, one of whose channels is dedicated to inclusivity and policy. Perhaps I could kick off that channel by sharing the draft of my webinar notes and opening them up to feedback from the community. Going forward it would be helpful to get some input from people with more experience as organisers than myself.

The channel might also be a useful place to share experience and pool communication resources, climbing-related ND life hacks, and generally support one another.


Would people be interested in having access to a resource of this sort?

P.S. Thanks to everyone who's DM'd me to say nice things. I haven't been able to find the time to reply in person but reading the messages makes me very happy.

 Misha 01 Mar 2023
In reply to Chris Shepherd:

A small point to flag - one of the suggestions above was to avoid bright lighting at walls. This should be balanced against the needs of those who are visually impaired. Was thinking that when a friend of mine who has less than perfect eyesight was struggling to see a foothold in a dimly lit section of a wall recently. I imagine that could be a tricky balance to reach. The similar suggestion re avoiding loud music should be more straightforward and indeed could garner wider support. 

Thanks for the article and follow up comments. 

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