Autism and the Outdoors: An insider sensory perspective
We asked Horizons Editor Carmen for an insider perspective of being autistic and outdoors.
Why is it important to you to share your autistic experiences?
There are still a lot of judgements, mis-understandings or little understanding of what it is like to be autistic, in particular when it comes to being an autistic woman or girl. For a long time I didn’t know I was autistic and that was stressful and horrible… if I can share a bit about my experiences to help others understand themselves better or understand others better that’s got to be a good thing.
Also, it can be really difficult to find the words to explain, for example sensory experiences… not just because it can be intense and words can ‘go missing’, but literally there are often no words to describe the experience. This in itself can make it difficult to share or understand, which is exactly why I use visuals to help share my sensory experiences and was so excited to get some funding from the Arts Council to help share these experiences.
What can you tell or show us about your experiences generally?
The best way I can describe my experience of autism is that it’s like living with the sensory sensitivities of 101 mice which are all doing/ seeing/ experiencing different things at the same time (image 1).
Imagine feeling like certain light burns your skin; how it seems like air pressure squeezes you when certain sounds (e.g. groups talking loudly) turn the air to heavy cheese; or feeling spiky pain when your fingers have been in the water long enough to turn wrinkly. Water, groups of people, ‘bad light’… that could be sensory hell in all directions, for example at a swimming pool, or water-based outdoor session. It’s no fun and I’ve not even mentioned the sensory horror which can come from certain textures, or movements (water), or patterns (fallen leaves). (image 2 - watery fire)
Bad light’ isn’t necessarily just nasty flickering yellow electric light, it can be certain natural light. For example, grey ‘rainy’ skies, and in particular fog light are certain sensory nightmares for me. If I was a super hero fog would be my kryptonite!
What does this mean for being in the Outdoors?
I definitely rely on the outdoors to manage the rest of the time I spend trying to shield the sensory nasties. It helps alleviate some of my ASD twitchiness so I can sit still-ish (with a foot roller ;0) and for long enough at my computer to work.
There are some amazing sensory highs on the fells and mountains, including running barefoot on the moors, or palms on dry rock. But although there can be less sensory overload than indoors, or in busy outdoor spaces, it still lurks.
When the light is bad for me, It’s hard to concentrate due to the sensory pain … especially when its raining or foggy as it’s like I see each raindrop or particle moving… and the boundary between me and the rain/fog becomes a bit blurred. Sounds weird doesn’t it?! No wonder I can be very clumsy running on the fells on those days.
Any suggestions for making Outdoor Learning as accessible as possible?
Start by recognising that being autistic is far broader and diverse in experience than you perhaps realise… we all experience the world differently and so make the effort to listen to a variety of autistic voices to help build your understanding. One starting place could be Twitter, where a search for #ActuallyAutistic brings up lots of ongoing discussions.
Ask and really listen. Although, as mentioned it’s not always easy to share e.g. sensory experiences and though descriptions like ‘bad light’ don’t do justice to the harm taking place, asking about ‘bad’ light, sound, texture etc is a conversation starter. If an individual is non-verbal, there may be other ways to learn about their sensory experiences, whether it’s through using other ways of communication (e.g. drawing, or using interactive tech), talking to someone who knows them well, and/ or observing changes in behaviour.
Stillness isn’t always goodness. Don’t assume that being still is sign of wellbeing, or attention. For example, I’ve been asked a few times as part of outdoor sessions (don’t even get me started on the stillness associated with education generally) to sit still, to listen and look at what surrounds me, or be still to meditate. For me, what that is really asking, is to put down the barriers I work hard to maintain constantly to try to limit sensory harm and to let those harms in. Being still makes it worse… moving helps me maintain the barriers whilst enjoying the outside space. Think about different experiences at planning level; here there is an opportunity to involve autistic individuals to bring insider perspectives to your organisation.
Don’t assume that by repeating tasks/ activities that the experience gets better. If someone is experiencing sensory overload from an activity or an element of an activity, doing it more, doesn’t make the sensory overload go away, it makes it worse.
Give space. Living in a neuro-typical world can be exhausting at the best of times, and horrific at the worst of times. Always have ’safe’ space options ready for when re-charging is needed (could be a quiet darkened room, or perhaps a walk around a garden or other outdoor space); but ultimately ask what works best for individuals and create space within sessions, days and stays. (video - sensory sleep, overload)
Find out more about good Equality, Diversity and Inclusion practice in Outdoor Learning here. Read 'Raising our game' from page 18 in the autumn issue of Horizons which includes actions for change; members log in here for access to the latest issue.
Carmen's Mayhem, Monsters and Mice arts project shares more insider autistic sensory experiences, with new work being added regularly: https://carmenbyrne.co.uk/mayhem-monsters-mice