Joyously alone and comfortably linked in

Lea Berta shares how a walking group in Edinburgh gave her just the right level of activity and interaction for her autism and mobility disorder.

Lea and her support dog Mr Baxter

There have been certain perks to growing up as an undiagnosed autistic kid; like being able to be excused and go back to my room to my favourite toys instead of attending a gathering. Or not having to talk to Mr X, Miss Y or Mrs Z and instead, just sit beside the person I chose to hang out with - all this to avoid "drama".

However, it came at a cost. Confusion, being overwhelmed, some strange looks, followed by a steady decline in my popularity. The problem with this is that after a while, you tend to believe that is what you are: a destined loner, clumsy, unreachable, moreover unsociable. A bit like in the movie Fierce Creatures where an employee was trying to convince the zoo director that an anteater would attack a pram.

Inside of me, there remained the constant heavy feeling of being perceived as one living on the other side of a glass wall from everyone else and there’s no way out of this state. Then, 30 years later, a kind, compassionate and soft-spoken specialist doctor was telling me that I am autistic and that there’s nothing wrong with me. It's only this is a culture primarily designed by and for non-autistic people. And, well, that is bad news for ‘people like me’.

That was in September 2017.

On the other hand, this was good news too because my support network and I could start to look into what would make socialising a manageable or even enjoyable activity for me. For the people like me. Tough cookie. It cannot be an activity shared with too many folks - that would be too unpredictable.
It cannot be physically demanding either.

Hitting the genetic jackpot, I also have a mobility disorder I was born with which makes all my joints hypermobile thus leading to a committed relationship with my walking frame.

Furthermore, ideally there should be limited group chat around. Any discussion with more than one other person at a time can easily turn into a mysterious transmission for my brain without a code to break it. The all-age groups concept only works for me until one of those adorable young individuals start to be audibly very happy or very sad. Events held in echoing spaces are also out, since being in that situation quickly pushes me towards a meltdown and I am not the noise-cancelling headphones type. The options were quickly narrowing down to a Zen meditation course or the kind where people learn to paint life-like flowers.

Because I have already tried some mindfulness classes and I have lost some sensation and flexibility from my hands over the years, the idea of doing easy and slow-paced exercise with others instead seemed like a good solution. Plus, I am a great big lover of the outdoors and animals!

I joined Craigmillar Community Grows’ walking group in the summer of 2020, initially attending with one of my care workers. These days, when the group can gather, I either go by myself or bring my support dog, Mr Baxter along with me. We both have had a great experience so far.

Spreading out in a line of walkers means that I always have the freedom to talk to or not talk to the person walking close by and I can even decide with whom I would like to walk side by side. Additionally, being able to set the distance between others in the group and myself, I can alternate between just listening or conversing. If the listening gets too much - as there are usually multiple people speaking - I can just stay behind a little and dive in again later.

The group facilitators are always the same so if I feel like not talking to participants or when I want to walk without having to introduce myself to someone new, I can just tag along with one of the leaders. Focusing on the path ahead in group settings and expressing myself at the same time can be very challenging for me but we find ways. The walks can also serve as great bonding time for me and my dog and others so far have been understanding about not distracting Mr Baxter (despite him having an inbuilt gift of charming onlookers and a call for greatness, cute ears and all!)

With all these gentle arrangements, when I am out on the nature-trail we use, I can feel the way I like to feel in a group: joyously alone, comfortably linked in.

Lea works in the people-support field as an adviser and is in the final year for her BSc (Hons) degree. She is one of the contributors to the Scottish national autism awareness campaign Different Minds
The walk Lea takes part in is delivered by Carr Gomm, which is a member of our Scottish Health Walk Network. The project has just been awarded a grant from our Walking for Health Fund to safeguard the future of walks they’ve piloted with a range of vulnerable groups in Edinburgh.

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