Autism in Motion: Ecopsychology and Autism

I can feel cold water pulling against my legs from the thighs down. I’m not wet: I’m wearing a pair of waders as I stand in the middle run of the Colorado River in Rocky Mountain National Park. There is mist rising off the early morning waters and in the meadow adjacent.

The morning sun shines clearly off the surrounding peaks and I take a deep, cold breath in as I pull my rod back with my right arm, completing the nine-and-twelve motion and feeling the freezing, wet line slip through my fingers as it shoots down the length of the rod and towards its target: a pocket of water fifteen feet ahead and to my left.

The fly touches down with a soft bullseye: a feather, not a dart, and I watch a small brook trout rise to meet it. This trout isn’t happy with what it sees and dashes away, under the bank. I pull in my line and repeat the pattern. Freezing cold, my hands and toes almost numb, and I think, ” I can’t wait until I get sick of this.”

A New World of Coping

I discovered the joys of fly-fishing in 2013 when I was starting a PhD program at the University of New Mexico. The academic rigor and accompanying stress required regular relief, and I sought and found it on the small Rocky Mountain streams north of Albuquerque, where I lived.

Heading north every Friday, into the hills, and there I would stay for six to eight hours, focused on one thing: outsmarting the wily trout populating those streams. My manuscripts, articles, and presentations mattered little to me. I wouldn’t think about the stress of my graduate assistantship. It was just water, mountains, the fish, and me.

The fishing became part of my graduate program as I discovered the healing power of engaging and grounding oneself in the natural world. All of my research moved in this direction. I became obsessed at this wellspring of coping.

I never did finish the PhD. My autism profile couldn’t handle the social pressures and inauthenticity I felt in a counseling-based program. However, ecopsychology has remained my modus operandi when it comes to coping skills.

Take a hike, go fishing, or even just sit in an open space for an hour. In the ensuing years, I have found ecopsychology doesn’t have to be adventurous (but it can be so much fun when it is).

“Simple activities in the outdoors have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, relieve depression, build resilience, and teach confidence…”

Natural Coping Skills

Simple activities in the outdoors have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, relieve depression, build resilience, and teach confidence while improving self-esteem (Conn, 1998; Milton and Corbett, 2011; Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner, 1995). Since all of these psychic reactions are common to autists, it would assume ecopsychology has a lot of potential for developing coping skills for autistics and their families.

The coping skills are out there, but how do we engage them? Sure, sitting in a park with your feet in the grass requires no hard preparation. Sitting in the grass at the park requires social and situational preparation and some gear preparation, but what about hiking? How does an autist go about hiking for the first time? What about camping? What happens if there is a meltdown in the great outdoors?

There are so many questions and so much information, it can seem daunting and a budding outdoors lifestyle can be nipped before it has time to blossom. It’s scary to think about walking in woods alone when you’ve never done it before. It’s scary to think about sleeping in a tent. I mean, where do you even go to the bathroom?

As I travelled the country, hiking, fishing, camping, singing, and yes, melting down, I learned answers to a lot of these questions. I gained experience, resilience, gear (oh, wow, the gear…), and a certain amount of know-how. At some point, one of my best friends (who is neurotypical) and I started talking about how we could start up some type of initiative where we could educate and prepare both autists and their neurotypical partners to get themselves out on the trails and at the campsites. We realized we had all the knowledge, we just needed to create a platform to disseminate it.

Autism in Motion

Here is where Autism in Motion (AIM) was born. We were very excited, planning out trips and videos and blogs and everything you could think of. We were happily putting the cart before the horse and then BAM! Pandemic.

While the COVID-19 pandemic derailed us for quite some time, we’re happy to announce that AIM is officially launching. We have a small bit of videos and pics on our social media accounts and we are launching our official YouTube page soon.

We look forward introducing the autistic community to new and fun coping skills through engaging the outdoors. It’s not all gonna be hiking and camping, either, although there will be lots of that. We hope to prepare autistics for all sorts of outdoor travel experiences, like backpacking, bikepacking, and even mountaineering!

It’s not all going to mobility based, either. We will be including outdoors activities appropriate for all levels of mobility and we want to cater to all profiles on the spectrum. AIM will be all-inclusive and by the time the summer rolls around we are sure you’ll find an activity or two that fits you and your interests.

There is a lot to unpack when it comes to ecopsychology and autism, and there’s a lot we all have to learn. It’s not a field people are doing a lot of research or practice in. I am committed to writing more blogs regarding the dialectic and helping others get outside to find the healing (and special interest) that nature provides.

Please join us by following:

Instagram: @autisminmotion



Milton, MJ and Corbett, L (2011) Ecopsychology: A Perspective on Trauma European Journal of Ecopsychology, 2. pp. 28-47

Sarah A. Conn (1998) Living in the earth: Ecopsychology, health and psychotherapy, The Humanistic Psychologist, 26:1-3, 179-198

Roszak, T., Gomes, M. E., & Kanner, A. D. (Eds.). (1995). Ecopsychology: Restoring the earth, healing the mind. Sierra Club Books.

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4 Responses

  1. Mr. Russell James is coming across in his fly fishing blog article much the same as Robert Redford did as narrator in the wide-screen film A River Runs Through It, circa 1992. While I thoroughly enjoyed this movie as a Native Montanan after decades of being an active fly fisherman, what I didn’t enjoy was the newfound global rush of novice anglers to these same rivers and the over-fishing which immediately ensued and continues today, 29 years later.

    I’ve been having discussions in this same venue these last few weeks as snow cover has melted-out of these same river valleys which are IMMEDIATELY teeming with Anglers both afoot and riding in Commercial Fishing Rafts so thick that five Rafts at a time are jamming up in parts of the Bitterroot River which flows north to Missoula where it merges with the Clark Fork River. Fishermen (and Women) are not getting bites, they are not hooking and landing any fish. Unfortunately, it is a common complaint… Yet the environment where this activity takes place simply cannot be beat!!!

    I wish that various state Fish & Game Departments were breeding and re-stocking these waters with greater volumes of Trout which are rapid growers. These fish convert 70% of the protein which they eat into sidewall meat. Very quick growth all determined by the volume of good chow ingested.

    [[The fishing became part of my graduate program as I discovered the healing power of engaging and grounding oneself in the natural world. All of my research moved in this direction. I became obsessed at this wellspring of coping. “Simple activities in the outdoors have been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, relieve depression, build resilience, and teach confidence…”]]

    Wearing waders and gingerly maintaining firm footing into thigh-deep flowing river water is in itself a challenge to keep one’s balance, –– and not fall over and filling tall rubber boots with water and getting washed away!!! Yet once “in a stable position” within a flowing river of icy cold water, “catching fish becomes incidental to just being there and fishing.” That is what Russell has felt and has been so overwhelmed with… I can personally interpret his story, good job, excellent writing…

    As he described, the feeling of COLD coming through these rubber waders coupled with the constant tug of the river’s currents would pull my stress right out of my body and send it downstream right where it belonged. After so many casts, the fish inhabiting a stretch of river water soon realize that you are there, and once they realize this, they don’t strike and bite at your bait.

    Didn’t matter… I might cast 80x from a special position just enjoying the total feeling “of being there” and immersing myself into this fluid, cold and wet environment and playing out a line with a tiny fly bait attached. Catching a trout for dinner was the goal, yet it absolutely was incidental to being there. The best Super Stress Reliever which I’ve ever experienced.

    Also, I can relate to Russell’s story of “almost completing his doctorate degree” as he turned and moved with purpose in another direction. Personally, I did the same thing but it wasn’t because of the fly fishing and its environment. I had earlier pursued living in that specific environment so I could simply walk from the back door of the house with my big Dogs and immerse myself into a mile of private river waters, downstream from a dam in the tail-race area. Not so private a spot now 40 years later.

    I’d secured Army Corps of Engineers river permits 7 separate times enabling me to move heavily armored rocks and boulders around in low water season, building rock dams and digging out deep pools thereby increasing the river’s trout holding capacity by 700%. Provide a cold Trout in February with 5-7 feet of depth among boulders to escape the 10AM daily dive bombing of Bald Eagles searching for their lunch, and the slippery Fish WILL dodge the predator and survive to procreate the river with a new batch of minnows each season.

    Russell, I hope your new plans for introducing both Autistics and Neurotypicals into the streams goes exceptionally well. The experience itself (once positioned with rod & reel and standing within the flowing river) is something which I’d describe to your clients as “Heaven on Earth.” Simply no comparison. Good Luck! And please write again with further updates… Thx.

  2. Hi Russell, thank you for this carefully considered article that resonates with my experience to communicate with the natural world in rainforests. i love the heavy deep embracing silence held by earth, flora and fauna.

    1. Thank you. Rainforests.The rejuvenation is unparalleled. I’m about to go backpacking in the Hoh on the Olympic Peninsula. If you ever want to hike a rainforest with a stranger who’s a really quiet and trusting guy, I’m that guy. HMU if you’re in the PNW.

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