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).
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:
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.