Surfs up! Sand, sea, the board and me?! I’ve heard surfers say the experience of catching a wave is totally rad, however when I’m faced with something new my first instinct is “You must be totally mad!”

In the summer, Team AP run a summer programme with inclusive activities for our members to provide new opportunities in a safe and judgement free environment. This year there has been a lot of changes to how this has worked, but by following guidelines to keep us all safe Team AP were able to arrange socially distanced outdoor sessions. The first session was surfing and for several of us it was our first time.

As a chameleon, I find the idea of change, uncertainty and braving the unknown really difficult. In childhood I would actively avoid trying new things, even activities that were supposed to be fun filled me with dread. Due to the disguised nature of my autism this wasn’t seen as unusual and was put down to being shy, a little anxious and passive. As I got older these differences became more noticeable and the reality was that the avoidance was part of sensory overwhelm and anxiety.

It’s not uncommon for autistic people to avoid engaging in new activities, the level of avoidance depends on individual needs. From personal insight there are several barriers that can prevent autistic people from just ‘giving it a go’. These are:

  • Sensory needs and aversions,
  • Mobility and accessibility,
  • High levels of anxiety,
  • Fear of failure,
  • Auditory processing and communication differences,
  • Change in routine,
  • Not knowing what to expect.

Trying something new really pushes us out of our comfort zone and it can feel like we’re going against all of our natural instincts. It can be a lengthy pursuit of preparation and reassurance. 

As an example, for the surfing session I was preparing for several weeks before. I changed my mind about going numerous times. “I can, I can’t, I can! Can I?” I spent time calculating every step. Analysing potential problems and scripting questions I may need to ask.

The barriers of trying something new as an autistic person can be really frustrating. I know many autistic people often experience low mood, low self esteem and feel isolated and withdrawn from society. Often we would like to be able to try new things but our levels of anxiety and our sensory needs can prevent us.  For me it becomes a negative cycle of feeling like I haven’t tried hard enough, that I’m missing out  on experiences and relationships and that I should be having fun. This leads to feeling more isolated and that I cannot navigate the world, not even the fun parts. The mental process is exhausting and this is where support can change lives.

So how can we support ourselves or someone we love to try something new?

Mental preparation can be really helpful – looking at photos, watching videos, having a list or notes to refer to, use of visuals and social stories can bring anxiety levels down. Breaking down what’s going to happen into steps and taking it slow helps to bring  awareness to the present moment.

I also believe that encouragement, reassurance and positive reinforcement are beneficial. Being told to just “get on with it, it’s not that bad” can cause anxiety levels to spike. Relieving the pressure and making small goals to keep trying allows us to build confidence. 

Inclusivity and environment are big factors too. The great thing about inclusive sessions are that we are able to be around like-minded individuals, the fear of judgement can be less. There is no pressure and it feels safe.

Our families really enjoyed the surfing session and one of our younger chameleons said ‘It was the best day ever’ and now wants to take up surfing as a new hobby. The positives of trying new things can be that we make new connections, we can find new interests and our mood and confidence can increase.

From an autistic individuals perspective embracing the unknown, spontaneity, adventure and all things new may never be favourable to me. I may always crave routine, certainty and sameness. Yet, the feeling I get when I have tried and achieved something I didn’t think I could is elating. It just requires the chance and the right support. It’s all about the little wins. When I am going to try new things I think of a battery in my mind. Anxiety and sensory obstacles can drain my battery and I have to find ways to recharge. Sometimes I need quite a lot of time after a new experience to recharge, but when I do try something new and I enjoy it my battery gets a little booster and I feel more confident to keep trying.

Sometimes trying something new can create smiles, even if I do prefer things to be the same!

I hope you’re safe and well,

Cerys the Chameleon.

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