A delayed diagnosis as autistic in her early twenties helped Allie Mason to make sense of her complicated relationship with the outdoors. She wrote The Autistic Guide To Adventure to help other neurodivergent young people get the best out of being outside.
“When I was younger, growing up in the Yorkshire Dales, I was surrounded by nature all of the time,” says Allie, who is 26 and works for an environmental consultancy in the Cotswolds.
“I can’t remember whether simply just being outdoors was aggravating for me, but I do know that whenever our family would try and do specific outdoor activities, I’d find it incredibly challenging.”
She spent the majority of her childhood reading in her bedroom. “I think that was my outlet because the kind of books I’d choose to read would always be these big fantasy adventures: The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, that kind of stuff, because that’s what I was craving.”
She wanted to do more outside but felt that ‘invisible barriers’ – which she later recognised were connected to sensory issues – were preventing her.
“I realised I am particularly sensitive to light and sound, meaning that summer is my least favourite time of the year, which people can find bizarre,” she says. “I find summer difficult, not just because of the intensity of the sunlight but also the heat – I struggle to regulate my body temperature which is very common for people who are autistic.”
The noise and activity of insects affect her unduly, as does the sound of lawnmowers, and she has taken to wearing ear-defenders in the house to block out the intrusive din, which heralds the onset of her least-favourite season.
Her diagnosis as autistic came after many years of mental health issues, which she was wrongly told were caused by anxiety and depression.
“I happened to be reading Women’s Health magazine one day and there was an article by a woman whose story aligned perfectly with mine,” says Allie. After realising that the author’s traits matched many of her own, she spent six months considering what to do, before asking her GP for a diagnosis referral.
“When I received it, it made so much sense, like everything had just fallen into place,” she says.
The diagnosis happened just before lockdown, which gave Allie the time and space to come to terms with her situation and to realise that, despite her issues with being outdoors, there were some aspects of it she definitely enjoyed.
She re-kindled her love of roller-skating, eventually training for the Berlin Inline Skating Marathon in September 2022, and the idea for her book came not long after.
“To help inform me on my own plan to get back into roller-skating, I was looking for other autistic people who were doing outdoorsy things, to find out how they coped,” she says.
“In the media, when we see people in the outdoors, there’s usually an activity involved; a hike or a swim or walking a dog. I didn’t necessarily have the understanding that you can just go outside and exist there, and that still counts; you’re still having that connection with nature.”
Encouraged by the discovery of Spautism, a charity which raises awareness of autism through sport, Allie wondered how she could share the insights she’d gained on how autistic people can find strategies for enjoying the outdoors.
She started talking to other neurodivergent people who were participating in mountain biking, archery and hiking, as well as camping, skateboarding and nature photography, and the end result is The Autistic Guide To Adventure.
Allie has since taken up new outdoor activities, too – hiking with her Labrador dog, Lena, and kayaking.
“Lena needs a lot of exercise and I’ve discovered that while I don’t like being in water, I love being on it, so I have taken up kayaking,” she says.
Allie also stargazes, for the perspective and calming effect it brings, and believes that all these activities have helped re-connect her to the outdoors and to experience the benefits of being in the natural world.
“The best way to start building a relationship with the outdoors is simply to exist in it; just go somewhere; your local park, or your nearest green space or open fields,” she says. “Even if you do something that you would do normally indoors, like reading a book, or writing, or playing a game on a hand-held console, you’ll soon see that you can do all those things outside and still reap the benefits of having that connection to nature.”