I work at Highball on Saturdays as an instructor. It’s mostly inductions, taster sessions, a few regular kids’ awards schemes, plus frequent birthday parties. But of late something a little different has cropped up.
A 7-year old lad was brought along by his parents to try climbing. He’s autistic, and climbing had been recommended as an activity for him to try; the logical nature of the goal (climb to the top) and lack of overwhelming interaction with other people make it a good fit.
At this point I need to clarify something. To use the cliché, Autism covers a broad spectrum, but Theo is what you might regard as classically autistic. I hope that’s not an offensive statement. What I mean by that is that he barely speaks, doesn’t always seem to fully understand instructions, shakes his hands and squeaks and squeals when he gets excited and, to begin with, hardly seemed to notice I was there.
Anyway, we tried him on roped climbing, and he did well. He has a lot of natural talent – the sort of self-awareness of body position and technique that instructors look for in young climbers. In other words, he climbs smart. But, as I mentioned, he doesn’t always fully understand instructions, and I couldn’t get him to let go of the wall and be lowered on the rope once he’d reached the top. Instead, he’d climb up to the highest hold…and then climb back down again. Now this wasn’t a problem, but it got me thinking. Perhaps Theo would enjoy bouldering. There are no ropes or harnesses, and the aim is essentially the same: climb to the top. Except when you get there, because there are no ropes, you climb back down again.
I’ve been bouldering with Theo for a while now. He’s strong, he’s brave, he’s actually a bloody good climber and, most importantly, he seems to love it. Whenever he reaches the top he comes down and gives me a high-ten. He still doesn’t say much, but his parents tell me he’s enjoying it – he gets very excited about “rock climbing”!
And then, a few week back, something amazing happened. Maybe not ‘amazing’ in the grand scheme of life, but enough to tug a heart-string or two in my cynical chest. After a particularly good few climbs, we were walking over to another part of the wall when he came up behind me and grabbed my arm to be led over to the next route. Physical contact can be tricky with autism, so this little gesture made me smile – here was a 7-year old kid excited about climbing his next challenge who thought nothing of taking the arm of someone he trusted.
Theo climbed a few more good routes and eventually we ran out of time. At this point I was used to him being led away by his parents who would thank me and tell me they’d see me next week. But this time was different. “What do you say to Ben?” his mum asked. He looked up at me. “Thank you” he said. His mum leant in towards me. “He’s just started saying it” she whispered with a smile. I’m fairly sure she noticed me welling up.
Theo’s mum once asked if I minded that they always ask for me when they book him in. I replied that I didn’t mind in the slightest. But what I should have said is that these weekly climbing sessions are one of the highlights of my week and, far from minding it, I regard the entire experience as a privilege, and one from which I get as much pleasure and education as their son does.
Theo’s parents clearly work extremely hard with him, and they tell me his school (Hall School not far from Highball) are also amazingly supportive. His confidence appears to be growing, and it’s fantastic to think that Highball is playing a part in that. We’re all still learning – learning what Theo is capable of, learning what Highball can do for Theo, and learning what role climbing can have for Theo and other children like him. I can’t wait to learn more.