By Laryssa Rote
The outdoors is a sensory nightmare.
There are bugs, for one thing; one million little legs to crawl on you, to tickle your arm hair in the worst way. There are the elements: heat, choking humidity, cold, and blustery wind. There’s an infinite amount of physical discomforts—however, as an autistic individual, the outdoors is one of the most comfortable places for me to just simply exist. I think too, that it’s a revelation that isn’t unique to me and my autism, but to everyone who prefers the discomforts of the outdoors compared to the discomforts of…people.
“There’s an infinite amount of physical discomforts—however, as an autistic individual, the outdoors is one of the most comfortable places for me to just simply exist.”
As a child, when my mother would sit me down in grass, I would scream and cry. I remember the feeling of those blades against my Michelin-man baby rolls: prickly, sharp, and just a slight ticklish. Pure agony. I still feel that way about grass, but I’m better at managing all my sensory nightmares in the wilderness and I think it has to do with how I’m forced to come to terms with that discomfort in a way that doesn’t rush me.
It’s no secret that neurodiversity is gaining ground. The advent of shared experiences via TikTok has led to an explosion of autism and ADHD diagnoses and this explosion has transformed the perception of autism. It’s no longer about meltdowns, trains, and numbers. It’s about direct communication, overstimulation, and a keenness for understanding patterns. The language has changed; the correct verbiage is winning and overpowering the stigmas. More importantly, more and more neurodiverse individuals are finding relief in the outdoors.
I don’t think we realize, as a culture, how much overtime our minds work or all the different faces we wear from house, to job, to friends, to dating. For autistic individuals who have been late diagnosed, these masks are incredibly hard to train out of ourselves. They were our survival mechanism after all, a way to fit in when our “normal” became too off-putting. When you eliminate the need to wear a mask, the feeling of being unshackled is euphoric. And that’s what outdoor recreation does for me. The slight discomforts of the outdoors are nothing compared to what it’s like to exist in a human-saturated environment. It’s like my mind finally breaks the surface for breath after being submerged and fighting a never-ending current.
No longer surviving, but finally vibing.
The simplicity of walking through nature has long been documented as healing. “The mountains are calling,” right? It’s not the simplicity of the task (because we know that hiking isn’t as simple as some think!) so much as it’s being free to be yourself. The freedom to be genuine, no matter how your mind works.
My favorite example of how being outdoors fosters this kind of genuineness is the act of “leapfrogging” with individuals on a trail. You have the opportunity to get to know someone outside of a formal setting. Half the time, you’re both suffering too much on trail to put up a mask and be anything but yourself. My recent experience with this was when I was climbing up to Mt. Elbert’s summit. At the second highest mountain in the lower 48, and with 5k of elevation gain, I was struggling. But so was an old man from Illinois. I passed him about a mile into the trail, and he made some corny, old man joke which I dutifully chuckled at. Later, as I was huffing on a rock for a break, he passed me. At this point, we both realized that AllTrails had lied to us, and this was going to be a far longer hike. I gasped out a “can’t trust those internet mileages, huh?” To which he replied “Goddamn AllTrails got me again.” We leapfrogged each other up the mountain making jokes with each passing or offering little encouragements: “It’s right around the corner!” “You lie about as much as my ex-wife.” At about a quarter mile from the top, we paused our scramble, only feet from each other, gasping for breath, and he uttered a line that took me out. Laying prone on a boulder, he wheezed out “Where’d all the air go?” It might have just been the lack of oxygen to the brain, but I laughed until I cried.
We summited and I never saw him again, and I can’t remember his name; only that he was from Illinois, had an ex-wife, 6 grandchildren, and loved MoonPies. It’s still a more memorable experience than the majority of the interactions I have on the daily. The shared suffering, the genuine human interaction that happens when you’re too tired—or in too much pain—to create a mask, feeds the soul just about as much as the views.
“The shared suffering, the genuine human interaction that happens when you’re too tired—or in too much pain—to create a mask, feeds the soul just about as much as the views.”
I think the appeal of outdoor recreation is about the freedom to be who we really are and about nature providing the inability to escape that. You can only create an act if there are witnesses and a script—but when the only living thing you’ve seen for miles is a marmot, who are you really?
Neurodivergence is so internal that even the act of writing about it is daunting. How do you put into words the world that exists inside you? Especially when the rest of the world seems to live so externally. How do you put into words that “No thank you, Patricia, I don’t want to try your jello shots, that texture makes me feel like my mouth is melting.” It’s a lot easier to do what the marmots do and just stare. Occasionally scream. Nature is the great equalizer, and whether you’re neurodivergent or neurotypical, we can all breathe easier when we don’t feel the need to create a persona.