A FORMER Ripon Grammar School pupil has written a children’s book encouraging autistic youngsters to enjoy the life-changing benefits of the great outdoors.
Allie Mason’s debut publication The Autistic Guide to Adventure* draws on her own experience, having only been diagnosed two years ago at the age of 23.
Allie, who has dreamt of becoming an author since she was a small child, wanted to produce a book neurodivergent young readers could relate to.
“When it was commissioned, it was a childhood dream come true. As cliched as that is, I was just so happy to have the opportunity to share more about a topic I myself was only starting to understand,” she says.
When she was younger, Allie was keen to get involved in sport and adventurous activities: “But there were a lot of invisible barriers for me which I now realise were things like sensory issues and difficulties in social situations.”
“I still face these barriers today, but I now have the tools to address and mitigate them, and I didn’t want to keep these to myself. I wanted to write a book where neurodivergent young people can recognise themselves and feel they belong."
Allie, who left RGS in 2015 after taking A-levels in English literature, German and history, feels passionately about the benefits of outdoor adventuring.
“It makes you physically and mentally stronger, takes you to new places and introduces you to new friends, as well as being an exhilarating challenge – but it can be stressful when there are unexpected social and sensory challenges involved,” she says.
The idea for the book was sparked after she signed up for the Berlin Inline Skating Marathon, which involved roller skating 26 miles through the city.
“I knew I was setting myself a challenge. Yet, as I began to search online for autistic athletes and adventurers whose stories could inspire and motivate me, I realised there were very few.”
Determined to change this, she set out to encourage her readers to join in activities ranging from archery to stargazing, sailing to fossil hunting, snorkelling to nature-writing, and much more.
In the book, her easily digestible factsheets come with a short introduction, a summary of the sensory experiences involved and suggestions on approaching activities when you’re just getting started, as well as a handy budgeting system.
With personal anecdotes and interviews with awesome autistic athletes, Allie hopes it will give autistic young people the support they need to take on the great outdoors.
She explains how her late diagnosis held her back: “I really struggled to take part in various activities, without ever being able to identify why.
“My mum worked in a special educational needs school with autistic children. And yet she came home every day and didn’t recognise that she had one in her own house. So, we always laugh about that.
“It was two years ago that I came across an article in a magazine that changed my life. The author had been misdiagnosed with depression and anxiety, only later to find out she was autistic. I recognised so much of my experience in it.
“It took me several months to find the courage to approach my doctor, and six further months until my assessment took place."
“When finally, at 23, I was diagnosed as autistic it was a bittersweet moment. On the one hand, it answered a lot of questions that had been accumulating since my childhood. On the other, it highlighted that a lot of the struggles I faced when I was younger could have been avoided with the right support.”
She recalls her difficulties at school: "I struggled with the sensory elements of being in the classroom, as well as social expectations."
But she says the support she got at RGS made a huge difference: "The help I received from staff enabled me to finish my A-levels even when I doubted myself. Without that support, I wouldn't be where I am today."
Her greatest disaster, she says, was deciding to work as a religious education teacher, having studied Christian theology at York St John University, where she was a prize-winning student, graduating with first class honours.
She hadn’t been diagnosed at the time: “The classroom is a hard environment for any autistic person, on either side of the desk,” she says.
Following an MSc in education at the University of Oxford, Allie worked in staff training and oversees recruitment and development at environmental consultancy Tyler Grange.
But she has always yearned to do more writing, having had her first poem published at the age of nine in her local newspaper: “It was all about how much I hated telephones, a foreshadowing of my adult autism diagnosis if I ever saw one.”
She went on to write her first novel, aged ten: “It snowballed from there. I have wanted to be an author since primary school, so it's quite surreal it has now become my reality.”
After the initial excitement of the book being commissioned, it took huge amounts of willpower and determination to see the project through to the end.
But it has all been worth it. Allie says the publication of her book, out on March 21, has added a new dimension to her life, opening up a host of opportunities: “As a children's author, I love that I have the chance to help the next generation feel more confident and comfortable in their own skin.
“Highlights for me have been speaking at national events, becoming an ambassador for causes I support, meeting lots of other incredible autistic people and hearing from those who have appreciated my articles or podcast interviews.”
Allie now has ambitions to become a full-time author, while campaigning for better accessibility for autistic people who want to spend more time staying active outdoors, whether by participating in a sport, going on an adventure or simply existing with nature, she says.
“I hope my book will help children feel more confident to try something they’ve always dreamt of but never felt they could do because of their support needs.”
*The Autistic Guide to Adventure (Jessica Kingsley, £14.99, out March 21). For more information, visit Allie Wrote - Autistic Author
Q: What is the one piece of advice you’d give students interested in following a similar career path?
A: You may have to be adaptable to get your foot on the ladder, so to speak. My dream was always to be an author of fiction, but after several years of having my stories rejected by agents, I changed tack and pitched a non-fiction book directly to a publisher instead. And here I am!
Q: Who was your favourite teacher and why?
A: This is a hard one! It would have to be a tie between Mr Fell and Mrs Mars, my English teachers. They were both hugely supportive of me during my time at RGS.
Q: What was the most important thing you learnt at RGS?
A: That accommodating students' support needs doesn't have to be difficult and makes a world of difference.
Q: What do you wish you’d known back then?
A: That being true to yourself and your own vision for your life is so much more important than having others' approval.
Q: What inspired you when you were at school?
A: Another hard one! I loved reading fantasy when I was a teenager, so I think it would be fair to say I was inspired by authors such as JRR Tolkien, Paul Stewart (The Edge Chronicles), CS Lewis and many more.