When I started taking part in Roller Derby minimum skills training around four months ago, I knew I could functionally skate in a circle in my teens and assumed that would translate to a natural aptitude for Derby basic training. What I had not counted on going into my first session was how much my brain would fight me every step of the way.
In my late teens I was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, an autistic spectrum condition that half a decade on is now just diagnosed under the general umbrella of Autism. While the condition manifests in different ways for different people, for me it mainly manifests as a sensory processing and routine dependance condition, where too much sensory information or abrupt unexpected changes in plans can leave me considerably distressed or unable to properly focus. I live with these issues day in and day out, but tackling joining a Roller Derby minimum skills practice group came with a whole host of unexpected hassles that I’m still working out how best to overcome.
When it comes to living with Aspergers, one of my big issues is often audio processing. I find it incredibly difficult to mentally tune out unecessary background noises, and as a result often find it tough to pick important noises out of a wall of sound. In Derby there’s constantly the whoosh of skates, the screech of wheels as people slow down using T or Plough stops, the echo of these sounds off the venue walls, the noises of other spots going on the other side of a net partition, loud whistles, talking, and all of these noises change intensity rapidly due to the nature of quickly moving around the room.
What this means in a practical sense is that I often find it tough to pick out important audio commands given in the heat of the moment. I might fail to hear someone shouting my name or Derby nickname, I might struggle to understand an instruction shouted from the other side of the room, and the general level of background noise is constantly taking up a part of my brain. The noise at Derby is a constant low level static, and I have to make a conscious effort to hear through it, and to not get stressed by it.
Uninitiated, Unexpected Interpersonal Contact
When it comes with living with Aspergers, I’m very specific about the terms on which I am okay with physical contact. The short and oversimplified version is I do enjoy physical contact when I am able to initiate it, and have control of the intensity and duration. If I feel like I have control, and can opt out of the situation if needed, then that is a big part of me being comfortable with that contact.
In derby, opting out of unexpected physical contact isn’t really an option. Pairs weaving pace lines, Whips, Hits, Blocks and general pack weaving and movement all involve uninitiated and often unexpected personal contact. I find physical contact emotionally and mentally draining, I am constantly aware of any parts of myself in contact with other people, I feel vunerable and in danger and fixate on memorising the other person’s position so I know I’ll notice if they put me in an unsafe situation. I get paranoid about germs and dirt and all sorts of uncomfortable tactile sensory information.
I can’t do much about it, but it’s a reality of Derby I’m having to work out how to handle as we move into more and more areas of the contact element of the sport.
Thanks to being on the autistic spectrum, I suffer with a whole host of co-ordination issues and motor control issues that were not a barrier to general skating in a circle as a teen, but have been a barrier to overcome during training. I struggle considerably with posture and balance due to my inability to properly predict how changes in balance will effect my stability, my movements have always been uneven leading to notable weakened muscle strength and motor control difficulty on my left side compared to my right, and while I have a lack of fear in the grand sense that allows me to really go for things, small scale body shifts cause me to panic, leading to me slamming on my toe stops at the slightest sign of a wobble. One stumble, and I panic the whole rest of a given session and my form goes downhill.
While I can skate well enough in a circle, walking left to right on a straight line, swapping which foot passes over or under the other with each step is a nightmare situation for me, and one I have had to practice day in and day out at home. I still can’t get it right. I also struggle to do things like left footed T stops or the left leg component of Plough Stops because my left leg just won’t obey me the way my right leg does.
Adapting to Unexpected Situations
During my minimum skills assessments period, I’ve had two weeks where I missed out on big chunks of sessions due to unexpected situations completely outside my control. One week I injured my ankle and could not skate properly, and another week a part of my skate snapped and I was unable to continue skating until I cobbled together a makeshift solution.
Both situations were ultimately harmless, but both of them left me incredibly distressed.
The reason I struggle with these kinds of situations is they are sudden and unexpected changes to routine. With the constant onslaught of sensory information barraging my brain, routine and predictability are key to me being able to function with a semblance of normalcy in life. I plan, I predict, I am not surprised and I feel like I have some control over the uncontrollable. I avoid thinking about how loud the universe is on a cosmic scale, where everything is always happening everywhere and I can’t control any of it, and I convince myself things are understandable and predictable and controlable.
When plans change and I don’t have options to adapt, that gets really distressing. That has been a factor in my minimum skills sessions more than once and I hope I can find a solution for that.
As an autistic person, I find socialising tough at the best of times. Conversations are a wide spread map of unpredictable variables and unwritten rules that take an exhausting amount of effort to maintain.
Try and focus on that kind of draining conversation while also focusing on the motor skills needed for Derby. It leads to moments where I fall flat on my face in spectacular splayed out fashion trying to answer a basic question while on track.
Not being able to talk on track can be a barrier to the sport. Struggling with socialising in general can make becoming a solid part of a team very challenging.
Where the above are all issues I face taking part in roller derby, this last point is more of a lack of a solution. As a person with Aspergers, I engage in something called stimming. When the unpredictable and unfilterable sensory noise of the world gets too loud, I engage in Self Stimulatory Behavior (stimming) to calm myself down. The basic idea is repeating actions in order to produce predictable sensory data that I can focus on rather than the bombardment going on around me in the world. This might be rocking, arm flapping, verbal ticks, or even fidget spinners (Yeah, those annoying toys your kid wants to do cool tricks with are actually designed for people with sensory processing issues to drown out the world, who knew?).
The problem? Most of the stimming solutions I currently make use of in my life are not suitable for use mid Derby, while kitted up in Derby gear, or while actively up on skates. This means that while a lot of these Aspergers traits are managable day to day, I can’t make use of my coping mechanisms properly during Derby sessions.
I know this list propbably gives the impression that I’m not enjoying Roller Derby, but infact quite the opposite. I have been loving every minute of my time doing Roller Derby for precisely these reasons, it’s challenging me on a weekly basis in an environment that feels nothing but supportive. Sure I struggle with a buuuunch of aspects of the activity, but I’ve been made to feel welcome and safe while learning how to adapt.
Derby has been a challenge so far for me and my Autism diagnosis, but it has sure as hell been a fun challenge.