At the age of 12 I got told I was a gifted rider and got packed of to ride the world championships. An ideal situation for someone so into riding bikes you'd think. Riding went from being stress relief, to being the cause of my stress. I have Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism which is something I only found out now at the age of 35. My family still don't understand it and I guess neither do I fully. It may seem odd to be happy at being diagnosed with a disorder but for me, and many others, my life makes a little more sense now. It is only when immerse myself in my obsessions, on my terms that the world truly makes sense to me.
As a kid I would head to the same practice spot time after time, honing my ability to hit the same step time after time. I had a rule that until I could do it 50 times in a row I had to start again from scratch. I wasn't interested in practicing what I should of been practicing, I wanted to get perfection at the lines in my head. Preferring to ride the line my brain had spotted rather than a plotted section, plus the added stress of people, noise and expectations meant I always buckled in competition. I hated competitions with rough horrible sections and preferred smooth run ins, I often spotted lines that seemed to logically flow and couldn't understand why the organisers would send us a different way. It's probably why I ended up riding on the dance-floors of nightclubs across europe. Even then, my agent would despair at my lack of choreographed routine or my inability to meet and greet those who had booked my show. I didn't plan, I simply rode and did what felt right and lucky for me it worked. I also got away with not speaking to club managers as my agent just told them "mountain-bikers are just too laid back to care". I once spent 5 hours balancing on the street outside my friend Marcus's house. Sense would tell you that if you can manage 1 hour, you can do as many as you like. I set a goal of 5 hours in my head and stopped until the job was done. I could, and still can spend hours practicing yet can barely stand the thought of talking to people unless its bike or health related.
I don't just love riding. For me riding is a need, its sustenance, a way of being that I can't be without. I can’t remember a day when I've not obsessed about sections and how I'd ride them. I'm obsessed with photos of my riding, not because I want to look at myself, because I want to check if it looked like I wanted it to look. I'm not bothered about my score in a section, its all about completing it smoothly. I'll happily swap a clean ride for one that matches my expectation of smooth clean lines. Its why the non stop style doesn't suit me. I'm a bit more clinical, I like to get on line and make sure everything is as planned. Non stop riders like Mick Boam just take what comes and hang on, whilst I really struggle with the whole concept of just battering along pushing for the end cards.
When there is no riding (like now due to my injury), I sink into a mood. My face and mood are notably more sad, frustrated and expressionless. If I couldn’t ride, what would I do? The though of not riding is a terrifying possibility, so I guess if I couldn't ride, I would spend my time I wanting to ride. Or as I'm finding out right now I would immerse myself in the depths of studying health and in particular endocrinology. Hard to imagine how it can replace riding but it honestly can, theirs nothing that excites me more than finding a theory I suspected is actually correct or putting facts to evidence I've amassed over the past decade.
In February 2011 I was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of “high-functioning” autism. The plan is to group it all back under one umbrella and lose the Asperger's tag, meaning that I'll have an autistic spectrum disorder. I've spent years being the oddball trying to fit in, I've struggled through education, and despite being very very quiet, I've managed to insult or anger a massive amount of people over the years at educational or work environments. My early years at school largely went by without trouble as I just sank into the background and went unnoticed. Its amazing when you try how much you can avoid being seen at school. From escaping football lessons and class talks, to getting out of meeting people after school. I did have friends, but it was on my terms, poor old Marcus rode bikes with me and we did little else.
My symptoms of impaired social interactions, difficulty with communication, and the tendency to fixate on repetitive behaviors certainly effected my attempts at integrating into the working world. I got bullied a fair bit at Rolls Royce. I fought back though, not physically like I managed to avoid at school, but verbally. My wife doesn't believe that I can be so straight to the point, but when pushed and made to feel like I'm being cheated I come out with some real home truths. Once you've crossed that line theirs no way back, I'll never change my opinion and we're done.
I'm easily overwhelmed by other people and often struggle to express myself. Even a simple family gathering is physically painful for me, from the noise to the chit chat, its all too much. I demonstrate the most distinguishing feature of Asperger’s syndrome: an “encompassing preoccupation” with a narrow subject. Some with the syndrome become obsessed with dinosaurs, serial numbers on items or other topics which seem weird to normal people. People assume for me, that its nutrition but I have 2 areas of encompassing preoccupation. Trials riding and Health, I talk about nutrition a massive amount and can certainly turn any conversation round to suit my desire to talk about it. It comes from my obsession with understanding health and my knowledge that nutrition has possibly the greatest effect upon our long term health.
Hans Asperger was the pediatrician who identified the syndrome which would later be named after him. He stated that the obsessive nature can lead to important achievement, but, it is at huge social cost: Hans Asperger wrote that for success, “The necessary ingredient may be an ability to turn away from the everyday world … with all abilities canalized into the one specialty.”
I had a reputation for keeping myself to myself in the biketrials world, I was far happier riding alone. The same appears of my health studies. I rarely want to talk with other practitioners about methods and have been described by one PT I know as a "natural that never had to work at it,” He's wrong though. Whilst nutritional facts and answers appear to trip of my tongue as though I've been waiting to answer the questions all day. My real secret is that I'm always immersed in health research. My point is I'm so immersed in my interest that it can seem like I never had to learn it.
If I'm not researching health or riding then I'm probably watching slow-motion videos of myself riding, checking photos or eating. This year in Scotland my dad missed several good rides despite being armed with my new HD camera and I got so upset. I remember every single section I've rode, everything about every client I've helped, every diet I've written for them. Yet I can't remember the social rules of life. To most people clients look the same in gyms, rocks look the same in trials. Not to me though, I notice slight intricate differences in clients and the sections. Even at the clubs that use the same ground year after year I notice slight differences in the way the ground breaks up. Its these things that I lives for.
Ask me what I've done today and I'll struggle to find the words or become defensive wondering why you want to know. Even my family freak me out when they ask me questions that I simply don't know the answers to. My few appearances on TV have led to me avoiding eye contact and staring instead at the cameras and sound equipment while being interviewed. Even the simplest questions lead to awkward silences as I just don't know what to do. My wife probably despairs of me at times as I'm so difficult to be around at times. And yet, if you’re able to talk to me about health I suddenly have eloquence as I reels off fact after fact often using metaphors to help people understand the complicated topics I'm relaying to them.
Life off the bike and out of my bubble of health is increasingly difficult. Asperger’s is a pervasive developmental disorder (PDD), which means that my mind was different from an early age. When I was young and at school, and even through to my studies at University (2006-2010) I didn't know a thing about Asperger's. Lots of people had joked about me having the disorder over the years (the guy I bought my records of at HMV said I must have Asperger's due to my encyclopedic knowledge of the records I wanted him to source for me), but I ignored it as I had no idea what they meant. Integrating with others was near impossible, and it took me 3 universities and the help of student support to finally make it through a degree. I think I'm clever, in fact I know I know my stuff about health and nutrition. So it left me confused as to why I struggled so much. The constant attempt to fit in left me drained and all I did was sleep. Having to consciously decode every bit of social contact is incredibly hard work, especially when you have no interest in it. As someone who avoids eye contact, despises interaction, and seeks solace in repetitive activities, the social nature of humans is a real source of suffering.
As I mentioned earlier, my weirdness was routinely put down to shyness and at a later date to dyslexia and dyspraxia which never made sense to me. My mum did her best to deal with the bullies who made early school difficult, but when your the kid that avoids contact in such tribal situations you stand out. By the age of 7 or 8 everybody knew I rode a motorbike and life turned around for me. I could get away with avoiding contact, but when someone did talk to me it was inevitably about my motorbike which was safe ground. The bullies left me alone as they wanted to befriend the kid with a motorbike (must of thought they'd get a go). It seemed my shyness would disappear when bikes came into play (special interest). Any other topic though and It would all be too much for me and I would shut down.
When life got difficult, I could (and still can apart from when I'm injured) always escape on 2 wheels. Most people have problems and want to meet with friends and family to discuss it. I want the opposite, I hide away and shut down my senses to the outside world. At Nottingham Uni I would eat my lunch slowly without ever looking up or saying a word. Then I would go outside and sit on my own with my eyes shut leading to everyone joking about me being "Billy no-mates." Everyone I guess just assumed I was just a moody teenager, albeit a 33 year old one!!
I struggled with the academic aspects of backing up my encyclopedic knowledge of the body. From lectures to tutorials and even in my riding world with my sponsors, my characteristically blunt assessments of situations won few fans. The educational psychologists mentioned Asperger’s yet again. From discussing nutrition that I had knowledge and that my current diagnosis of a learning disability was wrong. I could vividly describe anything to do with nutrition and rationalize any problem, yet could not remember one thing that the lecturers tried to brainwash me with.
Meeting with the psychologist was probably the most interesting experience I've had. I expected a stuffy professor that would make me feel under scrutiny and uncomfortable. He actually made me feel the opposite. We talked about my extremely sensitive hearing, dislike of heat (I was sat in shorts and flip-flops during a snowy February) and poor sleep habits amongst other things and he said he was sure I had Asperger's. This calmed my nerves before we scrutinized me any further.
I remember driving home from the assessment and as usual I had the car literally vibrating with the beat of the house music emanating from my speakers. I've always had to have the music loud but only recently noticed as my new wife was constantly asking me to turn it down. I find the intense rhythms soothing and if its loud then I only have one noise to deal with. When its turned down their is a multitude of noises, from the road noise, noises from the car, through to people talking or the stereo in the background. When it gets like this I loose my focus so its safer for me to just have loud music. The same happens at home, if we watch TV my wife is always making fun of my age as I always want the TV volume up. Truth is I've passed many hearing tests and can usually pick up noises that others miss. I just can't deal with all the background noises, so to focus on something I need it to be above everything else.
My wife is petite and pretty, she's 25 years old, which is 10 years younger than myself. This in itself is another key factor in my diagnosis. I feel safe with her, and despite her not really understanding what I go through she’s the only person that can give me a full body hug. Even my parents can't breach that barrier.
On the bike and in recent years in the classroom, I struggled to live up to the early hype. I could display flashes of brilliance at both, but I couldn't put together a performance that is needed in both the sports world and the academic world. In the classroom I found the constant negotiations tiresome and frustrating. A lot of the stuff you have to do to satisfy lecturers is absolute junk. It’s not about really helping someone, its about ticking academic boxes. The student support staff and my wife have both tried to teach me basic strategies to help me perform better in academic situations, but it seems I literally can't be with these clowns. It’s not that I don't want to finish an education, I'd love nothing more. Its just that can only learn the knowledge that works clinically rather than remember what I have to in order to pass exams.
I've been told that I'm more than talented enough to win contests still, and that I should of turned up at my Britain's Got Talent audition a few years back. I've also been told that if I can just play the game at University I'll get the results. Its at the cost of my mental health though. Having to conform and play such games freaks me out and makes me incredibly miserable. I've learnt over my 35 years that he most important thing is to be happy. My wife constantly tells me that we sometimes have to do things we don't want to, and she's right. However, having been through manic lows, I don't regret dropping out of competitive riding, I enjoy my shows from time to time (I hate it when I'm with other people and have to talk, but do love it when I'm actually on stage and can focus on riding). I also don't regret leaving my physio degree as I felt as low as I've ever felt and didn't know where to turn.
If I had my way, I’d spend all my time chasing the perfect health for a client online and then going out riding that perfect line on my bike. No people, just bikes and knowledge would be the perfect days work. When I ride or do health stuff I don’t need to worry. I’m just there, its flowing and natural. Send me to a big competition and the thinking gets too much for me. I frequently bail in big competitions such as the SSDT and get beaten by riders that don't come near me in normal comps.
Their is a downside to my diagnosis in that it created tension. Not everybody gets that I really am different and that I can’t help it. Some think I just suffer a lack of discipline or drive and don't understand how it effects me. I've given up trying to discuss it with certain people I they take it that I'm weak or giving up. I can appreciate that some people want social interaction and that I'm different. I just can't see why they can't see my side of the picture.
Nevertheless, the diagnosis has helped me understand that my need to ride or study health is simply a need to be alone and have some downtime, and not a childish obsession or arrogance that I don't want to discuss others topics. Having both studied alongside, and worked with a behavioral therapist, I am much more aware of the triggers that cause my “shutdowns,” such as spending too much time in social situations, having to alter my routines etc. I do struggle to understand my moods which means its sometimes hard to realise I'm struggling.
The social handicaps that caused so much teasing in the workplace are still here and I can't fit in no matter where I go. But If I didn’t have Asperger’s, then I wouldn’t have such a logical brain that enables me to assess things easier and more naturally on a bike or in a client that maybe others can’t. Put me in a social situation and I struggle to even converse, but allow me to do things in a stress-free environment and my brain can compute things quickly and far more efficiently than is normal.
Handicap or gift? It really depends upon what makes you happy I guess. The world revolves around social interaction and people go to work to earn money whilst being as social as they can. Families get together and discuss, complain and interact with each other. For me, and many others the world is a very different place. I don't crave social interaction so I'd rather hide away and have the skills that I have.