In light of the incredible response to our recent podcast featuring Rob Warner, we've enlisted the expertise of a talented freelance content creator and copywriter who is also Autistic. Emily, SEN educator and writer has delved into the episode, offering a comprehensive exploration of key points and providing valuable resources for those eager to delve deeper into the discussed topics. This extended content aims to support and inform anyone seeking a more in-depth understanding.
Rob Warner gets emotional as he opens up about his Autism diagnosis, “What’s disordered about me? It’s actually only about order so why am I disordered?”
In this Ride Companion exclusive interview, Rob sits down to chat with us about his time at the Dakar Rally, the grief he’s been dealing with since losing his position as World Cup mountain bike commentator, and his autism diagnosis.
Firstly, while many people in the Autistic community feel strongly about Identify-first language, Rob’s take on it is this; “I won’t ever say I’m autistic. I’ll always say I’ve got Autism 'cause I like to think… it is my own personality.” Hence, we’ll be using person-first language throughout this article.
“Finding out I had Autism didn’t hit me as hard as losing the World Cup” he says casually, after opening up about getting diagnosed with Autism and a PDA profile, over six years ago. Autistic Spectrum Condition (ASC, often referred to as ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition which is estimated to be present in 1 in 200 people, although Rob suspects that the rates are actually significantly higher. Unsurprisingly, boys and men are much more likely to receive a diagnosis than girls, women or gender non-conforming folks. Why? Because Autism was only 'discovered' and first diagnosed 80 years ago and, as is typical with most things within the medicine and healthcare realm, the initial research was only done on young white males with high-support needs. This has left many low-support needs autistic people unaware of their neurotype, only to be discovered in their late thirties, early fifties or older. These diagnoses or self-discoveries tend to come about either because a family member receives a diagnosis or as a result of a significant lifestyle change or stressor that triggers a period of mental ill-health or autistic burnout which forces them to get to the bottom of why they're struggling.
Rob recounts how much he struggled both at school and at college and says he thought he was 'unintelligent', so he acted unintelligently and was then labelled as one of the 'naughty' kids. He dropped out of college after two months and worked at the Rover factory for six months but thankfully for Rob, that career path was interrupted by supportive parents and the ultimate reward of being able to engage with his passionate interest; mountain biking.
"PDA, an absolute fact with is it is Demand Avoidance, but if the reward is big enough then the demand goes." PDA, short for Pathological Demand Avoidance, is a profile within the Autism Spectrum and as Rob says, the hardest thing for a PDA-er is being told what to do. Demand Avoidance is naturally a human trait that everyone will experience from time to time, but for someone with a PDA profile, every day tasks and routines can create such intense anxiety, that the person feels they absolutely can not complete those tasks or things that are being demanded of them. (A common misconception in someone with undiagnosed PDA is that they are simply being stubborn or controlling, but it is so much more than that). He recalls how the weeks leading up to this podcast have been a challenge, and even leaving the house that morning became a demand for him as he says, making this disclosure to us is "the hardest thing I've ever done in my life".
Rob’s mountain biking career has spanned over 30 years, kicking off at the early age of 15 with the 87-mile Ridgeway Path in the South of England. In 1996, he became the first British Mountain Biker to win a Downhill World Cup and went on to compete in several national competitions where he won the UK National Downhill Champion three times; in 1997, 1998, and 2001. Rob shares some comical anecdotes relating to his 'clumsiness' during his career which is caused by what he now knows to be Dyspraxia. "I've got this thing called Dyspraxia as well... which is why I can't work on bikes" and recalls not being able to keep up with others riding back to the top of the track after a downhill. Dyspraxia is a condition that affects co-ordination, movement, and balance and can impact a person's ability to drive, play sports and manipulate small objects, which goes some way in explaining why bike maintenance is a challenge for Rob.
Rob retired from racing in 2006 and since then he has become the face and the voice of Downhill, Cross country, and Short Track events in his role as a commentator. He attributes some of his successes to his recent diagnoses of Autism, ADHD and Dyspraxia and says “I would never have had this job if I didn’t have Autism” and expresses his love for research in preparation for commentating. It's likely that his Autistic pattern recognition skills and passionate interest in the sport are what makes him willing and able to memorise and familiarise himself with the various sets of data about the riders and their particular disciplines that he relies on during commentary.
Rob describes his recent trip to Saudi Arabia for the Dakar Rally as overwhelming but amazing and said "I live for those moments!" He chats about his other experiences with travel including the difficulties he has with preparing and recovering from plane journeys, and navigating his way in new places. “My ADHD is out of control... Red Bull make so many allowances for me...thank you Red Bull for putting up with me.” He laughs, but we definitely detect his sincere tone.
In light of his Autism diagnosis he said, even though he was in denial for a long time and cried every day for eight days, that after finding out, "everything just fell in place behind that." When we probed him about his preconceptions about Autism and ADHD and tried to unpack 'what is normal?', he says confidently, "You're Windows, I'm Mac, and if there were more Macs in the world, I wouldn't have to fit in but at the moment I'm in the minority."
We're so privileged to have been able to hear and share Rob's story about his various diagnoses and know that it is especially important to have opportunities to open up the conversation about men's mental ill-health which can so often co-occur with being neurodivergent.
We've come up with some things you can say if someone you know tells you they've had an Autism diagnosis:
"Thanks for trusting me with that information"
"How does that affect you?"
"Is there anything you need when we go to..?"
"What can I do to support you?"
If you're considering whether you have any of the conditions we've talked about in this podcast, and you're looking for more information or resources, here are some websites we'd recommend:
Autism - www.autism.org.uk / www.autisticgirlsnetwork.org
PDA - www.pdasociety.org.uk
ADHD - www.Adhdfoundation.org.uk
Dyspraxia - www.dyspraxiafoundation.org.uk
Inclusive education resources, information and guidance for educators and parents:
Autism, PDA, Dyspraxia, ADHD, Parent Guides.
Rob's final words of wisdom from the podcast? You'll have to listen or watch it yourself below!
Written by Emily Powell.
Emily is a freelance content creator & copywriter and is Autistic herself. She works with businesses to promote Diversity and Inclusion, particularly with regard to Neurodiversity awareness and acceptance. She has a wealth of experience in working directly with neurodivergent people from her time as an SEN educator.