Health Walks provides a safe space within a caring community for Robert Wemyss to express himself and build confidence

In this guest blog, Robert Wemyss speaks about how taking part in Health Walks has enhanced his quality of life as someone who’s autistic. The Embark project is run by Scottish Health Walk Network member Volunteering Hebrides and received funding through our Smarter Choices Smarter Places Open Fund.

Robert whilst out on a walk in Stornoway

Walking as a less intimidating space for socialising:

Over the last few years, I have been participating in weekly walks for the Embark project every Friday morning. The walks are around an hour’s duration. Before I started undertaking the walks, I was very nervous about being around large groups of people, especially in indoor locations. The thought of attending social events such as those being organised by Befriending Lewis made me apprehensive and I didn’t feel comfortable going anywhere without my befriender.

It was suggested to me that I might feel more comfortable socially interacting in an outdoor natural setting where I was less likely to feel overwhelmed by the sensory overload that I feel in indoor settings. As I have always enjoyed walking, admittedly usually on my own, both as a means of burning off nervous energy and sensorily processing the world around me, I agreed to give it a try.

As someone who lacks confidence in their fine motor skills and struggles to process instructions under pressure the thought of social walking felt less intimidating for me and less cognitively challenging than, for example, a workshop environment.


A place to build social connections:

I have found the walks have greatly enhanced my overall health and wellbeing both physically and mentally.

One factor that has had a negative impact on my mental health is that throughout my life I have always desired to form close personal relationships with people and expand my circle of friends and acquaintances but due to my autism have struggled with social interaction and communication.

I have always feared being negatively judged or making a fool of myself and ended up talking myself out of social opportunities that I suspect I would have enjoyed.

The Embark walks have been amazing in introducing me to a wonderful and diverse group of people amongst the staff, volunteers and fellow walkers in which we have shared many enriching conversations and life affirming moments. The walking group has come to feel like a caring community or extended family where we share stories, anecdotes and engage in some hilarious banter which before the walks I would never have guessed I would enjoy so much. I have felt my confidence increasing as the walks have gone on and felt more able to share in or even initiate banter without fearing so much about crossing boundaries or upsetting people.


A place to be yourself:

The walking group feels like a safe space where I can express my personality freely and indulge my love of facts and converse about my special interests, like the origins of words, which in turn has increased both my confidence and motivation levels. It really helps when people compliment you on stuff you know and listen attentively when you engage them with what you consider to be interesting facts.

As the walks have progressed, I have felt less need to try and mask my autism to appear ‘normal’ which can be so exhausting and feel accepted on my own terms, quirks and all.

For example, when at home I say ‘puffins’ rather than ‘cheese’ when I pose for photos as the thought of puffins makes me smile more and I now feel confident enough to do the same for walking group photos which other group members have now copied by saying "puffins" too. The group has given me a strong sense of connection and belonging to a wider social network and other group members have expressed similar sentiments.


Building the confidence to go out again:

Before Covid struck, I used to go to my local supermarket on a near daily basis. However, even after the lockdown restrictions eased, I found myself feeling too anxious to go in as I had fallen out of the habit and now found visualising the thought of me entering, going through the aisles and then paying at checkout too daunting as I had been too long out of my daily routine.

After I had participated in a few of the walks I gradually started to find the thought of going back more and more possible until eventually I managed to do it. Now I can go in again on a regular basis, which only a year ago I would have found hard to imagine.

Before the walks restarted in 2021, I had not walked down my local road either on my own or with anyone else for over a year and had become completely disconnected from the outside world. I still remember how nervous I felt attending my first post-Covid walk, which is when I finally made the journey out of my front gate. I very nearly chickened out but my memory of how much I had enjoyed the walks before covid made me persevere.

After the walks resumed, I gradually built up my confidence levels of being outside again and felt able to go into shops, cafes etc. both on my own and with other people. I remember remarking to the Embark coordinator that as well as being fulfilling and enjoyable, the walks had for me served as a metaphorical bridge or gateway to accessing other amenities and becoming more socially active again.


Overcoming challenges with social anxiety:

Recently, Befriending Lewis has set up an Islander programme with a full range of social activities including board games, sports games, food themed events and a trip to Glasgow.

Despite my ongoing challenges with severe social and generalized anxiety, I have felt able to participate in a lot of these activities which have immeasurably enhanced my quality of life.

I have noticed that once you make friends in one setting, such as on the walks, they then invite you to other activities and groups on the island that they are already participating in. As a result, your social network very quickly spirals and you no longer have to worry about going into a crowded location on your own without knowing anyone as one or more of the new friends whom you’ve met on the walks for example can accompany you instead.

I genuinely feel that without first participating in the walks with the more relaxed levels of sensory and social stimulation compared to indoor environments I would really have struggled to make the transition.

It also greatly helps my confidence and feelings of self-worth when people, whether staff, volunteers or fellow walkers compliment me on my demeanour telling me how I help to boost the mood of the group and say I am a nice person to be around. This sort of positive affirmation is invaluable in encouraging me to engage with people more generally without catastrophizing about how I am coming across and in turn made me a better person by giving more compliments back in return and enhancing my empathy and connection with other people.


The volunteers and staff:

Finally, I just want to say how wonderful all the volunteers as well as the staff on the walks are. Without exception they have all been dedicated, empathetic and attentive.

I notice that they always make sure that all the walkers are okay, and everyone is made to feel a part of the group. If anyone is looking left out one of the volunteers or staff members will always be on hand to include them in the conversation.

They always take an interest in your hobbies and cheer you up if you are having a bad day. They are very good at giving me and other walkers positive affirmation and radiate positive energy which is the best medicine you can have when you have got depression and severe anxiety. They never make fun of you if make a silly mistake such as when it was pointed out to me that what I thought were bluebells were actually crocuses. I am very touched they give up their precious time to come on the walks and I have made some great friends as a result.