NOT many people would volunteer to cycle 170 miles - but Craig Thompson is never one to shy away from a challenge, especially when it comes to sport. 

The 33-year-old took part in the North East Autism Society’s third annual cycling sportive in August, which saw a group of cyclists tackle a tough 170-mile route along the River Tyne in support of the services we deliver.

“For me, exercise is the only way I get that real diffusion of anxiety,” says Craig, who was diagnosed autistic as an adult. “I have been through a lot in recent years and getting out on the bike is the only thing that seems to work for me in terms of my mental health.

If I don’t train, I start to feel myself going on a downward spiral, and that’s why I set myself these fitness challenges. While medication helps to abate the worst of these symptoms, nothing helps more than the impact of cardiovascular exercise, especially cycling.

He adds: “The people I have met though sport and the experiences I’ve had have taught me that even when things go wrong and my anxieties increase, I can deal with it." 

The North East Autism Society and its vision is a cause close to Craig’s heart as he was diagnosed as autistic in 2018, while his younger brother, who has Dravet syndrome, is also autistic.

Craig, from Prudhoe, was 28 when he was finally diagnosed as autistic with pathological demand avoidance, having previously been diagnosed with Bipolar Type 2 and prescribed anti-psychotic medication following a short hospital stay in 2011.

“When I was diagnosed as autistic, I wouldn’t say I had any kind of epiphany, but there was a lot of relief,” Craig says. “It felt like a new chapter had opened up for me.

I want people to embrace autism – all they have to do is recognise and utilise the different strengths and abilities that autistic people have and allow them to bring those to the table.

Last month’s bike ride was far from Craig’s first endurance challenge, as he’s previously taken part in several marathons, completed an Ironman – despite being unable to swim when he signed up – and a number of cycle sportive races.

Despite the challenges he’s faced, Craig says he is positive about the future and wants to encourage other autistic people to have hope and faith in their own abilities.

“I managed to complete a degree and postgraduate. I’ve completed 10 marathons and an Ironman Triathlon,” he says. “And I did all of that without a diagnosis. With the right support, acceptance, and understanding, I am capable of much more.”

This year’s challenge took cyclists across the four counties of Northumberland, Cumbria, Newcastle upon Tyne and North Tyneside, starting in the village of Bardon Mill and finishing in Tynemouth.

Fundraising Manager at NEAS, Kevin Meikle praised Craig’s enthusiasm and thanked him for his fundraising efforts, which contributed to the team’s total of almost £6,000.

“Craig is a true advocate for the positive benefits that exercise can have on your mental health,” Kevin says. “We’re very grateful he has decided to fundraise for NEAS, and I know our vision of autism acceptance is something that rings true for Craig personally.”

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