Effortlessly, she steps onto the ice, as if the recently swept and glittering ice rink is not slippery at all. Now Audrey Ng-a-Tham (22) does her warm-up. Forward, backward, on one leg, changing leg, cross step, turn. She stands tall, is focused, and moves her arms gracefully. None of Audrey’s timid side is visible.
“I’m absolutely in my element here,” says Audrey. On the ice rink in Dordrecht, she feels almost as comfortable as she does in her own home. She trains on Mondays and Fridays. She is practising the Lutz and the Axel. If she gets them right, she can make several jumps and go up a level.
It’s special that the ice rink is a second home, says Audrey. Due to her autism, new places aren’t always fun. Whether it’s because of the people, the interior or a light that’s too bright, too much stimulation can be overwhelming. And the ice rink is more often crowded than not.
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“I started ice skating after a difficult period in which I didn’t always see a future for myself. I thought: if I’m going to continue living, I might as well do something fun too.” You are never too old to start, says Audrey. “Don’t let that hold you back. I love the training, and the competitions. Obviously, I’d love a podium place, but just taking part is amazing.”
Audrey knows why she is totally zen when she’s skating, however crowded it is. “For me, it’s a type of stimming,” she explains. “It’s the noise of my blades on the ice, the movements I make, and the sound of gliding over the ice. And if I make a sound, for example a squeal after a jump, everyone just thinks I’m enjoying myself. No one looks at me strangely, even though that’s a form of stimming too.”
On the ice, Audrey can be completely herself, because no one judges. That’s different when she exhibits stimming behaviour outside the ice rink. “People do stare if I’m sitting at a table rocking or moving my legs or fidgeting.”
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Outside the ice rink, Audrey is worried about becoming overstimulated or about people’s reactions. Making friends isn’t always easy. And it doesn’t help if you never need to be on campus. As a second-year student of Arts and Culture, she has not often been on campus.
“A starting point is always nice for starting a conversation. That helps me talk to other people,” says Audrey. A subject might be skating, or her music – she plays harp and dreams of doing a second study at the Rotterdam Academy of Music. But a shared experience like an exam also helps start a conversation. “When there were physical exams, I did go to the university a couple of times. Afterwards, I was able to chat to people outside the exam hall. We had something to talk about.”
As Audrey continues talking, she packs away her skates. She puts the shiny blades under the bright white skates into the panda blade guards. The guards are black and white, with a panda face on the front. The skates go into a special bag. Tomorrow, they can come out again for another training session.