Diagnosed with autism at 49, Dubai resident turns charity endurance swimmer

Supporting his autistic son and raising awareness, the father will take on a 33km open-water lap on May 17

The 33.3km ultra-swim in Croatia will take Eric Robertsen four days to complete. Photo: Eric Robertsen
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Eric Robertsen, 51, always knew that he was different. But it wasn’t until he was diagnosed with autism two years ago, as he approached the end of his 40s, that the challenges he had faced all his life finally started to make sense.

The Dubai resident’s diagnosis, alongside that of his young son, made him determined to do more to help families dealing with autism and raise awareness of the condition around the globe.

Robertsen’s Swimfree2023 campaign had him complete four open-water races in aid of the UK’s National Autistic Society, including a 10km swim in Dubai and a 20km swim and hike in Norway. Having already achieved his fundraising target of £50,000 (Dh230,000), the French national is upping his distances this year and hopes to make an even bigger impact.

On May 17, he will attempt a four-day, 33.3km ultra-swim around the island of Hvar in Croatia, while in September, he will complete the 16km crossing between Sardinia and Corsica.

Ain’t no ocean deep enough

Robertsen’s campaign is even more remarkable given he had not done any competitive swimming – or, indeed, swum more than 500 metres at a stretch – until about 18 months ago.

I want to help my son understand that his voice matters
Eric Robertsen, endurance swimmer

“Many people do long-distance marathons and cycle rides for charity. But I wanted to do something extraordinary that would really draw attention. I wanted people to think: ‘My goodness, he's really lost his mind.' I eventually settled on endurance swimming, even though I’d never done anything like it before.

“All of us have our own personal challenges. I believe you can either choose to be a victim of your circumstances, or you can be your own best advocate,” adds Robertsen.

With the race in Croatia just days away, Robertsen’s intense training schedule involves swimming four days a week, plus two days in the gym.

“The training is tough. On the weekend, I will often swim for three hours straight, and cover 8km or more,” he says. “The prospect of swimming 33km in the ocean is daunting, but I relish the challenge and I’ve fallen in love with endurance swimming.

“I also want to help my son understand that his voice matters, and that he shouldn’t be afraid to ask for what he needs. I want to show others in the autism community that they are not alone, and to break down the stigmas surrounding autism and make it part of the conversation.”

Clarity with diagnosis

As the global head of research and chief strategist of a major international bank, Robertsen had created coping mechanisms that prevented his condition from impacting his career and personal life.

My diagnosis showed me I’m not flawed or dysfunctional. My brain just works differently
Eric Robertsen

His own diagnosis in 2022, he says, almost came along with a great sense of relief. “After my son was diagnosed at the age of eight, I noticed I displayed milder versions of his symptoms and eventually went for an assessment myself,” he says.

“My diagnosis helped me make sense of my personal challenges, and understand why I act the way I do. It showed me I’m not flawed or dysfunctional. My brain just works differently.”

Plenty of undiagnosed autistic adults and children can face major challenges with education and employment. For instance, one common characteristic is being hypersensitive to light, noise, temperature or fabric.

Not being able to order your favourite meal or finding out at the airport your flight is delayed can be very traumatic for someone with autism
Eric Robertsen

“Hypersensitivity can derail people and stop them from engaging with the outside world,” explains Robertsen. “It can cause anxiety, encourage isolation and lead to autistic burnout. In other words, complete physical and mental exhaustion due to coping with strong external stimuli.

“Self-harming in the autistic community is common, too, and it is often misdiagnosed as depression.”

Difficulty coping with unexpected change is another symptom. “Not being able to order your favourite meal at a restaurant, or finding out at the airport that your flight is delayed or cancelled can be very traumatic for someone with autism. It can cause them to retreat from society for several days.

“Noise and unexpected change are both problematic for my son,” says Robertsen.

He uses his campaign platforms to share such information about autism, plus materials for people facing it in their own families. Robertsen notes that the UK (where his wife and son are currently based) and the UAE are both progressive in terms of autism awareness.

“Over the past few years, the UAE has made significant strides in its support for the neurodiverse community. For instance, I’m happy to see Dubai airport encouraging the use of Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyards.

“However, not every country is as advanced. If I can help even just one or two families every year, that’s fantastic progress in my eyes.”

Updated: May 06, 2024, 8:19 AM