Alex Lambe is perfectly suited to refereeing: he sees things in black and white, likes to follow rules and loves his rugby.

Since first taking up the whistle nine years ago aged 14, the Surrey-born supermarket employee is fast becoming one of the rising stars of the London Society of Rugby Union Referees and has ambitions to make it to the very top.

He also happens to be on the autistic spectrum.

It is not something Lambe shies away from, far from it. His personal Twitter account has more than 50,000 followers and he talks openly about the subject on the Autism in Rugby social media platform.

“I’ve shared it (the diagnosis) with some of my colleagues in the London Society of Referees and the overall reaction has been very good,” said Lambe, who was first diagnosed with the condition at 18.

“I think some of them didn’t know I was on the autistic spectrum, whereas some did already, and they’ve taken to it really well. More so with people with autism themselves who have seen the article as a bit inspiring which is kind of what I wanted to achieve from it.

“It’s good to see my Autism in Rugby page is getting attention,” he added. “That’s what I want. The more followers it can get, and the more awareness it can raise, the better.

“I feel like there’s not a great understanding of autism, there’s still a lot of people who don’t know a lot about it, and they don’t understand how broad a spectrum it is and how it can affect someone like me. If someone looked at me and spoke to me, they may not think I had it, I’m high functioning and the signs are less obvious, but I have my struggles.

“People say, ‘what is autism?’ and it’s quite difficult to explain because it can affect people in different ways, whether it’s struggling with speech, social awkwardness or sensory overload – such as not liking loud noises.”

Climbing the ladder

Slightly built, Lambe was never that keen on playing the game because of the collision-based nature of the sport but after seeing Craig Joubert referee on TV, he was inspired to take up the whistle.

It has proved to be a wise decision with the long-standing Esher fan climbing the refereeing ladder and making it up to Level 6.

“The whole point of a referee is to try and facilitate and create a safe and enjoyable environment for the players to play in. The very black and white nature of the role of a referee – there are sanctions and you don’t argue against them – is perfect for me in a sense,” he said.

Lambe’s last game before the enforced shutdown for the coronavirus outbreak was a Surrey U20 Championship fixture.

“It was probably the highest level game I’d done, and it was a new experience for me being in charge of a team of three. It was very fast and physical and a really good learning experience, and a nice way to end the season given the current circumstances,” he acknowledged.

Lambe’s eye for detail – a trait often associated with autism – is a quality that is serving him well on his refereeing journey.

“There was one game earlier in the season where I penalised this player once, then penalised him again for a similar offence and I said to him at half-time, ‘look, you’ve done X and Y twice now’. That ability to remember exactly what had happened, my coach was really impressed with that, because if I remember what happened and state the facts, no player is going to argue with you. They think, ‘crikey, he’s on his game today’.”

Confidence booster

When not rushed off his feet at work, Lambe has been able to reflect on what has been a stellar season, albeit a truncated one.

“It is a very weird feeling at the moment without any rugby. I’ve taken the opportunity to look back on how amazing a season it has been and how far I have progressed. With how well the season has gone, it has helped with my self-confidence.”

Above all though, Lambe just enjoys being involved in the game he loves.

“I want to get more opportunities at Level 6, like London 1. But I don’t know whether I’ll be promoted before then, I’m probably due to find out very soon.

“If I don’t think I’m going to enjoy the level above, I will say no to being promoted. I don’t want to be out of my comfort zone because that would kill my enjoyment, but if any promotions happen within that, then great.”

And the ultimate? “It’s got to be a Premiership game or international,” he says. “I would never ref an Esher first-team game, though, I’m a supporter so it wouldn’t look good.”

Photo credit: Nick Dawe/Rugby Journal