By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
Jason arranges the kindling with deft motions and concentrated attention. He draws from the pile of firewood he already collected–a responsibility he loves–and builds a small square around the kindling – a miniature log cabin complete with a roof. Then he lights it with one match, sits back on his heels, and watches the fire grow into yellow flames.
Jason loves to camp. He insists on building the campfire every evening. His family and friends are glad to let him take charge of the task. He has made a science of it and never fails to produce a strong blaze. a
Jason has never been formally diagnosed with high-functioning autism, but his family and high school friends recognize his obsession with the details of his science projects, his intense focus about his passions – astronomy, physics, and fire – and his quirky, blunt manner with people. What he lacks in social skills and diplomacy he makes up for with his sense of humor, honesty, and intelligence.
Despite his physical clumsiness, he loves to hike and has become a wiry backpacker able to carry a heavy pack. He soon outstrips the others on the trail. He hikes fast and arrives at every new stopping point first. His friends just laugh at mannerisms, tolerant because they love him and his ability to make them smile and learn new things about their surroundings.
At night he spells out the constellations for the others, naming dozens of stars. “Look, there’s Betelgeuse, and Rigel, in the constellation Orion. And there’s Sirius.” His friends drift off to sleep as his voice continues in the darkness, listing the stars he loves.
A Passion for the Wilderness
Like Jason, children and teens with autism can find deep enjoyment in the wilderness. Not only does the adventure in the fresh air give a healthy break from too much screen time, it develops new skills and a sense of self-sufficiency. The wilderness can give children with autism a confidence that they may lack in the social world they face at school.
Providing young people with opportunities and experiences to gain skills in wilderness camping can be joyful for parents, too. What better way to vacation in the summer than to seek the beautiful and restful sights and sounds of wild nature?
Tips for Spending Summer Vacation in the Wild
These six tips will help your adventure in the wilderness be meaningful and fulfilling for you child with autism.
- Let the older child or teenager choose her own equipment, including sleeping bag, tent, mess kit, and either daypack or full backpack. Advice from your local outdoor gear store expert will provide essential information without undue amounts of lecturing from well parents.
- Pick at least one or two camping tasks that your teen with autism can take responsibility for, consistent with age and capability. Don’t underestimate your child! Just imagine the feeling of self-confidence a 10-year-old has when setting up a tent alone, or the feeling of importance and belonging a teenager gets when collecting firewood to keep the family warm at night.
- Link your child’s existing passions to topics related to the wilderness. A younger child fascinated with dinosaurs may delight in a trip to one of the fossil sites in the Western United States. Ask your teenager to participate in choosing the location of any trips based on his interests .
- Find at least one new interest your child with autism could explore in the area where you will go camping or hiking. This potentially opens a whole new area of fascination. You can help inspire new interests by choosing movies and books or meeting with groups such as the local chapter of a national hiking club to explore the subject before the trip. Geology, rock-climbing, canoeing, rafting or kayaking, orienteering and maps, and animal tracking or bird-watching all open new windows to the wilderness.
- Consider inviting another family along or one of your teenager’s friends to encourage bonding and make the trip more fun.
- Remember to take notice and give support and recognition for the new skills your child or teenager with autism acquires.
With new skills and increased confidence, children with autism will find opportunities for growth the next time they take a trip into the wilderness. The successes and resulting self-esteem will carry over into other aspects of their lives. In addition, positive experiences in the wilderness will help their mental and physical health for the rest of their lives.
Don’t forget adolescents with autism can make great hiking and camping buddies. You may never have to build another campfire. Just sit back and get ready to roast the marshmallows!