Autism Spectrum and Hiking

Some of my long time readers know I don’t talk about my oldest son a lot – my newer readers might even be “What, she has a third son?!”. When my oldest son hit around 11 to 12, I faded him out of my trip reports and the blog to give him privacy as a teen. He is a young adult now, a year out of high school now. And this post is about him, and how I took his being on the Autism Spectrum and turned him into an amazing child who loved hiking.

But let us go back 16 years ago, to when he was 3-year-old. At the time, I was a young mother living in a very rural area. I knew my son was different, but I had no idea what made him different. I didn’t know there was help out there, and his pediatrician mostly ignored my questions. Being on state insurance didn’t help it either. All I knew was my son lived in a quiet life in his mind, and had what was massive sensory issues. Around the time he was 3 I was finding an intense love of hiking. I either took him with me, or I didn’t get to go. It was very rare if I could go alone then. So you know what? I learned to take him.

On Sauk Mountain, above Sauk Lake, in the North Cascades. He was 4.

And what I found were the outdoors were amazing to him. His mind quieted. He didn’t hit himself. He would sit and play quietly next to a stream. And he would happily bob behind me on the trails.

On the way to Hannegan Pass, North Cascades in October of 2002.

The spring of his 4th year, as soon Spring was in the air, we took off. We hiked every week, often 3 days a week. We followed the snow pack melting. Higher and higher, longer miles by the week.

I look back at it now, much older (and maybe a bit wiser) and some hikes I do wonder if I was following my own obsession versus his needs, but I was careful with him and avoided scary water crossings. There were times I probably took him out on too much, but he seemed to deal with it well enough.

At 4½ years old he did his first over 10 mile hike. I had slowly made the hikes longer and harder, and since he adapted so well, we kept going.

On the summit of Mt. Winchester in the North Cascade Mountains in Washington State.

A cold day at Cascade Pass in the “summer” of 2002.

While he hiked and car camped with me, he didn’t go on a backpacking trip till he was 6 (Marmot Pass, Olympic Mountains). In those days, kids gear was hard to find for little kids. Now? It is beyond easy. He was often the only child on group trips. Sometimes (most of the time) we were the stragglers, but that was OK. Frustrating, but it was worth it. Especially to the other adults who praised him, high-fived him at camp.

We started him on snowshoes when he was 5. He took to it immediately. He was stronger than me from the start. In early 2005 at Mt. Rainier.

As he grew, so did our backpacking trips. We were out often 2-3 weekends a month during elementary school. The downside was we couldn’t do midweek trips anymore, but oh well.

We practiced some things that would drive others batty. For example I allowed him to bring his Nintendo system with him. He could play it in camp, once it got dark. Autism and sing-a-longs around a campfire (which I should add we rarely had!) don’t necessarily go along together. It gave him time to decompress (which is very important with Autism), and to be away from people. And it also occupied him, so I could get camp chores done. As he got older, he did help with chores, but even then….quiet time was good. Some people really hate technology in the outdoors (but overlook the car that brought them there, the camera in their hand, and the GPS strapped on a pack….), but not every child does well with playing with sticks and singing camp songs. Don’t judge those that bring technology, if used quietly.

If you can hike a very long loop and go cross-country in the alpine zone, I am OK with you playing Mario at 7 am 😉

As he got older (10 to 11 years) he started pulling back. Now then, this isn’t unusual. How many want to hang with Mom at that age? Not so many. And so the years of amazing trips slowly wound down. We did a few trips on the PCT (Pacific Crest Trail), and the usual dayhikes…and then he got lucky: Mom got pregnant with his little brother in 2009 and had to quit hiking. He was in middle school then, and life got busy. Maybe too busy, with two little ones to keep me busy, he grew up in a blink.

But at least I have one of our last hiking trips as a great memory – him sweeping out the shelter at Summerland, in Mount Rainier National Park, he was about to turn 12 then.

He still hikes with me, and nowadays I don’t worry. In fact, due to the level of hiking he did as a child, I don’t worry when he asks if he can power hike and meet me at the vehicle. Or if he can take a trail downhill, and we drive around and pick him up. It helped create an independence in him, in that part of his life. He has expressed no desire to drive as an adult (not shocking for his age group these days) and walks everywhere. He often puts in 5 to 10 miles a day and thinks nothing of it. And when you have a 34″ inseam the miles breeze by.

I can’t tell others how to do it, it’s just what worked for us. Kids on the Spectrum will often shut down emotionally and say they don’t want to go – but if you force them out of their bubble, they often have a great time and might even grudgingly thank you. 

13 Comments on “Autism Spectrum and Hiking

  1. thank you so much for sharing. you brought me to tears. i have a niece with a boy (now 13) with autism.

  2. beautifully written! There is something therapeutic about being out in the wilderness and just putting one foot in front of the other. My oldest has a development delay and loves being outdoors especially kayaking or canoeing, it helps calm his mind. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

  3. Thank you for this piece. Our older son is on the spectrum and for many years he had a very similar determination in the outdoors. As a teen his interests shifted but he still loves to get outside when time allows.

  4. Thank you for your story. My son is on the spectrum too and is 15 now. I love to hike but he doesn’t like to exercise much — had gross motor delays as a toddler, etc. I do get him to go with me for walks around the neighborhood and hope that someday he’ll take more to hiking. You clearly found something that worked very well for your son and I commend you for it!

  5. As you know, my oldest son is also on the Spectrum, and also a hiker. We were lucky enough that our guys never rebelled, and we have had some great trips over the years. Hiking itself seemed to be all the decompression our son needed, but those sensory issues sure did–and do–make the food prep tough.
    –RebeccaD

  6. I am a teacher. Many parents are afraid of losing their children in the woods. Or have them wake up at 4am to pee and get lost. It looks like you established a pattern early in life. So he would respect your boundaries. How does he handle the unexpected changes that could happen on the trail. How are his problem solving skills?

  7. Hi Cindy,
    When he was young we used a tether system on him, so he wouldn’t wander, especially when he was non-verbal. It also helped train him to a certain speed. On the getting up in the night – I trained him to wake me up 🙂 Thankfully he was also a “sleep through the night” kind of kid.
    He also walked behind us, and it was highly stressed he not wander ahead – I knew that was a fast way to lose him.
    Overall his problem solving skills were great for the trail…maybe not spectacular in regular life, but the trail was easy for him.
    ~Sarah

  8. The food was always a hard link for him as well. He likes blander food than I do!! And he happily could eat the same foods over and over.
    ~Sarah

  9. Thanks. This helps me have some hope. I still remember hiking with the two of you 9 years ago with my little 4 week old baby. I really enjoyed hiking with your oldest! That baby is my amazing 9 year old hiker now. Your recipes and cozy come with me on the trails. My youngest 4 year old has newly diagnosed Autism. She wants to be outside but gets very grumpy when she has to hike. I will not give up though! Let’s reconnect when you are in Oregon or maybe we could meet up at Mt. Rainier or St. Helens!

  10. Oh my! Talk about memories! You hiked with me on the Middle Fork Snoqualmie trail, right?? If you are down my way this summer, let me know! Would love to hike with you again!

    ~sarah

  11. I am an autistic adult and I enjoy the outdoors. I think this modern age with all of its stimulation is a bit much for many autists. Getting out into nature dials back the stimulation to something that we can really take in and enjoy. For some like me, living successfully as an autistic adult often means managing the sensory stimulation we expose ourselves to. I can think of worse ways to do that than getting out into nature with someone you love.

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