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.