On a field trip a couple years ago, my younger son was the only one who didn’t raise his hand when the group was asked, “Who has been camping?”
My husband and I both cringed when I recounted that story. Sometimes we can be sort of hard on ourselves over the lack of outdoor experiences we have given our family. And in some ways, we most certainly could have done better. Everyone can say that about everything, can’t they? But often, after a minute of thought, I remember: autism. Right. That’s what happened there.
We have two boys. Both are teenagers now and they are four years apart. One has autism and the other doesn’t.
Our oldest is very high functioning, but he is on the autism spectrum. He was diagnosed 15 years ago. (Incidentally, autism has been in my life so long that I still call it autism, rather than “ASD” or “neurodiversity,” as seems to be the accepted vocabulary these days.) He has been identifying letters and numbers correctly since he was 16 months old. He’s been reading since age 3. He’s quick-witted and hilarious. Brilliant. Likes: Screens of any kind. His dog. Math. Very specific books. Nintendo in any form. Dislikes: Hot. Cold. Wind. Wet. Bright light. Sweating. Being hungry.
Our youngest is neurotypical (NT) and he loves absolutely everything about being outside. I think he could run nonstop for almost a whole year. He can jump, climb, swim and get dirty with the best of them.
Because things are easier now, hindsight seems a little rosier. As if we’ve always had this much sleep, this much patience, such minimal interaction with teachers, as few arguments over homework and screen time. Much like childbirth, as they say, you forget the pain. But if I really force myself to remember, I can see clearly why we couldn’t become the outdoorsy family that we wish we were today. What would have been fun for us would have been a sensory nightmare for him and we knew it. So we just did the best we could. Short trips to the park, an afternoon on a lakeshore beach, quick bike rides.
I remember making him earn screen time by riding his bike around the neighborhood in the summer. It still stings a little to know that neighbors chuckled as he rode by, as slow and cranky as could be. It stings because we were so earnest in our efforts, trying to weave outdoors and activity into his life. But I do know it was probably funny. It’s hard to have a sense of humor sometimes when you are so close to it.
After years of maturity, it is now easy to reason with my son when it comes to time outdoors. He understands the concept that being physically uncomfortable (hot, cold, wet, tired) doesn’t last forever. He’s come to truly enjoy and even ask for specific activities.
In fact, he loves to walk our dog. Two summers ago, he and I would take our dog to different parts of town to walk and explore. This was really a solution on my part to cut down on my chauffeuring. My younger son had daily sport practice that lasted just an hour and instead of running back and forth between home and the gym in that timeframe, we all loaded up and stayed out for a while. We walked in historic parts of town, in deserted parts of town, in parks, in ordinary neighborhoods. We even walked in our busiest part of town, the part where no one else actually walks, but drives. It was fun to see it from a new perspective. Two years later, he still talks about it. How he wishes we could have walked our dog more last summer like we did before, how he can’t wait to do that again this summer.
I’ll tell you this, we will make it happen this summer. If you want to know what your kids like to do outside, just listen. It might not be your idea of an ideal outdoorsy life. But even better, it will be theirs.
By Lorri Strand, Kudoso Kontributor