My son was diagnosed with autism about five years ago. The doctor who delivered the news expected my husband and me to give into our emotions and fall apart. Instead, we booked a trip. Then we booked another and another and another. We didn’t do this because we were searching far and wide for some mystical miracle cure for autism: we did it because we are wanderlusters. My husband and I have traveled Canada, Europe, Mexico, and parts of the United States over the course of our two decades together. We knew we would have a family of travelers, what we didn’t know was what travel would do for them, particularly for our son.
The changes came little by little. He was an anxious preschooler, who while clinging to his mother for dear life mustered up the courage to wade into a pool and touch a dolphin during a trip to Oahu. A year later we enrolled him in an adaptive therapy ski lesson at Northstar Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe. I swear there was a spring his step that wasn’t there until after his teacher who we dubbed, “the Autism Whisperer,” finished with him. Despite some struggles with sensory processing, he took in a luau with a bunch of other kids at the Hilton Waikoloa Kids Camp while his parents enjoyed a rare date night.
How Travel Changed Him
He has since been horseback riding, triumphed in another ski lesson where he even learned some tricks, and drove a bobsled, albeit he was tethered to his dad’s sled! With each experience and each adventure, I saw this door opening in him. He had gone from a small boy with few words to a bubbly, talkative little man ready to take on the world. Travel was changing him. These experiences were drawing him out and bringing him into the world. The more adventurous ones, though, were still to come.
He was 8 years old when he convinced his mother to go parasailing with him despite my terrible dislike for heights. During a trip to Jamaica, he rode 7 ziplines, high-fiving everyone else in the group as he landed on each platform. Then he volunteered to be the first to do a 10-meter vertical rappel descent in the course when everyone else in the group was too busy getting anxious over it. Yes, I’m afraid we may have created an adrenaline junkie.
Last summer, my son zipped high over my head as I stood in the center of the ropes course at the Squaw Valley Adventure Center. He blew through the training talk, easily learning how to hook and unhook himself from the lines, take the bridges (some of which were missing planks on purpose), and scale the course’s different levels. Despite being so high up, I could tell he was grinning ear-to-ear, with his dad hot on his heels struggling to keep up with him. The instructor turned to me and asked, “Why were you worried about having your kid on this course? He’s a champ!”
Diagnoses Don’t Define Us
And there it was—- my family’s great lesson about the power of travel. Diagnoses don’t define us. Why we travel is because it gives us the opportunity to push past those labels. My son with his medical label and its long list of challenges and symptoms is living proof. He may never be able to put reasons to his adventurous ways but he doesn’t need to. This is because the powerful combination of travel and its affect on him have already taught his family that we are a part of something bigger than labels.