Every once in a while I get asked to write a piece which highlights the accomplishments of families with autistic kids.
This week I had the opportunity to do an interview for the Travel Channel about a family with an autistic son who journeyed 13,000 miles by canoe, container ship, ferry, pony, and their own eight feet (among other methods of transportation.)
They are my new travel heroes.
Bruce and Christine Kirby, a photojournalist and psychologist respectively, decided never to let having small children or autism in their family dampen their wander lust. Bruce has traveled to over eighty countries, and logged more than 2,000 days of expedition travel. Christine has explored over sixty countries with Bruce and is determined to share these memories with her children. They informed me that each journey has brought its own struggles and rewards. Their biggest adventure yet was to take their two young children, a neurotypical three-year-old named Taj, and their high-functioning autistic son named Bodi, from their home in British Columbia to Ladakh, India.
They didn’t just survive the trip. They thrived.
Being a mom of two autistic sons myself, one severely affected and one high-functioning, I had many questions. The thought of this kind of travel with a child on the spectrum seemed impossible to me. Often we struggle to keep our son Justin at our relatives’ home past the appetizers at Thanksgiving. The thought of such difficult travel was unimaginable. Christine and Bruce shared that if Brodi was severe they would not have been able to undertake their journey.
Fortunately for the Kirby family Brodi has turned out to be very adaptable, although he still underwent many of the challenges myself and many parents of severely and mildly autistic kids face. I asked Christine how they tackled changes in routine, and she replied every day although different had its own rhythm, and they tried to stick to that rhythm as much as possible. When I spoke of my son’s aversion to crowds she told me they always spent part of each day in a safe and quiet space, and brought headphones for Brodi when he needed them. When their kids had meltdowns (and trust me, their neurotypical three-year-old had them too) they made certain to find that quiet space and wait for each child to calm down.
Given that for years my severely autistic son ate three things (and they weren’t fruits and vegetables) I queried Bruce regarding the kids’ diets. He assured me Brodi was actually game to try very exotic delights, including scorpion (this would have been a deal-breaker for Justin.) After I brought up my son’s sleeping difficulties Christine and Bruce told me their sons had been sleeping in tents since they were infants and were just used to it.
Justin didn’t sleep through the night until he turned one. Perhaps I should have tried camping.
After discussing the challenges of their journey I asked them to share the surprises. One was Bodi’s penchant for being photographed while on their trip. Bruce also told me that his biggest surprise was how extreme travel taught his kids to be flexible, from the exotic foods to the missed trains. Flexibility remains one of my sons’ greatest challenges, and I suspect that’s true for many autism families. Bruce said their newfound flexibility has translated into their everyday lives.
I might have to break out that camping gear yet.
I asked what Bruce would like other autism families to know about travel, and he felt it important to say that all worthwhile travel does not have to be on such a grand scale. Not everyone can trek to the Himalayas after all.
However, Bruce strongly felt that families should not limit themselves- try to travel if you can, be open to whatever happens.
Although I haven’t applied those words as exclusively to travel as the Kirby family has done I found this sentiment to have the ring of truth. We’ve pushed both our kids’ limits, and often have been rewarded with incredible growth.
Sometimes challenging them works- sometimes not.
But at least we know we’ve tried.
The Kirbys shared their goals for their next voyage with me. Christine indicated they might next attempt Antarctica by way of South America (apparently they have great wine there,) and while I don’t envision checking out the frozen tundra with Justin any time soon, I admit after speaking with both Kirbys I felt quite inspired to venture out of our comfort zone. Our family is attempting Disney again in the fall, and I must remind myself to let go of travel-associated fears and enjoy the moment. Justin needs to be brought out of his safe cocoon- he will be asked to do that many times when I’m no longer here. In the end, many of our excursions may not work, from a turkey dinner to the most magical place on earth. But we’ll never know unless we try.
And I can’t wait to see where the Kirbys go next.
“Big Crazy Family Adventure,” premieres Sunday, June 21 with back-to-back episodes at 9:00 p.m. & 10:00 p.m. ET/PT on the Travel Channel. The series is comprised of nine hour-long episodes.
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