This guest post is by Jane Kim, an immigration attorney, writer and mom of a child with autism. She lives in the Philadelphia suburbs.
My son and I are resting on a rock, looking out for pirates that could hijack our ship at any moment. Unexpected sounds—a chipmunk scurrying past, tree limbs cracking—could make our ship vulnerable, and we stand ready to defend. We are in the moment, and at peace. It feels so good.
Hiking with my son, who is six years old, has been an amazing experience for both of us. For one, being outside forces you to slow down—and tears children away from tech! Beneath the sky and the trees, there is no judgment. My son is free to be himself. The only expectation is to enjoy the journey.
Too much of my son’s precious early years were spent worrying about his development. Only a handful of things eased the anxiety, and being outdoors topped the list. When he was a baby, we’d take him hiking in Vermont in a backpack. Amidst the foliage and bright blue sky, his demeanor shifted from unsettled to observant. He was receptive and tuned in. It was amazing to watch.
It still is. Out in the forest this boy, whose interests don’t often mirror those of kids his age, becomes increasingly curious about his surroundings. I don’t feel as if I have to convince him to stay with me, as I sometimes do with board games or arts and crafts. When we hike, he rarely tires. Two miles? Easy. Mt. Pisgah in Vermont? Bring it! He's purposeful and swift, and I have to ask him to slow down. He helps me over fallen logs, slippery stepping stones and dilapidated bridge paths. He tells me I’ll be OK. And I believe him.
We spend time looking for white trail blaze markers to confirm we're not veering off course. Oh, how I wished for white blazes earlier in my son’s life—some sign to show that I’d made the right choices with changes in ABA programming, introducing a new therapist or therapy, deciding on medication, setting IEP goals. Instead, I stumbled around.
As my son has grown older, I’ve grown more confident in helping him carve out his path. I make the best decision with the information I have. I trust my gut. These days, white trail blazes come to me in other forms: a thoughtful text from a friend, kind words of understanding from a teacher, a squeeze of a hand from a loved one, or words of encouragement from a boss. They help me stay on course and get me where I need to go with confidence.
When I was growing up, we didn't spend a lot of time outside as a family. And when we did, it was for a specific purpose: raking leaves, playing badminton, running through the sprinkler. As a child, I can't remember a time being outside when the primary purpose was to explore, discover and just be.
Fall is my absolute favorite time of year to hike. When my son and I need a break from the dizzying pace of life, when the familiar doubts creep in (i.e. “Am I doing enough?”), we head to the trails. The air is nice and crisp, and the leaves are in all of their splendor. There’s a lightness in my step. We are both coming out of the woods.