I sent my autistic son to Africa to boost his independence and it worked

Benison O'Reilly

When my autistic son Sam was 14 I decided to send him to Africa. The objective of the journey was to take Sam out of his comfort zone and expose him to new experiences in the hope this would provide a boost to his communication and life skills and give him a shot in the arm of independence. His dad went with him.

Most autism intervention is focussed on the early childhood years, a time of peak neuroplasticity, when it's theorised the brain is most amenable to change. Yet there is "second spring" of neuronal development during adolescence, the potential of which has largely been neglected. Our family decided to grab the opportunity and embark on an autistic gap year to see what would unfold.

Quite a few people have asked me how, as a mother, I could let Sam go. Wasn't I worried? I mean wasn't, as someone said, Africa a big, scary, dangerous place?

My answer to the first of these: I never stop worrying about Sam. I adore my three sons equally but there's a special piquancy to my love for Sam borne of his vulnerability.

Throughout his childhood I spent my time looking out for threats. A trip to the playground could end in disaster if he barrelled into someone on the swings. Holidays could mean a meltdown at the airport and even now nothing generates a "fright, flight" response in me so reliably as the school's phone number lighting up on my mobile phone. While Sam's experiences at high school have been overwhelmingly positive, I've found that calls from school rarely bring good news.

I was anxious, but I was entrusting Sam to the one person I knew would look after him at all costs. Africa might appear scary to some but for many adolescents on the autism spectrum so is the high school playground. We mapped an itinerary that included stable democracies and dosed the boys up on vaccinations and antimalarials. We put in place contingency plans in case things went wrong.

It always had to be my husband, James, who took Sam to Africa, partly because I'd taken the load in the early years but also because I think fathers, in general, are better at letting their kids take calculated risks. My inclination to wrap Sam in cotton wool was precisely what was not needed.

I was planning to meet the boys in Tanzania for the last month of the trip but then fate intervened and I had to abandon those plans. I was devastated.Sam and his dad James by the Nile in Africa.

Sam and his dad James by the Nile in Africa. Photo: supplied

Thank goodness for Skype. While internet coverage in Africa is patchy at best, somehow we managed to connect most days. On occasions, the boys went "off the grid", but James was usually able to warn me in advance so I didn't panic. Most risk-taking activities I fortunately only learned about after the event, with the exception being their plans to go white-water rafting on the Nile River in Uganda. I almost had a fit! Fortunately, I didn't put a stop to it, as it ended up being a turning point in Sam's development.

After six months, they returned home. As Monday night's Australian Storyepisode chronicling their journey showed, Sam was a different boy: more talkative, more independent, with a greater of sense of his place in the world.Benison O'Reilly and her son Sam in Cape Town in April this year.

Benison O'Reilly and her son Sam in Cape Town in April this year. Photo: supplied

With the twin impositions of work and school it was impossible to maintain the intensity of the African experience, but we employed perhaps the world's best teachers' aide who has continued to foster Sam's communication skills. He also has piano lessons and a gym program. There is no rest for our kid, but we know we have a backer in prominent autism identity Temple Grandin, who advocates in her book The Loving Push that parents should lovingly push their child outside their comfort zone, so they can develop to the fullest.

In April this year, the three of us headed back to Africa for two weeks, visiting South Africa and Namibia. We returned to the same hostels that James and Sam stayed at in 2015 and the staff were astounded by the changes in our boy. Sometimes letting go is the best thing you can do for your child.

Benison O'Reilly is a medical writer. A memoir of her husband and son's travels Sam's Best Shot (Allen & Unwin) will be published this week.

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