Autiusm is a group of complex brain development disorders and more than one million children in America are in the Autism spectrum. These two families found a sanctuary for their children on the trail.
It’s not unusual to hear eleven-year-old Nicholas Brahm singing a song for all the woods to hear when he’s hiking. He’s not picky with his song repertoire. It could be Jingle Bells (in July) or a car commercial jingle he’s heard on TV or a heavy metal Kiss song. Whatever pops into his eleven year old head. He memorizes every jingle and song that he hears and feels moved to express himself when he hikes. But he has no other functioning speech.
Perhaps this is Nicholas’s way of expressing the joy that he feels while on the trail, in the woods. Singing is sure fire proof that one is a happy soul, for he has no other functioning speech to express himself verbally. Singing makes Nicholas’s father, Rick, thrilled because Nicholas is autistic, and out here, on the trail, Nicholas shines the brightest. And so, the New Jersey Sussex County family returns to the AT again and again.
Nicholas began his hiking life as an infant, in a child carrier on his father’s back, along with his older brother, Tyler. It wasn’t until Nick turned one that he was diagnosed as severely autistic. The trips to the woods didn’t stop after that but got ramped up even higher.
“I knew being outside was good for him,” Rick shares. “No one had to tell me that, I just knew it. We had to do something for him to help and the trail was Nick’s happy place. It is necessary for a feeling of normalcy as a family.”
At five years old, in New Jersey’s Culver’s Gap area, they discovered Nick’s intense love of scaling rocks. They had been sticking to safer, smoother dirt roads and then rail trails up to this point. Clamoring uphill, ever over rough sections, became great fun for Nick. He never trips or stumbles or falls. That’s amazing, for autistic folks can be challenged physically as well as mentally. “Nick might be walking down a smooth dirt road,” his father reports, “and that one stray rock will trip Nick up. Must be because his guard is down, but on the trail, he’s focused and he’s happy.”
Autistic kids have a tendency to wander off, which is a real concern for a parent when on the trail in the wilds. But with the local sheriffs dept program called Project Life Saver, Nicholas wears a tracking devise. Nicholas was slowly introduced to in minutes with the help of his school and his parents for Nicholas to get used to wearing the devise. Together with his vividly bright tie dye t-shirts that Nicks always wears hiking, he won’t be able to get lost too quick. But he rarely gets too far ahead of his family and if so, his older brother just catches him.
Nick’s father knows how much joy hiking brings to his son before they even set foot on the trail. When Nick sees his father putting on his hiking clothing and boots, he is immediately ready to explore! When they are hiking, Nick never tires, never balks or complains, no matter how rough the terrain. Last summer the boys hiked seven days in a row, covering seven miles at a shot, and Nick loved every minute.
Another way his father knows hiking is a good thing for his son, is Nick normally hates wearing shoes and opts for going barefoot whenever possible. Wearing his hiking boots, however, makes him so happy.
Because of all the superb exercise and fresh air they enjoy on their hikes, Nick sleeps much easier at night, which can be a challenge for the family of an autistic child. They can now knock out 10-12 mile days without a problem. Nick’s mom, Lynne, is an antique “picker” and explores venues for her business while the men in her family hike, dropping them off and retrieving them after their mileage is completed.
Nick is not a fan of an out and back route so his dad tries to select loops or lolly pop trail designs to keep him interested. It comes as no surprise that the boys goal, is to complete the whole Appalachian Trail someday. They have already hiked everything consecutively from Virginia’s Blackburn Center to Vermont’s Route 9. A more immediate goal is to hike in each state and rehike NJ for the fourth time.
“Nick will on occasion stop and look at a white blaze. It’s so strange he has passed thousands with no reaction and out of nowhere he points one out. Autism really is a puzzle.” The family’s hiking adventures can be found on the website Trailjournals under the name Flippertree for Autism.
Another goal is to incorporate camping and then backpacking, but Rich did not know how to start. I suggested getting a summer, lightweight, free-standing tent whose body is mostly net. Put it up in Nick’s bedroom first, and then the yard without the fly so he can see through it and feel secure.
“Nick loves the subsequent nature of the trail. The footpath stretching before him draws him out as though its coaxing him to follow. He’s big into power lines too and it is a similar drawing nature for him. The exploring nature in him wants to see what is next and around the next bend.
“I love the fact that the AT takes us to places we would never go.”
Rich isn’t sure about cycling and if he could get him to stop. Paddling is another winner though, and he enjoys tandem kayaking with his dad and adores swimming. Nothing quite beats hiking however and the Brahm boys will continue racking up the miles and the states and the happiness as they work at their goal. What a fine use of the trail.
The family’s hiking adventures can be found on the website Trailjournals under the name Flippertree for Autiusm.
For Carson Burch, the act of looking at a tree in the woods and then tracing the trunk up to the canopy does huge things for him. It’s a simple act that most of us do automatically when we are out hiking, but for a boy who has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, it was therapeutic.
It began when Carson’s mother, Melanie, questioned her son’s continued delays in fine motor coordination specific to handwriting. After taking Carson to a developmental optometrist, she learned that although her young son had perfect visual acuity (20/20 vision), he had delayed visual skills in the areas of eye tracking and teaming, convergence, and near-far focusing. It is believed that Carson’s poor visual-motor skills caused problems in school when he looked up from his notebook on his desk to the blackboard. Carson’s eyes could not efficiently make the transition in focusing. Also, although Carson read well above his grade level, the smaller print of higher level reading books highlighted his eye tracking problems. Carson’s mom thought vision therapy would be prescribed, but was floored when she received the very unusual advice from the developmental optometrist to, “Take him outside. He would benefit MOST from being in the natural world and walking.”
Melanie is a science teacher and has been in love with nature all her life and has raised her children there. She was no stranger to knowing how our senses are incredibly stimulated in the outdoors, as opposed to a limiting classroom. Carson’s form of autism includes a challenge with how his brain organizes the information coming in through his senses. He has a visual-vestibular dysfunction which involves the part of his inner ear system which works with the brain and his sight to control balance and eye movements. In the natural world, Carson’s eyes are challenged to focus differently and work together. Carson naturally looks up and down and side to side as he tracks the abundance of movement that is constantly happening outdoors. The muscles in his eyes actually strengthen, grow stronger as they “track.”
So Melanie began to hold “class” in the big outdoors – hiking trails and stopping at Carson’s favorite spots to read books. They also hiked along the beach, built primitive shade shelters on the beach and read in them; they routinely conducted learning in the great big arena of the natural world.
As far as hiking goes, the family’s activities always included hiking as Melanie loved the sport her whole life and shared it with Carson beginning when he was a few weeks old. “For all practical purposes he has grown up on the trails,” Melanie said. “At first, Carson was a passive hiker either carried by me or pushed in a jogging stroller. As he began to walk, our hikes were sometimes shorter but always included him meandering and leading the way.”
Although Carson was not formerly diagnosed with autism until he was seven, the early signs were present. Carson’s most prominent issues were in the areas of speech and sensory processing. Early on, Melanie found that having her son outside and simply listening to birds seemed to be soothing. Many days he enjoyed listening to a bird call CD when he was inside playing.
“At first, it was challenging to motivate Carson to want to hike,” his mother shares. “Often times the first mile was the absolute worst. He would throw fits, sit down on the trail and refuse to budge, and complain incessantly. I pushed Carson because I knew it would help him develop a more efficiently functioning sensory system.”
But over the years and many miles in his hiking sandals (he prefers sandals with socks as opposed to tight hiking boots), Carson’s creative mind transforms each hike into a fantasy that comforts him. Melanie claims that Carson has never been afraid to dance in the rain – unless there is thunder!
So when the national park system neared their 100th anniversary, Melanie challenged her son to become involved. Their young neighbor friend, Katie, had fallen very ill with Spinal Muscular Atrophy- Type 2 (SMA) and is wheelchair bound and on a ventilator. In order to raise funds and awareness of what she was going through, as well as celebrating our national park system, Melanie suggested they set a goal of hiking 100 miles in July 2016.
Mother and son kept a log of all their trips and mileage and recorded their progress. They experienced a very slow start to their 100 mile month as they had to deal with an intensely hot summer and excessive rain, making it more uncomfortable than usual. But “Carson was a trooper,” his mother reported. When motivation hit an all time low, the reasoning, “Let’s do it for Katie,” helped them rise to the occasion and continue, because they could and Katie could not.
Carson is highly intelligent and completely aware that although his 100-mile hiking goal was a challenge, it was also good for him. It was making him more coordinated bilaterally, as he utilized his left/right discrimination process as he walked, for even tying his shoes is a challenge. Carson knows he needs to be challenged physically and the trail is a perfect place for this to occur. Like Nick, Carson too prefers a loop trail as opposed to an out and back design.
Carson is quick to comment, however, “I hate walking/hiking because it makes my feet feel like they are going to fall off.” However, his mother is quick to point out to him, his feet have always seemed to remain attached to his legs!
I am not convinced about his supposedly “dislike” for the sport for his 100 mile challenge presented him with a big dose of adventure and novelty, which his mother admits he thrives on.
Both mother and son learned a lot about perseverance through the experience and not surprisingly, the impetus to set more goals for themselves and even bigger adventures is a future plan. Like Nick, Carson has his eyes set on the entire Appalachian Trail. He says, “Mom, why can’t we just hike the AT and get it all over with at once? After all, it is long enough.”
This story appeared in the Nov/Dec issue of AT Journeys- the official magazine of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy
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