Pt 1 :: Making Room For Autism In Our Canoe – We Used To Canoe Too

Pt 1 :: Making Room For Autism In Our Canoe – We Used To Canoe Too

Legendary environmentalist, author, artist and cartographer
Hap Wilson wearing the Six Degree Project scarf for
Autism Awareness and Acceptance – WAAD 2013
(April 2) in snowy Muskoka, Canada.
(Abbey supports autism too! Ruff ruff!)
photo credit: Andrea Turner-Wilson


Dig this: April 2nd is World Autism Awareness Day (WAAD) and April is also known to many as Autism Awareness Month.  This multiple part story/part guide, written in honour of The Six Degree Project (Autism Awareness Celebrity Campaign) and WAAD, is the tale (with tips) of how we got to the end of the portage with our son. With hopes to help raise awareness about autism and the extra challenge it brings to lives of many families, including ours; we also hope this Making Room For Autism In Your Canoe “series” helps to inspire other families to get out there and live their dreams as best as they are able – because even though, with autism, our lives are different – they shouldn’t be less. Thanks to our family and friends who have shown their support and a special thank you to Hap Wilson for showing his support for autism awareness and acceptance. ~Fiona

Hey, we USED to canoe too!
When our son, Makobe, received his diagnosis of autism at the age of two, we really didn’t realize just how much our lives were going to change. My husband and I had met and it didn’t take us long to find that a mutual love and passion for paddling and the outdoors were not the only things we had in common. Soon, after an extended travelling trip to B.C., we were married. Two years later we had our beautiful son. Even still, our relationship and careers were built and shaped by the paddle sports industry. We lived for paddling. However we soon realized Makobe’s autism, with his over-hyperactive behaviours and inability to self-regulate, had made it nearly impossible for us to continue our regular paddling and wilderness canoe trips as a family.
Indeed, we were not alone. Mike and I have met many families along our autism journey that had given up a beloved pursuit because it didn’t fit in very easily with the demands and difficult behavioural issues that autism brought to the child and family. “Oh we used to canoe too!” was a statement I grew weary of hearing. I knew why, of course – it is difficult enough to get thru a normal autism day let alone try to take on the extra challenge of a wilderness canoe trip! Unable to plan for a paddling trip, we knew we were well on our way to saying something similar to our friends and family ourselves until we discovered the principles of ABA (Applied Behaviour Analysis) and decided we were going to be a family of paddlers – even if it took us years to get there.
And it did. Eight years, in fact. Eight years before our son was ready for his real first wilderness canoe trip. There were many tears and meltdowns along the way but each struggle and hand-drawn visual aid was worth every minute when we walked across that first portage – a huge transition for Makobe – with great success, a little giggle, and a big smile. The smile was his Dad’s. The giggle was mine but the great success all belonged to Makobe.

So after years of practicing and planning, we had finally made it! Yet there was more to this journey than we realized. Yes, we had learned how to make room for autism in our canoe; but by doing so, we had also learned how to better make room for autism in our lives. With the help of visual aids, the proper teaching techniques, breaking the big skills down into individual skills before being taught as a whole, Dr. Vince Carbone’s Verbal Behaviour (VB) protocols, plus lots of patience and creativity – we realized that our son could do anything he put his mind too with our support and encouragement. Not to mention the principles of ABA (and VB) can be applied anywhere – yes, even on a portage!

Start’em Young
So while much of the tactics we used and will be sharing are for families of children with autism or special needs, much of this approach could also be applied to paddling with any child, really. It is important to remember that how our parents spent time with us as children influenced our idea of comfort when we later became adults. The more positive time you spend outdoors, in nature, with your children (at any age) – the greater chance they will seek out the wilderness later in life and with their own children as their chosen pastime. Getting young children to feel comfortable and enjoy spending time in the the outdoors is important; and remembering our connection with Nature is paramount for our survival on this planet. Besides, getting your hands filthy with camp dirt and feeling your feet get wet in the warm summer waters of a fresh water lake – or the salty sea – is something that everyone should have the pleasure of experiencing in their lifetime. And when children see their parents enjoying an outdoor experience and simpler life-style, they do too. It is also important to remember whether the child has autism or not – there is always room in a canoe for fun!

Coming NEXT: The Journey Begins, Paddling at Home


Written by Fiona Westner-Ramsay in support of The Six Degree Project Autism Awareness campaign.
To read all the parts to this story guide, click here: Making Room For Autism In Your Canoe
To read our report from Makobe’s first wilderness trip into Algonquin, please click here: Making Room For Autism In Your Canoe – A Trip Report
**Stim(s) or Stimming are the terms most used to describe a self-stimulatory behaviour or activity that is performed repetitively and usually to the alienation of others.  Examples can be screaming, hand-flapping, finger play, rocking, spinning, lining up objects, verbal behaviour, etc.
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