A recent screening of ABC’s Australian Story featured the captivating tale of a couple who decided to take an unorthodox approach to challenging their son’s disability. Just as 14-year-old Sam was entering adolescence, his family insisted he embark upon a six-month backpacking trip around Africa with his father, Dr James Best.
This would not be overly noteworthy if not for the fact that Sam has autism; a disability where routine, order and predictability are considered essential for the person to thrive. Throwing a young man into a chaotic, unfamiliar setting is widely considered the exact opposite of ‘what the doctor ordered’.
While the ambitious ‘immersion therapy’ style plan of Dr Best and his wife Benison O’Reilly were met with disbelief and judgement ahead of the trip, they have been extensively praised now the boys are back with a host of positive outcomes in tow.
Our CEO, Bill Gamack says while this radical experiment isn’t possible or practical for everyone, it does highlight the merits of embracing the path less travelled.
“There’s no denying it would have been far easier for James and Benison to keep Sam’s life controlled, closely managed and routine. Bucking the status quo is always going to make waves, on many levels,” said Bill, who also has a close family member with autism.
“But it’s incredible to see the change that has occurred in Sam, thanks to the forward-thinking attitude, strength, courage and belief of his parents. Taking action that is difficult, often thankless and at times seemingly impossible can prove worthwhile and life-changing in the long run.”
Bill says straying from the ‘tried and tested’ methods of managing autism can be a stressful situation for parents, who may feel that they are fighting against their natural instincts.
“Parents of children with autism want to create an environment where the child feels safe and in control. They want to protect their children from the often unforgiving and unpredictable nature of the real world,” said Bill.
“That’s very understandable; it comes from a place of love. But to build essential life skills, confidence and resilience, young people need to be uncomfortable and exposed to uncertainty at times. The more comfortable they become with things going wrong, the more their strength and independence will grow.”
Zach Zaborny, who works with EPIC, is on the autism spectrum and is living proof of what can be achieved when someone is pushed out of their comfort zone.
Zach moved from America to Australia for his role with us, and he regularly meets with large organisations to provide education around hiring people with disability. He has presented to audiences across America, Australia and Europe, and even written a book about his experiences.
In Zach’s family, the fact that he was on the spectrum was not treated as anything particularly significant.
“I can’t say my being on the spectrum was really talked about as being an issue; it was more ‘oh, Zach’s a little quirky and different’, but that was about it,” said Zach.
“My parents made sure I did activities along with the other kids. For example, they insisted I play baseball and said ‘try it for a season, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it anymore’.”
“They expected the same from me as from my brother, and I understood that from a young age.”
Zach is pleased that alternative strategies for managing autism are gaining traction.
“I think we are seeing different ways of dealing with autism now. When I was growing up, it was like ‘how do we assist this person as a young child’ and ‘how do we best accommodate this person in the school setting’. But now it’s become more commonplace to think about what will happen to that person after school, as they enter adulthood,” said Zach.
“Everybody grows up, and parents want to make sure their children will be independent and set up to manage their own lives. I think that’s what Sam’s parents were thinking when they decided on the Africa trip, and that’s why they took this major chance.”
Zach says distancing people on the spectrum from a strict routine can have a positive impact on personality development, helping people better understand the world and their place in it.
“I used to be routine and ordered about everything, but now I’ve moved into a routine more about me, not so much about my surroundings. I understand who I am more,” said Zach.
Zach believes pushing himself out of his comfort zone, with his parents’ support, has a lot to do with how far he’s come. He believes the difference between his parents and others may be that they recognise decisions concerning his life are his alone to make.
“My mum in particular has definitely questioned some of my decisions, like when I said I was going to backpack around Europe and move to Australia. She said, ‘you’re doing what?!’” said Zach.
“But ultimately they say, ‘Are you sure? You know what you’re doing, right?’ and then let me go.”
Zach says the freedom to branch out has broadened his perspectives and opportunities in life. And at the end of the day, he’s just trying to make his way through life like everyone else.
“I have all the same concerns as other people my age. I’m thinking, ‘Where am I going in my life? What am I doing? What are my 20’s all about, and as they draw to a close, what will my 30’s be like?’” said Zach.
“The more experiences I have, the less I’m stressing about things I would have before. I’m realising the more I’m out in the world, the less I can control. So I’m learning to let go.”