On World Autism Awareness Day, Seshadri Venkatesan writes that outdoor activities can help reveal hidden abilities in autistic children

Adventure activities trigger fear and excitement in all of us. These emotions bring out courage, confidence, perseverance, resilience and humility besides several other qualities. An important lesson learnt through adventure is an understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. The thought of including children on the autism spectrum in adventure activities is rare due to their difficulty in communicating their mind, especially the emotion of fear. They are often not even left alone from fear of them losing their way.

Against this backdrop, Sriram Narayan and Akila Vaidyanathan brought Nishant, their son with autism, to the NALS Outdoors India Limited Manjacombai campus in Coonoor in 2010. Our trainers were initially sceptical about allowing Nishant to walk on the high ropes tied about 50 feet high between trees. They were unsure about how to communicate with him. Eventually, we decided to let Nishant walk the ropes with a seat harness attached to him. Much to our surprise and delight, he walked right across effortlessly and confidently, revealing no fear at all. When he came down the ropes, he wanted to do it all over again.

Thus began our annual adventure camp for children with autism. Three years down the line, with activities such as rock climbing and trekking, our trainers have learnt that all children with autism do not behave the same way or experience the same difficulties of the disorder. Therefore, each child has to be handled individually during the activity and each activity has to be assessed carefully for its ease and safety. For example, while on the ropes or rocks, a trainer has to be one step behind some children in order to give them confidence. Moreover, not all autistic children can be successfully engaged in a given adventure activity from the word go, but with time and effort they can be. Some of them simply refuse initially, but after some encouragement and guidance, they complete the activity with ease. For instance, some children who could not do the rope walking activity during our first year have successfully completed it in the second year and demonstrated further confidence during the third year.

Every human being has enormous abilities and strengths. Given a positive and encouraging environment we all can dig deeper into our minds and discover our strengths. Autistic children can be slowly integrated into various activities in regular life over a period of time, through persistent effort and commitment from all stake holders. Through such programs one gets to focus on the child’s abilities rather than their disabilities. Most encouragingly, parents of autistic children have realised that their special child can do certain things previously unknown even to them.

Seshadri Venkatesan is Director Operations of NALS Outdoors India Private Limited

For more on NALS, visit www.nals.in