Thursday, February 18, 2010

Adventures in special needs – A Nordic ski resort

At one point in my life if I felt I needed a challenge I’d ride my bike a few thousand miles, or explore a foreign land.

Now I can dwarf those experiences with a simple four day outing to a Nordic ski resort.

I’m still recovering from this challenge. It was successful, but it did push the envelope.
We started a few months ago with one neurotypical child and two on the “autism spectrum” (a somewhat meaningless concept, but we don’t yet have a better classification). One child had done some snowboarding with limited success and had refused any skiing of any sort. Another had done some downhill skiing and decided, after a single face plant, that downhill skiing was insane. A third had very nervously descended a bunny hill.

We ended with all three navigating intermediate cross country ski trails in the wilderness (really) of northern Wisconsin.

The unique challenges here included:
  • Three children, two parents. This stuff isn’t easy even for neurotypical children and it was very rare to have all three in a reasonably good mood at the same time.
  • Weather. These children are used to winter, but an autistic meltdown can take a long time to resolve. Sitting around at 10F for an hour can be a problem, and they don’t necessarily respond to cold in a rational way.
  • Clothing. See weather. Spectrum kids and adults can be resistant to logical dressing.
  • Gear. Actually, this was easy. Cross country skiing fear is much more comfortable than downhill or even snowboarding gear.
  • Unfamiliar environment, atypical stimuli: Northern scrub forest, harsh winds, knowledge that there really are wolves and cougars in the woods (even if they usually stay out of sight) – all troublesome. One child has a very strong need to always know exactly where he is in relation to the home base and to all family members – the first time on a trail was extremely scary. (The second time was easy however – his location memory is exceptional).
  • Different schedules: One child takes hours to come online and peaks in the afternoon. Another rockets at dawn and is done by noon.
The full story of how we made the transition for all three over about two months would take a book to tell. It required genuinely Machiavellian manipulation of sibling relationships and a wide variety of motivators.

There are some quick lessons, however, that one might apply to a variety of similar special needs adventures.
  1. Food: As a result of the climate, exertion, and anxiety the children needed to eat five times a day. If they were short on food they all melted down. We needed to keep them fueled with solid, high fat, high protein meals.
  2. Everyone melted down sometime, including the neurotypical child. Interestingly they rarely melted down all at once, perhaps because there was a strong sense of group solidarity. Each child felt their parents had gone insane and they needed to look out for one another.
  3. Choose a friendly resort in decline with a very good pool. The downsides of the resort people having limited knowledge of what worked and what didn’t was outweighed by the warm water swimming pool. The need to serve to the smoking, drinking, and spending snowmobiling market meant our kids oddities went unnoticed.
  4. Our mobile phones were useless, but we had modern digital “walkie-talkies”. These things are cheap and absolutely amazing. REI has very good ones.
  5. It would have been better to have had a third person along, but it was doable.
  6. You need to be fully on your game. Get lots of sleep. Plan carefully and be ready to abandon every plan. Have contingencies for your contingency plans, and be ready to abandon those. Know when to retreat and when to advance.
  7. Find a local expert and review all the trails in depth. In our case one parent woke early to scout out trails in advance and plan routes – that worked well. Get the best possible maps. Have a compass.
  8. Carry a big pack to hold clothes, jackets, reserve materials, etc.
  9. Be ready to stop a passer by and send them for help. We never had to do this, but you have to be psychologically ready to bail.
  10. Establish a routine very early. Our was: TV and breakfast while Dad scouted routes. Swim. Eat again. Skiing. Eat again. Game room/rest/computer use. Eat. Ski/Other. Eat. Swim. Video.
  11. Bring chocolate on the trail.
  12. Lower the room temperature before dressing. Open a window and discretely turn off the heat. This is a big help.
  13. Overdress. They need to be warm at the start. Clothes can be removed and placed in the backpack.
  14. The kids snow pants were too heavy. We’d have done better with lighter wind pants over the nylon loose stretchy pants our boys favor. Invest in clothing.
There’s much more, but those are the ones I can remember. The most disabled child who we thought least likely to succeed turned out to be a wizard – he skied circles around us wearing only a long sleeve shirt when the wind chill was probably 10F. Everyone succeeded, all our goals were met, and the parents will eventually recover.

Update 2/1/2012: Years later we've done this several times. The biggest issue lately was with our neurotypical daughter, who gets anxious about downhills and loathes falling behind her brothers. Which is to say, we were totally victorious. Until I reread this by accident, I'd forgotten how hard it was to get this initial success.

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