“He has the ability to make the ordinary extraordinary,” I remember thinking. We just need to tune into him and to go with these inclinations, these impulses, these intense curiosities.

“Where do these streets go? What’s down there? And over there? Who lives there?”

Seven-year-old Erik has a map of the Comox Valley in his hands, and he is both mesmerized and perplexed.

“Oh, I’m not sure,” I reply. “I’ve never been down those roads. I don’t know what’s there.”

The look he gives me makes me smile now, in hindsight. It is something akin to disbelief and disappointment in one moment, and excitement and possibility in the next. A plan is brewing, and I am about to become a part of it. I wait.

“So,” he begins, lingering over the word, working out what he wants to say, “you grew up here and you don’t even know? You don’t know what’s on these roads? You haven’t even looked? Don’t you want to find out?” The words and thoughts tumble out. Again, incredulous.

Again, autism.

I had never thought of it that way. I go where I need to go. I had never felt the need to plot out and explore the entire town, side roads, dead ends and all. Never. I suddenly feel quite bland, lacking an adventurous gene, certainly low on the curiosity scale.

“Why would I drive all over?” I ask, gesturing toward the map.

“Why would you not?” he replies “Hmm,” I begin. “No, I’ve never had the urge to explore… Till now. See, Erik, you make me think of things in a whole new way. I have a feeling you want to explore, check out these unknown areas?” I say, my hand hovering over the well-studied map.

He lights up, literally, utterly, entirely.

“Can we? Really?”

And so it began, our after school adventures. I would pick all three kids up from their schools and we’d set off, according to Erik’s plan, exploring roads whose names I had never before encountered. As we drove and checked out rutty, ocean-side lanes, we imagined our lives and routines if we lived on each of the roads. The “just imagine game” launched all sorts of fun, wistful conversations.

“We could come home from school and have a snack on the beach and make rafts, or check out tidal pools or fly kites on the beach.”

Suddenly our own routine seemed a tad dull, but no matter, imagining was fun, and the conversations were rich. Most importantly, Erik was chiming in without prompts; he was right there with us and not lost in his own space, his own world. Looking back, I see that he had cleverly drawn us into his world way outside the box. We were there solidly in ours, but imagining it through his eyes, through curious, thirsty, imaginative eyes.

“He has the ability to make the ordinary extraordinary,” I remember thinking. We just need to tune into him and to go with these inclinations, these impulses, these intense curiosities. And oh what fun!

We had many more of these types of adventures, hatched from the perspective of autism, all of us so much the richer because of them. We dabbled in “objects and their shadows” photographing the way shadows lie, stretch or compress, depending upon the position of the sun. We created flash cards from these and Erik delighted in carting these cards and their matches – the objects of origin – in his pockets. We were all more vigilant, more observant because of Erik. After years of looking, we were starting to see, really see, the world around us.

We also paid many visits to the local fish hatchery and befriended Chinook salmon as they bumped and jostled in tanks, just inches from our faces. Their worn out, battered bodies drew concern from Erik. He tapped at the glass and chatted with them, encouraging them along, congratulating them for a job well done. When the salmon phase was over, I kind of missed that. Standing behind Erik and gazing at that swirling mass of fish was kind of mesmerizing. Listening to Erik talk, exclaim and console was both heart-warming and heart-lifting. It was also way, way outside the box. And I felt privileged to be there.

There were also tidal pools and flipping rocks to reveal rather large west coast critters, often crabs, alarmed and scrambling for cover. But we were not there to harm, just to observe, like giants peering over a mini movie set, watching the traffic, minding the wee ones and thrilling in the interactions. There is nothing like a highway of fleeing crabs to illicit joint attention and exclamation. For us, nature was our work station, and our play never, ever felt like work.

A final thought? A sliver of wisdom gleaned from our off-road adventures?

Watch and learn.

Explore all paths and portals. Pay attention to that which lights up the soul.

And then go for it.

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