How Our 'Alternative' Lifestyle Is Helping My Autistic Son

by Susannah O'Brien
An autistic boy sitting on the ground and looking at a white building with wave-like ornaments
Courtesy of Susannah O'Brien

In 2013, our pediatrician told us our son might be on the autism spectrum. At 14 months old, he had yet to speak his first word or use baby sign language. He showed extreme aversions and attachments to certain stimuli, and would scream and cry if anyone other than his dad even looked at him.

Toddlerhood is generally considered too early to diagnose autism, but we were lucky. His doctor’s office was part of an early autism diagnosis program led by a local university with a world-renowned medical program. They were looking for families with young children who displayed autism signs to participate in a year-long study to determine if early intervention could ease autistic behaviors later on.

The university contacted us for a thorough evaluation, and our son was assigned to received intensive therapies (speech, behavioral, and physical) nearly every day for over a year.

Courtesy of Susannah O’Brien

That time was hard. Our son seemed miserable, and cried most of the day until he was two. He also appeared to hate me, not letting me near him without kicking and screaming. I was full of guilt for my contribution of anxiety-ridden DNA, and fervently wanted nothing more than a hug from our son. (I didn’t hear him say “I love you” or give me unsolicited physical contact until he was nearly four years old.) Being the mother to a high needs child without any affection in return was incredibly difficult for me, and being his preferred physical caregiver meant my husband turned his life around to work from home (and eventually quit his job) so we could co-parent as much as possible.

At the end of that year of therapy, our son, my husband and I had been taught to recognize his triggers and learned some valuable coping techniques. He developed into a slightly more social child in the following years, but continues to struggle with behaviors that seem to align strongly with sensory processing disorder.

For this reason, people thought we were bonkers to sell the house he’d called home and leave his comfort zone to travel the world full-time. We knew changing schedules, weather, language, food, and culture often could be a struggle for a child who was accustomed to more structure, but we also knew he wasn’t the sort of child who forms attachments and that he wouldn’t be bothered by leaving family in our home country or new loves in countries we’d visit and abandon.

We took the chance that exposing him to the rest of the world could benefit us all, and we were right. While the autism spectrum is wide and varied and every child, on and off the spectrum, is different, our child has come to thrive by having to navigate an ever-changing lifestyle. And we’ve been able to see and do some pretty fun things along the way.

Although he lacks the perspective to appreciate traveling (or anything that isn’t happening this instant), is too focused on the evolving robot world he’s been imagining for years to notice the cool volcano right in front of him, and is still largely uninterested in kids his own age, there is so much he’s gained from traveling.

He’s more confident and assertive. The same child who would cry when strangers in the grocery store tried to look into his eyes now walks up to a street vendor to haggle the price of a key chain he wants to buy without me even knowing he’s walked away. He’ll flag down a server to order his own food, ask a store clerk if they have a bathroom, and wants everyone to know how computers work. Seeing him not only speak to new people, but assert his own choices, has become such a joy to watch.

He’s willing to try new foods. I’d always hoped for an adventurous eater, but, at an early age, he seemed to prefer the same bland, repetitive foods. We can’t always find french fries when traveling through rural places, though, and I’m grateful our son has had to adapt. He may not love it, but he is willing to try any food we order. His taste buds have developed enough that foods I won’t even eat are now his favorite, and we can always find something he’ll eat without complaint.

Courtesy of Susannah O’Brien

He doesn’t judge others or new things. He sees, smells, and hears so many new things that he’s learned not to judge anything, anyone, or their homes based on cleanliness, strong food odors, or grandeur. He knows and accepts that norms are different around the world. It takes people years to overcome the subconscious bias against new things, and I’m so proud of my son for not complaining when things look dirty, smell bad, or seem poor.

I think my favorite part of traveling with my son, though, is that he’s learning who he is without the influence of his home culture. He’s not around a regular group of people who could recognize and point out his quirks, so the only thing he finds unusual about himself is his skin tone and native language. He has no shame choosing a rainbow or purple souvenir based on those being “girl” colors, has no interest in or pressure to play sports, and loves animals more than any superhero. I love that he’s able to learn about his varied interests without others subtly (or overtly) pushing him in one direction or another based on who they think he should be.

Being exposed to such a variety of activities, foods, people, and landscapes alongside two parents whose job is to be as supportive as possible is a valuable gift of judgement-free self discovery that I truly wish every child could experience. I know I could have avoided years of self-conscious insecurity if I’d been able to develop my self interests away from the influence of peers, at least.

Are things perfect? Of course not. Do we recommend every family drop everything they know and love for a vagabond lifestyle? No. But finding a lifestyle that not only works for an entire family, but actually helps them grow, is definitely an accomplishment worth celebrating.