Outdoors with Mark

Berg Lake Trail, Mount Robson Provincial Park. (Photo: Jason Wong, lookoutpoint.me, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 )

Mark’s first day at high school was a challenge for both of us. He was autistic, had Down’s syndrome and was non-verbal. Change of environment was very difficult for Mark to adjust to, and after his mother left him in the resource room, he erupted and began running around and throwing objects randomly. The other special needs students were led from the room leaving Mark and myself together. The last straw was the microwave crashing to the floor, at which point I faced Mark and yelled “Stop!” and “Sit!” He did stop and sat down on the floor with tears streaming down his face. I sat down beside my new grade 8 student and wondered how we could survive the next 5 years together.

Well, one way was to go one day at a time and find out what Mark’s needs were for a rewarding and happy experience at school. Since integration in classroom activities with other students was expecting too much from Mark—at least in the beginning—I thought of creating an outdoor classroom to benefit Mark with exercise and fresh air.

I arranged with Mark’s Mom not to give him breakfast before going to school, so that he and I could have breakfast together in a small resource room made available to us when the weather dictated it, and outside near a playground when better weather beckoned. Eating together was a positive start to our day. The second positive being the Playground Program, which almost ended before it began. I started by pushing Mark on the swings and gradually pushed him higher as he grinned with pleasure the higher he went. Then, when he was as high as it is possible for the swing to go, he fell backwards off the swing but grabbed the chains on the swing with his feet, pulled himself back on the seat and never missed a beat!

We could not stay at the playground all day, but I am sure Mark would have if I had let him. We would go into the school for short periods then back to the playground with the next challenge getting him to walk beyond the playground, because if he did not want to go anywhere else, he would sit down and it was impossible to get him to stand up by lifting him. Using the story of the Wind and the Sun trying to remove the coat from the man as a guide, I sat down beside Mark, and every 20 minutes or so stood up and reached for his hand. I carried all that we needed for food and drink and was prepared for the long haul, which ended up being 4 hours before he reached for my hand, stood up, and off we went for a walk to the far end of the playground and a picnic lunch. Over time, when Mark sat down, I had only to reach out and gently squeeze his hand and he would stand up.

This modest Playground Program evolved into an Outdoor Program that led to Mark travelling safely in my vehicle, riding the school bus, the city bus, and eventually to longer and more satisfying periods in the classroom.

Our community is rich with numerous forest and river trails, and Mark walked many of them. It seemed a revelation to me that Mark sat frequently when walking the downtown streets, yet once in the forest he lost the urge or need to sit, and was particularly interested in hills and would climb them with enthusiasm. Of course, this took time and patience beginning with short 30-minute strolls until after 5 years Mark could hike for 4 hours with ease, and return to his resource room, sit in his usual lotus position in his own special armchair, smiling and relaxed amongst his fellow students.

A goal for Mark in his graduation year was to hike to Berg Lake in Mount Robson Provincial Park. He had lost 60 pounds over the years of hiking, and had been carrying increasingly heavier backpacks in preparation for the trip.

We had a wonderful trip and with the help of a colleague, Mark made it to Berg Lake and back—but not without challenges! In new places, Mark had trouble sleeping, and at night I had to attach a sort of leash to his wrist and mine otherwise he would leave the tent. Even though my colleague took a shift, it was still difficult to sleep. Anyway, while my colleague was sleeping, and I was outside reclining by a log with Mark beside me, I dozed off then woke panic-stricken with no Mark in sight! I ran around in circles looking for him until at last I found him sitting nearby in his crossed leg position smiling and eating wild mushrooms!

Mark survived and we all three made our way back to the trailhead through an incredible wilderness landscape with Mount Robson watching over us. I thought about that first day that I worked with Mark in Grade 8 as tears streamed down his face, and as I watched him striding along confidently—it was my turn for tears. Little did I know then that I would end up marrying his Mother and taking her outdoors too!

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