Dr James Best on the need for risk in teenage lives

Dr James Best took his autistic son Sam on a life-changing journey through Africa, recently highlighted on Australian Story, but says it needn’t be so dramatic a change or trip to develop a teenager’s emotional and life skills. 

A patient of mine, a teenage boy with hair over his eyes and a crooked smile, told me recently that he was shortly to depart to a remote school-run rural retreat for six months, organised through his elite Sydney secondary college.

There was to be no internet, no emails, and minimal contact with the outside world, barring emergencies. Hiking, cooking, team sports and independent living skills was the curriculum. Contact with home would be by hand-written letters, reminiscent of young Diggers in the century past.

Throughout history and across cultures there are examples of adolescents, particularly male adolescents, being purposefully and vigorously exposed to new experience in order to further themselves.

The Krypteia of Sparta, where teenage boys had to live off the land and steal their food. A young Aboriginal man may go on walkabout to find enlightenment and spiritual awakening. A Masai boy killing a lion to become a warrior. Tattooing rituals, scarring, isolation, a set of tasks or a series of challenges. The rite of passage into adulthood is often bought with blood, sweat and tears, but also risk.

Risk, teenagers and disability

When that teenager has a disability, this risk is amplified, and our desire, as parents, to cocoon our loved ones heightened. Yet modern society in general is becoming increasingly risk averse. Even for young people without disability, there are some parents reluctant to let them go on Schoolies, to have a gap-year, to be an exchange student.

Does this mean we are letting them down? By denying them opportunity to experience life without a safety net, perhaps we also are denying them the chance they need to grow.

In 2015, when I took my then 14-year-old son, Sam, to Africa for six months, these were some of the thoughts swimming in my head. Sam has an autism spectrum disorder, and my wife predicted that our trip — travelling hard and rough, mostly without guides or plans —was going to be very difficult for both of us. She was right, of course; she’s always right.

Exposing Sam to six months of intensity, experience and unpredictability was by design. We were making it about as tough as we could, without being foolhardy.

The countries we chose to travel through were —apart from a brief side trip in Zimbabwe — stable democracies, and we dosed up on vaccines and antimalarials. We took what we thought were calculated risks. Not everyone agreed. Our six month ‘immersion’ into Africa was viewed by some as a concern, by others as simply reckless.

Yet, the flipside of denying the risk, was also to deny opportunity and Sam grew in spades from the experience.

Not everyone can go to Africa

Did it have to be Africa? No, it didn’t.
That, I think, is a critical point.

Much as I loved Africa and its amazing people, it could have been a road trip around Australia, a rural retreat like the one my young patient has embarked on, another series of challenges, another form of prolonged exposure to uncertainty and experience. But the exposure, and the willingness to make it happen, are the essential ingredients.

Adolescents need to be pushed and even take a few risks to get the most out of life, and this includes those with a disability.

James has written about their experiences in Sam’s Best Shot, a moving and inspiring account of the amazing journey he and Sam took through the teeming cities and stunning landscapes of ten African countries.

Nerve-wracking and hugely challenging, but also transformative, fulfilling and entertaining, this is a father and son story like no other.

You can also watch James and Sam discuss their experiences on Australian Story’s My Son Sam.

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