If you’ve been a follower of AKontheGO for some time, you most likely are aware of the unique dynamics that make up our family. Like 1 in 200 babies born today, our oldest, MJ, lives life somewhat awkwardly on the autism spectrum (and a host of other issues). Our whole family does, actually, for autism spectrum disorders – like any disorder, disease, or condition affecting one member – affects all. Together we’ve dealt with interesting obsessions quirky humor on good days; anger and dispair on the bad ones. It doesn’t define who we are, but it has shaped many of our motives and decisions as parents, and how my sons see the world and each other as brothers.
Nearly three years of agonizing about MJ after he turned 19 pushed us into a life with a completely new set of scenarios that often occur once youth age out of the tenuous state-and-federally-funded support systems that somehow kept us going (Where would he live? How could he support himself? Health care? Basic safety?). Now, we’re ready to move foward as a family. Tentatively, with caution, three are morphing back into four.
We don’t often travel with MJ, since his comfort levels are easily disrupted with schedule changes, outside stimulation, and new surroundings. He wants to be included, and we want to include him, but often the stress of going continues into the staying in a cyclical twister of misunderstanding that leaves us all exhausted. That said, MJ has a dedicated team of caregivers and people we call “shepherds” who work tirelessly to help him navigate this process of renewal with family, and we’ve all been anticipating a chance to test out what we’ve been learning.
As the planner of all, and the mom, I also wanted this holiday season to be different. Rewarding for MJ, and an opportunity for us to become reaquainted over the span of a long weekend.
It took some work.
I planned far ahead, looking at destinations that had little external stimuli to confuse and frustrate a young man who looks perfectly normal but who becomes angry when people hurry him along. Airports were out during the busiest travel weekend of the year. As were stays in a busy downtown hotel and shopping (duh – none of my guys enjoy that on the best of days).
We settled upon a short road trip two hours north and east to Sheep Mountain Lodge. Quiet, perfectly framed by craggy mountains, and featuring log cabins with full kitchens and internet access (albeit slow; important to maintain some sense of calm for MJ). With only four cabins open during the winter and access to hiking, skiing, or sledding hills right behind the property, we were able to settle in for a balance of play and family time that we hadn’t had for several years.
Family travel as a concept rarely turns out as one would expect, despite social media photos to the contrary, but I found on this trip that stoking the fires of recreation and holiday cheer added greatly to everyone’s enthusiasm. We were able to hike and ski in the snow (since Anchorage is lacking in such); we baked AK Dad’s famous shortbread cookies as a headstart on gifts for friends and extended family; we played Monopoly and Scrabble until late at night. Sheep Mountain’s serenity and cozy accommodations provided the focus for long discussions while ambling a forest trail or blanket-wrapped discussions about the newest Star Wars movie while sipping hot chocolate and peppermint tea.
While the cabins were all occupied and guests all waved at each other as they went to and fro between trails, it was a delightfully snug and private opportunity for us. As parents, we were able to observe the changes in each of our sons as they learn how to relate to each other as individuals. We talked. We watched. And carefully, we created new inroads for the next time.
The shape of us is changing, and it’s both frightening and exciting to think ahead to a “next time.”
One weekend, one hike, one ski. Then the next.
Hug your people, people.