April is Autism Awareness Month. We appreciate the opportunity to share our story with you. Our lives have been changed for the better once we discovered the healing power of spending regular time in Nature!
My name is Jill. I have enjoyed being a stay-at-home, homeschooling mama of a large family. Even as a child, I was frequently outdoors, soaking up sunshine, noticing beauty, and finding an inner peace. Once we had a family, I often packed the kids into the car and escaped to a playground or a park or into the woods for an hour here or there. Like many families, our kids have had a variety of challenges. Most of them are now launched into successful adulthood. They are scattered around the country, pursuing lives they enjoy.
Life has held extra joys and greater challenges with our youngest daughter. Anna has an alphabet soup of diagnoses, including severe anxiety and autism. Her energy, curiosity, creativity, and imagination are amazing! On the opposite side, her mood swings, crippling anxiety, hyper-focus and insatiable need for social contact (even to the point of danger) are overwhelming…for all of us! Meds, therapy, and the freedoms of homeschooling help, but life has still been chaotic. (Many of you know this roller-coaster. Please tell me you too have times you just wish you could get off the merry-go-round and get out of the amusement park…)
Like me, Anna craves being outdoors. Even as a toddler, she spent hours and hours playing in the backyard no matter how bad the weather seemed to be. For the few middle-school years she was in a public school, we won an accommodation in her IEP that when she was overwhelmed, a counselor or an aide would walk outside with her for a few minutes to help her calm down again. We quickly realized the freedom to learn while being outside is a huge benefit of homeschooling.
Our family reached a pivot point a few years ago. My wonderful hubby saw that I was burned out. He suggested I take a month to wander the country by myself, camping along the way. I immediately responded that I wanted to buy backpacking gear and go on “the trail.” Realizing he couldn’t juggle Anna’s needs plus a full-time job and that we had no one else to help Anna for that long period of time, we agreed that she would need to come with me on my new adventure.
In fall of 2015, when Anna was just 13 years old, she and I haunted the outdoors store, gathered the necessary gear, and planned our adventure. Hubby drove us to Maryland, and we said our good-byes. Anna and I took our first steps on the Appalachian Trail and kept walking in the woods for the next 6+ weeks!
Backpacking was a radical change from suburban or small-town living! We carried everything we needed on our backs. We walked 5-10 miles of dirt trail each day, travelling up and down mountain after mountain. We heated water with a tiny stove and ate rehydrated rice and tuna meals each night. We slept in 3-sided lean-to shelters or in our tent and woke up the next day to do the same all over again. We filtered water from streams to drink, and only showered every 3-5 days when we got to a town for resupply. It was hard. It was crazy. And we LOVED it!
Eventually, I recognized that there was an extra benefit of extended time in the woods. At home it was typical for Anna to have 2-3 major meltdowns each week. However, after weeks of living outdoors, I realized Anna had only had one partial anxiety attack and no mood-swings. In addition to being immersed in nature, while we were on the trail, Anna was an equal with all the other hikers. She was fully competent with no “disabilities” holding her back. Social anxiety and dangerous lack of personal-safety were no longer problems to be dealt with. We discovered Rx: Nature was a miraculous “cure” for Anna’s struggles!
In the past 3.5 years, Anna and I have returned to the Appalachian Trail again and again. At this point, we are proud to have walked 500 miles in the back woods and in the mountains! (And we have not yet reached the 25% point of completing the entire AT which runs from Georgia to Maine. Isn’t that CRAZY?!) We both relish the peace and the beauty of spending extended time in nature.
After returning from our first backpacking adventure, I did further reading. I discovered there is extensive scientific research validating the health benefits of Nature. Many folks find that when they spend regular time outdoors, their moods are better regulated, and they have far fewer anxiety meltdowns. In addition, Rx: Nature helps improve mental clarity and focus, increases immune system responsiveness, and lowers generalized stress. (Woohoo! We found a genuinely effective way to get off the “roller-coaster” for youngest daughter. It’s a relief to find something that actually helps…and better yet is enjoyable for all of us!)
Jill (& Anna)
If you want to follow along with Anna & Jill’s adventures, feel free to go to their website: