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Autism and teens: Sydney father James Best's radical experiment to help son, Sam

ABC News logo ABC News 24/07/2017 By Ben Cheshire

Sam's parents James Best and Benison O'Reilly hope Sam's backpacking experiment can open up new conversations about raising teenagers with autism. © Supplied: George Fetting Sam's parents James Best and Benison O'Reilly hope Sam's backpacking experiment can open up new conversations about raising teenagers with autism. When Sydney GP Dr James Best announced that he was going backpacking across Africa with his teenage son who has autism, the reactions varied from aghast to incredulous.

"Are you nuts?" asked Autism Awareness Australia CEO Nicole Rogerson.

"I tried to be supportive but mostly I just laughed."

The conventional wisdom for dealing with children on the autism spectrum is to immerse them in predictable routine.

But Dr Best wanted to try something radical: putting his 14-year-old son Sam in a situation that was completely unpredictable to see the effects it would have on his development.

"Sam could play the piano and he could reprogram computers and pick up maths really quickly but he couldn't go to the shop by himself or have a normal long conversation with a friend," Dr Best said.

"The conventional approach just wasn't going to be good enough for us."

Adolescence a prime opportunity for change

Dr Best's radical approach to autism therapy is now being hailed as "ground-breaking" by autism researcher Dr David Trembath, who studied the project for Queensland's Griffith University.

"I think this has the potential to change the way we look at supporting teenagers in the field of autism," Dr Trembath said.

"It's an amazing example of where a family has taken a huge chance and it seems to have paid off for them."

Australian Story tonight documents the father and son's six-month trip across Africa.

Dr Best — whose practice specialises in autism and parenting issues — took time off work and he and his wife Benison O'Reilly sold the family house to pay for the journey.

It was based on the idea that adolescence represents an opportunity for learning similar to the period during infancy, when the brain is highly receptive to change.

"We were acutely aware that it was a time of opportunity," Dr Best said.

"Our considered solution was to expose him to a prolonged period of uncertainty and unpredictability, to develop his ability to deal with the challenges in life."

Dr Best set up a daily program of exercises and challenges for his son as they trekked across the African continent, hopping on and off buses, shopping in local markets, visiting schools and churches, and coming face to face with wildlife on safari.

To encourage Sam to use both sides of his body, and to increase traffic across the midline of his brain, he taught his son how to box and play chess.

To improve Sam's conversation skills, he asked him to do the talking when they bought food or checked into hotels.

Sam Best's life-changing holiday © Provided by ABC News Sam Best's life-changing holiday A far more 'relaxed and comfortable kid'

By the end of the trip, there was a measurable improvement in Sam's ability to look after himself.

"He ties his shoelaces, he brushes his teeth by himself, he plans and he gets out of the room by himself. There is no way in the world I could have done all of these things with him if I'd have stayed at home," Dr Best said.

Dr Trembath studied regular video updates sent back home by the pair, looking for changes in body language, eye contact and the length of conversations with strangers.

"What we see is a far more relaxed, comfortable kid," he said.

"The data shows a 78 per cent increase in eye contact and a 75 per cent reduction in abrupt topic changes when talking with strangers."

Dr Trembath is now writing up his material for publication in a scientific journal, and expects a lot of interest from both autism experts and families.

"I think this journey could shake up the field of autism," Dr Trembath said.

"Usually what we do is we take a research environment and we try and replicate the real world. What we're doing here is we're taking the real world and we're attempting to wrap research around it."

Autism specialist Professor Cheryl Dissanayake, from La Trobe University, has looked at Dr Trembath's preliminary findings.

She said it was a wonderful idea to build a case study around the Africa trip, but she has sounded a note of caution.

"Six months is not an incredibly long time, so I don't think this case study of one father and son's journey through Africa is a breakthrough," she said.

"But it could provide a template for other families to map what is going to be possible for their child.

"Maybe it will empower them to feel that they can take these children out of the routine environment and they can challenge them. If it's done in a scaffolded way, that young person can rise to meet the challenge."

'I'm more grown up after this'

Dr Best said that while the project was not a cure for autism, it raised interesting questions that could lead to further research on adolescence as a time of opportunity for people on the autism spectrum.

In the case of his own son, he believes his decision to "throw out the rule book" on autism has been well worth it.

"I really think it is much more likely that Sam will be able to do things like have a relationship and have a job now than it was at the beginning of the trip," Dr Best said.

"And I'm pretty damned pleased to be able to say that."

Sam is now 16 and back at school in Sydney. He says the trip was tiring, but useful in teaching him some life skills.

"I'm more grown up after this. I've been learning to talk to people more often. And thanks to Dad for making me more mature," he said.

Dr Best said the experience had been "life changing".

"It's been a wonderful, life-changing experience to do this with Sam," he said.

"I feel quite elated, especially when he does something special and out of the blue."

Ms Rogerson, the head of Autism Awareness Australia, said she did not feel qualified to comment on the science of the trip, seeing it rather as a wonderful love story between a father and son.

"It's this beautiful story of James attempting to do absolutely everything he can to make sure Sam has his best outcome, reach his greatest potential," she said.

"Hopefully some of the science behind it may end up helping families across Australia."

Watch Australian Story's My Son Sam on ABCTV and ABCiview at 8:00pm.


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