Kid with Aspergers Becomes Leader on Kokoda Track

25 Aug 2014 12:00 AMKid with Aspergers Becomes Leader on Kokoda Track

When society decides you don't fit in because you are different and even stops you growing.... but then to find a tribe that accepts you and you excel because of a new found belief, support and value in your abilities, to connect with the past history and identify where the future lies,,, through Courage, Sacrifice, Endurance and new found Mateship... this kid becomes a great success story

The call came out of the blue, I had heard of this organisation and the type of work that they did with misguided youth and youth at risk.  In the past I had done a lot for various charities in this space and managed to raise some decent sized funds aimed at making a difference to the world.  At the time of the call it was getting quite trendy to switch on the TV and see yet another bunch of kids crossing the Track with an egotistical leader yelling and screaming at them. I was never happy about the methods used by some. They would seek to break the spirits of these kids and then rescue them. I always believed that the focus should also be on the fact the kid has succeeded in walking the Kokoda Track and learned and experienced all that was there. It was about the initial challenge of asking oneself “do I have the same tenacity and bravery that our Diggers had?’ would I be able to achieve success against the backdrop of incredible challenge.  Our young Diggers had paved the way for us and overcame incredible challenges in many different formats so that we could have choices brought about by the freedoms fought and died for.

The caller had asked me if I would be interested in facilitating a group of street kids that had been in and out of trouble with the law all their life. I hesitated and initially was non-committal until I received more information, I really didn’t want to do a TV mock up.  After receiving that information I pored over it closely trying to ascertain what some of these kids had been through, I was shocked to read some of their experiences and was left in no doubt that the Kokoda Track would certainly help them in their quest for their path. After speaking with the organisers they quickly told me that a kid that I had paid particular interest to wouldn’t be selected as he offered very little to the group as a whole and appeared quite, moody and rude. I dug my heels in with one and asked to take him for a walk and try and get to the bottom of it.

In the interest of privacy and protection I will call him peter. We walked and talked, he was very quiet and distant, he would worry a bit about the weather as we walked and would continually ask the time. As we walked I would slip in some mathematical questions which he dually answered with apparent ease. After the walk I rang the local police station for more information, given that it was the police that had recommended he be part of this they filled me in on the fact that this 15 year old would more than likely spend the rest of his life in and out of jail if something wasn’t done very soon. It seemed that he had fallen in with a particularly bad crowd and was being used as a patsy in local crime.  I spoke with the organisers and insisted that this kid be allowed to walk the Track with us as I felt we could really offer him a lifeline. Eventually they relented and approved his participation but with a series of conditions.

From my experience I had already worked out what Peter’s, main challenge was and that was that he had mild form of autism. But this autism was significant enough for the group to realise that he was “different’ and as a result justify group alienation. Admittedly he didn’t try too hard to fit in with the rest and at times would say inappropriate things, almost like he didn’t possess a social filter.

It always fascinated me how our society tends to ostracize a person when they are considered different to the “norm” we tend to do this based on religion, race, wealth, size etc..

It’s different though in remote unspoilt areas such as PNG where the currency is about survival, a culture that values the basics such as shelter, warmth, love, food and water. It also appreciates and values that everyone in the tribe has an important role and contribution to make to the survival of the tribe.

When Peter arrived with the group in Kokoda he was made to feel welcome by the National people and perhaps for the first time in his life he was made to feel like he actually belonged somewhere and wasn’t classed as a social outcast . I introduced him to the Legends of kokoda as I call them as this term truly reflects what their families did for us in 1942, and by labelling them Legends it also elevates them to a position of respect rather than merely calling them ‘porters”.

The physical and mental Challenge of doing the Kokoda Track correctly, along with the passionate narration of the history that has occurred leads to incredible personal insights that are completely supported by the simplicity of life in a jungle,. And really leaves one feeling connected to the past, to such an extent that it outlines the future. One of the great learnings for kids with poor present role models is to link with the history of their forefathers resilience in battle (and the vision they were protecting) this allow them to work out where they came from and ultimately where they can go in the future with the same resilient attributes.

As the trek continued Peter played a bigger role within his new found “tribe” he was finding that he was valued and seemingly no different to the other tribal members in that they all sought shelter and warmth  at night, food during the day and friendship in the confines of their small huts. He was gradually given more responsibility and more roles of importance, he was in charge of water ,,, he had to collect water to cook over the open fire for dinner each afternoon. As an observer watching in I could see him start to learn new ways and a new language and he excelled at communicating as the tribe removed the social barriers that had created anxiety and fear in Peter. Borne out of the fact that he was slow with his words and the fear that he would be once more denigrated for being an “idiot” he grew into a confident young person reinforced by the fact that his jobs or responsibilities were broken into full tasks ie get the water and bring it back, but with huge emphasis on the importance of this role and how it works as part of the team (tribe). They taught him that when there was a breakdown in communication or a potential fight about to erupt, the villagers would sit around small fires scattered through the village and in small numbers they would discuss their differences. Once all were satisfied that the issue had been solved on a personal basis, they would then make a bigger combined fire in the centre and they would all come together and sit around it for the next stage of instruction. This method allowed for all members of the tribe to see their value and realise their views were indeed valued.

As the remainder of the Trekking group continued on with their own personal journey and challenge of getting across the Track they were oblivious to the development that was going on around the near fire. As they listened intently to the history and identified the pain endured, it was almost like a catharsis as they seemed to hitch emotion to the story of the history to their physical pain, which somehow led to greater emotional understanding or reasoning. As we continued to walk the Kokoda track, environment conditions changed and the rains set in adding to the challenge.

At Cons rock, where historically Stan Bisset sat with his brother Harold (Butch) cradled in his arms as he passed away following the battle of isurava  I always sing Danny Boy in memory of both Stan and Butch. That particular day, as I sang it there was not a dry eye to be seen, the kids gathered around me and as I sang they cried. At the end of the song I asked if here was anyone that wanted to say anything or even …..sing, as kids do, they all dropped their heads and prayed I didn’t single them out to do anything…… THEN all of a sudden Peter jumps up on the rock and starts belting out ….. :aint no mountain high enough….. aint no valley wide enough……and the group stared .. and they stared more… here was the kid that never spoke, barely muttered, never looked you in the eye, socially awkward, crazy ideas… suddenly belting out a song at the top of his voice ….

What transpired after this was amazing to see,,,, suddenly the group realised.. hang on a minute this bloke has a value… how do we get him back in our tribe??? He suddenly became “cool” and interesting and just maybe they had judged him wrong… or was it the fact that so many people had judged him similarly was it the weight of that judgement that would never allow him to overcome that judgement and as a result a developed poor self efficacy… But somehow the weight of the belief and value that the tribe had put in him out weighed the Group sentence …. Amazingly he now knew that he had a value and as the trekking group sought to have him re-instated into their group ,.. he was refusing as he now was confident of his stature and value…

This scenario continued all the way to the finish of the track across the moutains, Peter was a changed kid, he was confident and alert, happy etc… but I knew that once he had to leave his new found tribe that would be when the real challenge would present itself. Anyway we flew into Brisbane airport and all their parents were there,, I snuck out quickly to avoid them and was on my way home when I received a phone call from Peter’s mum,,,, she said “aidan I don’t know what happened up there .. but my boy is different, then he saw me at the airport he ran up to me threw his arms around me and said “I love you mum” she said she had never heard that from him before. I said ..stay tuned.

A week later she rang me and told me that he had drawn up a list of his “loser” mates as he called them, that is the ones that he felt were a very negative influence on him,, he rang them one by one and told them he didn’t want them in his life, then he got a job and is working 5 days a week. This was by far one of the greatest developments I have ever seen and it thought me a lot about human nature but importantly it thought me about how we as a society are so quick to judge others and if there is enough people doing it ,,,, it is very hard those on the receiving end to climb out of it unless they are surrounded by the security of good people…..

Kid with Aspergers Becomes Leader on Kokoda TrackAidan GrimesOur Spirit Adventures

Thanks for your kind words and especially coming from you who has climbed Mt Everest and conquered many other challenges, and who places immense value on the time you spend with your family and friends to continue to "experience what's out there".....

Hi Aidan, a truly wonderful story and a testament to the work you do on every trip with every individual. I can say as well that having both boys with me on our trip had long-lasting effects on their self-esteem and self-image and gave them confidence that they can do anything they set out to do. Thank you again.

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