As part of The Flourishment Collective, I share stories about interesting people I meet who are making an impact by helping others flourish in life.
Have you ever met someone who completely blows your mind and forever changes your view of the world? For me, that person is Andrew S. This story is about an incredible mother-son duo who I had the privilege of getting to know recently. Together they are breaking barriers and shedding light on the inner world, the remarkable wisdom and connection to spirit of nonspeaking autistic children.
It began with a comment made by an old friend that caught my attention on Facebook. As I read a bit more on the Life, Love & Autism Facebook page, I learned about a young boy with autism who does not speak but loves to be in the forest. Now I know nothing about autism but from the post, I got the sense that his mother Susan could use some support. According to her post, she had made the decision to remove her son from school and care for him at home and she was looking for some helpers.
Meanwhile, earlier that week, the Global Coaching Community that I'm a member of initiated a challenge to reach out to people we might not know but who we find interesting. The challenge was to spend 18 minutes getting to know a stranger. So timing is everything and when I came across this Facebook post I knew I wanted to learn more about this family. So I did something I had not done before… I sent a stranger a note, with no agenda other than pure curiosity and an inner knowing that we were meant to connect. I introduced myself as a forest therapy guide and someone who also loved spending time in the forest and that I would love to get to know more about them.
Susan responded quickly and we coordinated a call. She was driving with Andrew in the back seat listening to our conversation on speaker phone. Right away I knew there was something special about this mother-son duo. We had a quick chat while she engaged Andrew in our conversation by asking him for his thoughts and letting me know that he was smiling and interested in getting together. We arranged a time to meet at a nearby park for an hour together in the forest.
Walk #1: Sunnybrook Park May 11, 2022
As we entered the forest, I explained what forest therapy is…a very slow sensory walk where we engage in invitations designed to help us relax and connect deeply with nature. Susan showed me her letter board and the laminated pages that helped Andrew express himself by pointing to letters or images. Andrew ran ahead, grabbed a leaf from a nearby tree and proceeded to fan it beside his ear. She explained that although Andrew does not look like he’s listening, he is taking in everything that we are saying.
Susan listened with some interest as I walked through the flow of a forest therapy walk while keeping an eye on Andrew. He kept his distance throughout our slow walk in the woods and at one point he ran ahead while I stayed behind. He stood precariously close to the edge of a cliff which made me nervous. Susan said this also made her nervous but he has an excellent sense of his body and space, so she has learned to trust his judgement.
After about 45 minutes we made our way back to the car. I had no idea whether Andrew enjoyed our time together. Susan said she would ask Andrew later that evening and share his feedback. Incredibly, they have found a way to communicate using a letterboard and together they are working on a book which I personally cannot wait to read! It turns out that Andrew’s wisdom is awe-inspiring!
Susan sent an email later that evening with Andrew’s feedback from our first walk together:
S: What do you think of the work Monique does?
A: Monique is playing an important role in bringing people back to nature, back to themselves.
S: What do you make of her activities/suggestions?
A: How many people might need that training - perhaps those activities are an entry point for them.
S: And you?
A: I am in a body that knows what it needs in nature.
S: And how cool that we met Monique through April from our old neighbourhood?
A: Of course we knew when we met April that she would be integral in my connection with meeting Monique down the road.
S: And of our time with Monique?
A: How great to be with someone who loves being in the trees as much as me. She knows she will learn about unscripted time in nature with me there.
S: Would you spend time there with monique again?
S: What did you think of her question at the end—connecting with trees, the soul or spirit of trees?
A: The forests have always been there for us and will continue to be once we take note of their presence. Each tree has a signature or soul or essence. All of nature does. When we spend time enjoying ourselves in nature, we connect to that.
Really? What 14 boy knows this? And how can a nonspeaking autistic boy be able to communicate with such deep wisdom? I knew right away that I would learn far more from Andrew than he would learn from me. And if our time together in the forest gives his mom Susan a bit of time to herself, all the better.
I looked forward to our next walk.
Around this time, Andrew started an online book club for everyone that would like to be part of a meaningful book club— speakers and nonspeakers. The first book they chose is one of my favourites, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben.
Here are a few of Andrew’s thoughts about the book that he spelled out on his letterboard:
"There is a whole other language being spoken in the woods - It does not require any words. As someone who doesn't speak, I feel companionship in the trees. It is there for all of us. Intelligent. Majestic. Wise."
"I had a sense that trees were masterful communicators beyond what we can see. To be honest, I can hear a lot of it mainly in the leaves and if I listen closely near the trunk. I hear the frequency of their messages. Every vibration is available to us if we listen. This book, I figured it would explain or confirm what I see and hear going on in the forest."
Walk #2: Muir Park, May 30 2022
I joined Susan and Andrew for a short walk at a park near their home. Since Andrew knew this area well, I asked if he could show me the trail. This was a very fast walk although we slowed down near the end while Andrew spent time near a tree he quite likes, and Susan and I chatted quietly. Time in the forest with Andrew is a delicate balance of moving his body to help regulate while having silent immersive time with the trees. Susan likes to move. I like to find a nice spot and sit. Today we let Andrew guide us and we did a bit of both.
After this walk, Susan felt more comfortable with me, and we discussed trying our next walk to be with just Andrew and me. She would consult with him first as he is engaged in all decisions.
Walk #3: Sunnybrook Park, June 6 2022
I suggested going back to Sunnybrook as it is a park I know well because this was my main trail during my six-month forest therapy guide practicum. When we first got out of the car, Andrew ran ahead to the river which made me a bit nervous, and he seemed a bit distressed. There were city workers nearby cutting down trees that had fallen from a recent storm and I wondered if this was part of his distress. I thought he wanted to go back to the car, but as we walked over a bridge, we settled into a slow walk along the trail and time on a hill exploring various leaves. I joined him silently in listening to the leaves. I wanted to understand what he could feel. I invite you to try it too. It is an interesting sensation.
I also noticed how people looked at Andrew. When they saw me following behind with the laminated board, you could see them relax a bit. The board is a visual cue of a special need. How little do they know or even appreciate how gifted someone like Andrew truly is. I do believe that what Andrew and Susan are doing by sharing their story will not only change perceptions about nonspeaking people and the wisdom they hold but also make our world a better place through expanded consciousness.
Walk #4: Planning walk at Sunnybrook Park June 20
For our next walk, Andrew and I spent time together at Sunnybrook Park while I mapped out a corporate walk I was planning for a group of eight women. At this point in our friendship, I know that Andrew prefers silence in the forest. I do too so I am careful about not talking too much. Have you noticed how as humans we tend to want to fill in the silence with chatter? It is such a relief to be with someone who prefers quiet and does not expect anything. In forest therapy I have acquired a new appreciation for silence so I can hear and feel the forest and just be present with the other than human world.
On our planning walk, I did engage Andrew with a few questions about where best to try some of the invitations. He was immensely helpful and not surprisingly, tremendously insightful. I noticed what he was noticing. I noticed what was drawing his attention. At one point, he led me to a beautiful spot by the river and another where the sun broke through the trees like light coming in through a stained-glass window of a cathedral. It was magical. In forest therapy, we encourage participants to use their body radar to notice what they are drawn to and what feels pleasurable for them. I enjoyed watching how Andrew embodies this so naturally.
Here is our email exchange after our time together:
M: Thanks again for the time in the forest today. I enjoyed it very much and appreciated noticing what you are drawn to because you have a knack for finding spots that are a beautiful sensory experience.
A: Thank you. The forest leads me and I trust it.
M: Here’s what I’m thinking for the corporate walk:
1. Sensory meditation at the beginning by the big log
2. Slow walk into the forest
3. Time by the creek (maybe I’ll invite them to throw worry stones into the water)
A: Or you could call them thought stones or intentions.
4. Gratitude altars with leaves and sticks they find on the forest floor
5. Meeting with a tree (quiet time talking to a tree)
A: Remind them that even just standing near a tree they like will work.
6. Tea ceremony
M: Did you enjoy doing this planning with me today?
A: Yes, if you call it planning. I call it being guided for the benefit of others and you do it well.
M: Do you have any other suggestions for the group walk? As mentioned, some of the participants will be slowing down in the forest for the first time so might be nervous about bugs, dirt, etc.
A: Tell them that even just being there is enough. Showing up is the hardest step.
M: Is there anything I could do to make our time in the forest even better? For example…am I talking too much? Are there other places you would like to explore?
A: You talk the right amount and are learning to tune into that. I am up for exploring…
I’m happy to report that the corporate event was a huge success, and I did incorporate Andrew’s insights into the experience.
The next book club book is one I had recommended called Embers, by Richard Wagamese. Every word in this little book is medicine. It is visually beautiful with powerful Ojibway words and reflections.
In an email from Susan for the book club, she shares what Andrew has reflected on the following passage:
"This is my whole world and it is available to all of us too. A beautiful experience is to be able to have someone be with me in my silence. Many people use too many words when they could actually say more with less. There is comfort in filling space with words. Silence is very uncomfortable for some. Maybe it is worth spending some time there."
As forest therapy guides, we are trained to follow a standard sequence in planning a forest therapy walk however, we are also trained to invite the forest to co-create with us, to allow ourselves to be guided by the forest and our intuition. The forest is the therapist. The guide opens the door.
Andrew lives in the place of intuition and being not only guided but part of the spirit that is all around us. I love how he is teaching me to lean into the energy that exists in our world through our unstructured time in the forest together. I look forward to our next walk.
I invite you to enjoy the forest in silence. I invite you to listen to its vibration and tune into the frequency of the leaves, the water, the trees…the more than human world.
To learn more about life as a non-speaker, Susan and Andrew produced the following Video: Life as a Nonspeaker for the National Autism Conference
To connect with Susan and Andrew, you can find them on:
…and stay tuned for their book! I know I can’t wait to read it!