An unconventional path to greater social-communication skills and independence for an adolescent on the autism spectrum
D Trembath, RJ Bala, J Tamblyn, MF Westerveld
In 2015, a father took his 14-year-old son who is on the autism spectrum on a six-month journey aimed to
develop his son’s social-communication and independent living skills. The duo travelled across 10 countries, meeting
people and practising these skills. This study examined their goals, motivations for, and outcomes of the journey.
We used intrinsic case study methodology with mixed methods, including interviews with parents and pro-
fessionals; analyses of filmed interactions between the son, his father and strangers during the journey; and descriptive
analysis of parent-reported changes in their son’s participation at home, school and in the community using the
Participation and Environment Measure – Children and Youth.
Qualitative analysis of the interviews with parents and professionals revealed a set of insightful goals and
motivations, focusing on creating an optimal environment for the son’s development. Parents reported increases in
their son’s social-communication and independent living skills, but also unexpected changes in his perspective and self-
belief. The former findings were consistent with those arising from video analysis, whereby social-pragmatic skills critical
to good conversations (staying on topic, body position, eye contact) all increased over the course of the journey, while
abrupt topic changes and conversational prompts reduced. Participation and inclusion across home, school and com-
munity settings all increased over the same period.
While this study makes no claims regarding causation, the findings indicate that the journey was associated
with positive changes for the son and his parents, leading to greater expectations for, and progress towards, independ-
ence following the journey. Implications of the findings for supporting young people on the autism spectrum in regular
community settings are discussed.
Check out the Australian Story film based on Sam's story and this ground breaking research by Dr David Trembath on
developing social-communication, opportunities for learning and independent living skills.