Looking at the positive change for an adolescent boy with autism and his family while travelling through Africa has been the focus of a Griffith University research study.

Now the focus of an ABC documentary to be aired this Monday 24 July, the journey saw Sydney GP Dr James Best take his son on a six month backpacking journey aimed at rapidly developing his son Sam’s social-communication and independent living skills.

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

The duo travelled across 10 countries, meeting people and practising these skills. Meanwhile, a university team led by Dr David Trembath from Griffith’s Menzies Health Institute Queensland, sought to examine the goals, motivations for, and outcomes of the journey.

“We used intrinsic case study methodology with mixed methods, including qualitative interviews with parents and professionals; coding of filmed interactions between the son, his father, and strangers during the journey and descriptive analysis of changes in the son’s participation at home, school, and in the community,” says Dr Trembath.

“The results revealed a set of insightful and refined goals and motivations, focusing on creating an optimal environment for development.

Changes in social communication and living skills

“Sam’s parents experienced perceived changes in social-communication and independent living skills, but also unexpected changes in perspective and self-belief. The former findings were consistent with those arising from video analysis, whereby social-pragmatic skills proved critical to good conversations. Sam’s ability to stay on topic, his body position and eye contact all increased over the course of the journey, while abrupt topic changes in conversation were reduced.

“Participation and inclusion across home, school, and community settings all increased over the same period.”

Dr Trembath says that 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, independence following the journey.