A year of birds and healing

2013-10-21 00:00

IT was a nightmare that a Pietermaritzburg family tackled with a brave, unorthodox response. Midway through his Grade 9 year, Josh Crickmay (16) had fallen into despair so deep he was unable to go to school. It was a desperate situation requiring drastic action.

Parents Andrew and Kathy Crickmay decided the family would take a year off to travel and help him “find his passion”. The remedy seems to have worked, because when I visit the family home in Wembley I am greeted by a smiling teenager. “I was in a slump,” says Josh, in an understated description of what happened to him last year, but his mother is more direct.

“He was in a very deep depression and it got worse. We needed to think out of the box,” she says. Josh had previously been diagnosed with Tourette syndrome, which seemed to fit, because he’d had “habits” since he was tiny. But on closer examination, the experts returned to another diagnosis that had been made in Grade 3, Asperger’s, as well as adding obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and auditory processing problems to the list.

Kathy, a former teacher, says Josh’s first Asperger’s diagnosis was rejected at the time by some professionals because he had friends, which is not typical for those with the condition (see box). She’d also worked with children with Asperger’s who didn’t seem like him. But his decline last year was sudden and demanded closer examination. “He had an awesome year in Grade 8 at Grace. He coped, and then all of a sudden — boom!”

What happened was a perfect storm, where biochemistry and frustrations about school met and billowed into something frighteningly unmanageable. “Apparently, 15 is the age where these types of conditions [Asperger’s, OCD] really manifest, perhaps made worse by adolescence,’’ says Andrew. “School was getting more difficult and the combination of auditory processing difficulties, Asperger’s [where anger is a real issue] and OCD [where he could not focus on what was happening in class while dealing with obsessive compulsions] all led to him giving up.”

“None of us realised the struggles he had,” says Kathy. “Part of the journey has been understanding what he dealt with.”

Josh himself is open about these challenges. “I’ve learnt that Asperger’s is not something to be ashamed of. Before, I thought I was crazy. Asperger’s makes certain things difficult — like walking through the mall.

“I don’t like crowds; I feel awkward and start bumping into people. If a person walks into me, I veer way out of the way. My OCD makes me walk weirdly, because I have to walk on certain tiles.”

What’s helped him, says Kathy, has been the fact that he’s bright. “That’s how he got through school. And he has a wonderful sense of humour, which helps.”

Josh currently takes anti-depressants and Risperdal, which has a calming effect on the Asperger’s. “He’s now on the lowest dose for both,” says his mother. “He said he felt like a zombie, so we reduced both. After two days of cutting back, he said he felt more irritable than ever, but he has to learn how to control it. The medications helped him get through the worst.’’

Andrew, who’s the largest shareholder in a specialist supply chain company, says the decision to go travelling for a year was made to give Josh “a shot in the arm. He couldn’t see a future for himself. We had to help him find his passion.”

“And we did,” pipes up Josh, whose life has made a complete turnaround.

With the agreement of his business partner, Andrew handed the reins over to his brother-in-law at work so that he could take a year’s sabbatical, and a plan was drawn up. Josh is interested in photography, birding and writing, so the project was designed around developing them, and was partly inspired by a movie called The Big Year, where the main characters embark on a similar journey. Josh’s “Big Year” would entail trying to find as many birds as he could around the world.

His adventures in Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kruger and Sani Pass, as well as a seven-week trip to Equador, are recorded in his blog.

Equador is unique in that it covers parts of both the Amazon and the Andes, and while there, Murray Cooper, a family friend and top bird photographer, helped Josh further develop his interest in photography. He’s since taken thousands of photographs, some of which have been published in magazines.

“We travelled on buses, which was terrifying. We went over the Andes and in two hours dropped over 3 000 metres,” he says, describing the trip.

His highlight of the year so far was their first stop in Equador at a lodge in a forest. “There were toucans, humming birds. Birds with colours you don’t see in SA.” In Equador they saw 501 bird species.

In southern Africa, Mapungubwe and Mamili near Caprivi were especially memorable, and the family’s next trip is to Ndumo, where they hope to add a few more birds to their current SA count of 554 species. The goal is 600.

Next year, Josh plans to do a 10-week course in guiding run by the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa (FGASA) at Hluhluwe. “It’s not school in the conventional sense, but it’s training with lots of practical activity in an area where he is strong,” says Andrew.

“As we realised the extent of his battles we could see that going back to school was not an option.”

Apart from missing friends, Josh says he’s happy to leave school, but his parents have had to weather some criticism of their decision.

“Some friends have tried to dissuade us, which has been hard, as they obviously have not understood the severity of the problem,” says Andrew. “It’s such a deeply ingrained belief that school’s the way to go.

“We’re really proud of him. From lying in a bed he’s tramped up mountains, taken about 65 000 photos and written a blog which has had 10 000 hits, as well as articles for magazines such as Go and Birdlife SA.”

Kathy describes the year as “a healing time for all of us, from the horror of last year. The times when we go camping are all about team work.

“It’s given time for Josh to mature and find that there’s another alternative to school.”


• See www.joshsbigyear.com


• Asperger syndrome (AS) , also known as Asperger disorder (AD) or simply Asperger’s, is an autism-spectrum disorder that is characterised by significant difficulties in social interaction and non-verbal communication, alongside restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviour and interests. It differs from other autism-spectrum disorders by its relative preservation of linguistic and cognitive development.


• Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)

is an anxiety disorder characterised by intrusive thoughts that produce uneasiness, apprehension, fear, or worry; by repetitive behaviours aimed at reducing the associated anxiety; or by a combination of such obsessions and compulsions. Symptoms of the disorder include excessive washing or cleaning; repeated checking; extreme hoarding; aversion to particular numbers; and nervous rituals.


• Tourette syndrome (TS) is a neurological disorder characterised by repetitive, stereotyped, involuntary movements and vocalisations called tics.


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