Local autistic man takes solo trip of a lifetime to Laos

Image of Shawna O'Neill
By Shawna O'Neill
Local autistic man takes solo trip of a lifetime to Laos
Nicholas Villeneuve (right) with an elephant and its caretaker in Laos. Submitted photo.

SOUTH STORMONT, Ontario – Many of us only ever dream of taking an adventure we’ve always hoped to embark on. For local 23-year-old man Nicholas Villeneuve, who lives with autism, that dream became a reality about a month ago.

Villeneuve’s parents, Angela and Luc, are extremely proud of their son who ventured to Laos on a two-week, solo trip at the end of May. Villeneuve had the opportunity to work at an elephant sanctuary in the Nam Tien Protected Area called the Elephant Conservation Centre (ECC). Villeneuve, who studies Ecosystem Management at Fleming College’s Lindsay campus, felt that he could make the trip and learn a lot from the experience offered through Vesa, while getting to help his favourite animal.

“I didn’t expect to be accepted,” said Villeneuve, who was worried that his application might have been turned down because he lives with autism, but that was no issue for Vesa.”I made a lot of friends with the group and thankfully they didn’t hold anything against me for being autistic and we all really helped each other out.”

“I did learn to be more independent for myself as far as being able to travel…I honestly gained a good bit of self-confidence in myself that I could do things like that. Doctors at CHEO thought that I would be completely non-verbal, and completely dependent on (my parents) my whole life. Here I am in College for an Ecosystem Management course and also going all the way across the world to work with my favourite animal and experience things that are really once in a lifetime,” said Villeneuve with pride.

Villeneuve thanked his family for helping to fund the trip, and thanked P38 Energy Inc. Cornwall who gave a very generous donation towards his volunteer experience. Luc said that after speaking with a manager, President Guy Marchand graciously contributed. Special shirts were also made for the occasion.

During his time at the ECC, Villeneuve and about 60 others on the trip from around the world would go up into the forest and cut away at dead bamboo and foliage that the elephants would not eat. They then replanted new bamboo and new banana trees. All of the volunteers got to learn about the history of the elephants and how they were protected from being forced to carry tourists or other items. Another aspect of the mission involved helping to build a new school for a nearby village while attempting to teach locals a little bit of English.

The trip to Laos wasn’t without challenges for Villeneuve and his friends. To get to the sanctuary, Villeneuve had to take four connecting flights, which overwhelmed him a little bit, but his mother was anxiously waiting at home on speed-dial.

“On the way there, I was his (support). If he has any issues, I would walk him through it. He did really well though,” said Angela.

Villeneuve also encountered activities that involved steep heights, but he didn’t let it interfere with his travels and his ability to try new things. He almost went zip-lining by the end of the trip, but reserved the activity for possibly his next adventure. Villeneuve said he unfortunately had a biking mishap, his friend was bit by a scorpion and another fainted in the extreme heat.

“Even on this trip…he never had a meltdown, he controlled himself and learned that he can do this,” said Angela.

Villeneuve speaks on a panel at his college about autism and is interested in speaking with other autistic individuals to explain the experience of his trip, as well as any other questions they may have about his experience living with autism.

“Anything you’ve ever wanted to do Nick, we will help you do it,” said Angela.

Villeneuve is now considering relaxing for the rest of the summer before returning to school, wondering if another adventure will await him in the future.

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