When Sarah and Brett Tippie welcomed their second daughter, Alix, in 2012, they dreamt of skiing British Columbia’s slopes and riding local mountain bike trails together as a family of four.
Sarah met Brett, a professional mountain biker and one of the original Fro Riders, at Crankworx, a gathering of some of the sport’s most enthusiastic fans and skilled riders that takes place each summer in Whistler.
“Being in the mountains is our business, passion and hobby,” Sarah says.
Sarah called the couple’s firstborn, Jessamy, a “textbook and easy baby” who, at only 4 years old, was happily riding the Whistler Bike Park with her parents. At the time, it never occurred to the Tippies that the birth of their second daughter would lead them to reimagine their future in the outdoors.
Immediately, Alix was a different baby from her sister. She had delays in walking and talking and her inability to communicate led to tantrums and meltdowns they hadn’t experienced with Jessamy. She also had a scary habit of bolting—running off and ignoring anyone calling after her—which created dangerous and stressful situations for her & her parents.
On Alix’s second birthday, the family went to Hawaii with Sarah’s mother, a retired pediatric nurse. Sarah ran after Alix down a beach to corral her for the better part of two hours one day. Watching her run off again as she flapped her hands in the air, Sarah’s mother asked, “Do you think she might be on the spectrum?”
In that moment, a suspicion lurking in the back of Sarah’s mind jumped forward, and she began to wonder seriously if Alix was, in fact, experiencing the world differently.
It would take a year and a considerable amount of money before she was diagnosed. Still, confirmation that Alix is autistic—a spectrum disorder related to brain development that impacts perception, social interaction and communication—allowed the family to access funding and begin building the infrastructure she needed. Initially, however, finding resources for Alix proved difficult. Sarah was shocked to find, for example, no registered practitioners list for neurodiverse children in British Columbia at that time. Instead, her local resource center suggested she look for autism experts on Craigslist.
Due to an overwhelming need for extra appointments, classroom support and monitoring, specialists told Sarah that when a child is on the spectrum, often one parent must give up their career. Fortunately, when Alix was born, the Tippies had already decided Sarah would work from home to build the family business, an arrangement that would prove invaluable as time went on.
“I know that’s not a luxury for everyone; we are fortunate, and it’s allowed us to be really proactive with her care,” Sarah says.
Brett usually travels about 180 days of each year for work, so Sarah manages Alix’s busy appointment schedule. He calls Sarah the family quarterback and director general, pointing to all the planning and inclusive activities she organizes.
“It’s not easy, but Sarah continuously orchestrates and champions Alix to learn the skills to succeed in life,” Brett says. It took time and unwavering persistence, but Sarah has managed to find wonderful teachers and care workers who have helped Alix reach her full potential.
The family took Alix’s diagnosis in stride. Their strong family unit—“Team Tippie”—served them as they faced the unknown. They embraced what they needed to do, such as ensuring travel and even daily outings were well organized. A single item left behind during an outing (a teddy bear, iPad, or art supplies) could lead to a regrettable experience. Perhaps more easily than anyone else, Jessamy embraced her sister’s differences. Always at her sister’s side, even when the pair was much younger, Jessamy never complained if Alix’s upsets forced them to leave an event or activity early.
“She understands what is happening within our family and with Alix implicitly,” Sarah says. “She thinks Alix is amazing and always helps her.”
Alix is like any other little girl in many ways, dressing up in her mom’s clothes, playing hideand-seek or tag and baking cookies and cakes. A scroll through Sarah’s Instagram account offers portraits of Alix with her face proudly covered in lipstick, marmite and paint. One endearing constant stands out: her big, toothy smile.
At the same time, it’s not unusual for Alix to display unique behaviors. Her sensory issues mean that she may walk around with her fingers in her ears to block out overwhelming noises or tell herself stories softly into her cupped hands to hear them better. On a trip to the Vancouver Aquarium, Sarah recalls Alix ignoring the fish, instead favoring the facility’s lighting fixtures.
“She loves lights,” Sarah says, gesturing to the three-pronged ceiling fixture with globe bulbs and a Darth Vader lamp they've added to their home.
Retaining information, becoming too fixated on a task and communicating with others are all challenges for Alix. Sarah will talk to Alix about her birthday and include bits of information such as the day and year, but finds she only holds onto the details temporarily. And once, when found cutting her own hair, Alix burst into tears, not because she got caught, but because her mom took away the scissors before she could fully realize her vision.
Alix initially struggled verbally but she has barely stopped talking since finding her voice at the age of 3. She has a lot to share, telling jokes, singing songs on ski hills and belting out notes to Mozart compositions unexpectedly in the kitchen.
Physically, Alix has found solace in individual activities without the distraction of clocks, teammates or competition and in her family’s no-pressure attitude. For years, taking Alix skiing meant cherry-picking the days and interspersing a few bunny hill runs with building snowmen and drinking hot chocolate. Her skills remained steady for her first few seasons on the slopes and she seemed content with making pizza and French fries on her little skis. Now, at 10 years old, she cruises multiple groomers in a day and is devastated when the family packs up to leave.
Learning to ride a bike took a little longer. Alix loved the feeling like being on a roller coaster while riding and would often close her eyes to appreciate it—a hazard for herself and those around her. The complexity of needing to simultaneously brake, balance, pedal and remain aware of her surroundings meant she needed something simple to start with. Sarah and Brett tried to find a run bike (a bike designed for running without the need to balance and pedal) for an 8-year-old, but they didn’t exist. Instead, they just removed the crankarms from a regular kid’s bike, which allowed Alix to find her stability and awareness safely.
Alix is now pedaling, starting to climb and descend a little more, and is learning about feathering her brakes from her dad—a man who built his mountain bike career partially on his willingness to forgo the use of his own. One of her biggest joys, something she never says no to, is riding with him.
“There is no ego or competitiveness in her motives,” Brett says. “It is simply the pure enjoyment of the sensation of movement, the wind in her face, seeing new places, spending time with me and the potential discovery of new parks and playgrounds to explore.”
Despite their rides not containing the gnarly singletrack Brett usually seeks out, seeing how truly happy their outings make Alix is worth every minute. And, as Sarah points out, while she’s not mountain biking or ripping up the bike park yet, she’s surprised her parents many times before.
Full of anomalies throughout her development—she once sat down at a drum kit at 3 years old, only to display an uncannily soft touch and remarkably intuitive sense of rhythm—Alix’s artistic expression is clearly her strong suit. Given paper and markers from a young age, she spends hours drawing. Both Brett and Sarah have a lineage of artists in their families and Jessamy is also creative, so Alix’s interest didn’t come as a surprise; what did was her precision. At 4 years old, she drew an image of a girl brushing her hair in front of a mirror. In it, she captured the subject’s reflection, the view out the window in addition to accurately representing the angles and scale of the room.
“At the time she wasn’t communicating much with me,” Sarah says, “but she had all of this going on in her mind.”
The bold lines that often anchor Alix’s creations are executed quickly, without hesitation. If a drawing doesn’t exactly match her vision, she will calmly put it aside and start again, sometimes doing 20 versions of the same picture until it’s perfect to her. A typical scene in the Tippie household is Alix sketching in the living room amid thousands of her drawings stacked anywhere they can find order, with recent ones littered across the couch and floor.
Using her favorite colors—pink, purple, yellow and blue—and in her distinct style, Alix renders bright and joyful scenes of people, animals and appliances, such as Victoria the Vacuum, getting up to high jinks.
“Victoria the Vacuum is a purple robot, and she has metal arms, and they change into a vacuum and broom,” Alix says, showing off one of her recent pieces. “I [also] love drawing my horse friend, Pinky.”
Sarah and Brett started an Instagram account (@alixtippieart) in 2020 to showcase Alix’s work.
“I love people looking at my drawings,” Alix says. “It makes me happy.”
Her descriptions of the images in the captions are imaginative and vibrant—“Me, and my horse friend Pinky are best friends, and Victoria Vacuum is busy cleaning the plush wart hogs;” “Wuzzy, Mimi, and Gerald are watching Brenda dance! They think she’s really good!”
Most of Alix’s work features a theme of overwhelming positivity—friends laughing with each other, sharing cookies, looking out for one another or watching movies with a unicorn on a rainy day.
Sarah hesitated to introduce Alix to the iPad for her art, concerned she might hyper-focus on it. Instead, the tool has allowed her to expand her creative expression. Using the app ProCreate, she now adds patterns, textures and graphics to her art and has even begun making stop-motion cartoons, all self-directed. Alix shows no sign of slowing down her creative output, proving digital to be a good choice, as the family was running out of places to store her extensive pen-and-paper portfolio.
Like any mother, Sarah worried about how others would treat Alix. But after experiencing a few instances of staring and finger pointing in public, Sarah realized it bothered her more than Alix. Since Alix does not pick up on social signals the way a typical kid might, the judgment and negativity of others don’t seem to affect her.
Sarah has worked diligently to make herself available and approachable to parents of neurotypical kids, welcoming them to start conversations or ask questions about Alix. Neurodiverse children enjoy playing with friends just like other kids, but can struggle when it comes to introducing themselves to new social circles. Alix still has challenges communicating, but other kids tend to welcome her for the most part when given the opportunity. Sarah believes this is an area in which parents can play a more significant role by extending invitations and creating inclusive environments for Alix and other children like her. By sharing openly, she hopes others won’t feel hesitant to ask Alix over to play.
The modern world currently serves a particular type of thinker, often favoring people who excel in organization and meticulous information retention over those who demonstrate raw creative talent, and it can be challenging for someone to navigate society who learns and processes things differently.
“They used to say that neurodiverse people have invisible disabilities, but it’s not a disability,” Sarah says. “She’s a happy, healthy little girl who is neuroatypical.”
Sarah hopes society will continue to adjust and offer Alix kindness, understanding and acceptance.
“I won’t lie; she’s still sometimes a bit of mystery to me but surprises me almost every day,” Sarah says. “We are all a little different and thank goodness for that. This world would be boring otherwise.”
Alix develops at her own speed, just like everyone else. Brett and Sarah continue to try new experiences and activities with her. When something doesn’t work, they will try it another time, another year, or not at all, always focusing on their mantra of “whatever works.” Their youngest may not carry on the family tradition of excelling in competitive mountain biking, skiing and snowboarding, but she already shares her family’s love of being outside, even if that means closing her eyes and simply relishing the wind on her face.