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Why I do what I do, or How I became an Autism Travel Specialist

Nicole Thibault

People are often surprised when they ask what I do.  “You’re a Certified Autism Travel Professional? How did you get into that?”

The simple answer is easy to explain: I’m a Travel Agent. I have a son with Autism. I started a travel agency that helps other families with Autism travel easier and with less stress.

But the actual story about how I became a travel agent that specializes in Autism Travel is a longer tale - one that starts on what I now lovingly-refer to as “D-Day” or Diagnosis Day.

Diagnosis Day kicked off a flurry of events - meeting new therapists and teachers, a rotation of home-therapy sessions for 20-hours per week, Doctor appointments, and more.

To be truthful, it was extremely overwhelming. I often felt like I was struggling to just keep my head above water. Friends and family could see how I was having a hard time coming to terms with our new reality and felt like I was losing myself in the process. People would tell me things like “You have to take care of yourself to take care of your boys,” or “Be sure to take some ‘Me Time’ for yourself.”

But how to do that when the only thing I wanted to do was to spend every waking moment getting my son the help he needed to connect with our family, to speak with us, and to learn how to play with his brothers?

I thought my “Me Time” could start small. I was always an avid reader, but had no time for novels anymore. So perhaps a magazine article or two while my son napped or was in a therapy session; I could manage a magazine article, at least. But I wasn’t drawn to fashion magazines or celebrity news - I loved travel magazines.

I soon found out that you could request travel brochures from far-away destinations online. I began requesting brochures from Caribbean destinations, from South America, Europe, Australia, and Asia. I asked beautiful resorts to send me their colorful, photo-filled brochures to my house, and these became my solace. My calm place when I had a few minutes of “Me Time.”

My husband and I were always avid travelers and thought that we would have children and just take them with us everywhere. Hop on a plane with a few kids in tow and explore the world. It saddened me when we realized that this dream may not be possible with an Autism diagnosis; our son struggled with new places, new sights and sounds, and new people. How could he deal with travel?

So I went to these destinations in my mind. For my few minutes of “Me Time,” I could transport myself into the beautiful photos of gorgeous resorts, intense sunsets, sandy beaches, and glorious sunshine. It became my relaxation and stress-reliever.

Over time, with maturity and years of therapy, my son learned to cope with new situations. We slowly began to travel, taking small trips at first. Then an airplane ride, and then a full-blown family vacation. We learned how to research accommodations at each resort, theme park, excursion and activity - to make sure that we had everything we needed to be successful and have a fun family vacation.

While we might not have visited most of the exotic destinations from my brochures as a family, we are starting to branch out. We cruised to Mexico last year. We tried an excursion to Rio Secreto to explore the underground cave systems. And we’re planning a trip to Turks and Caicos later this year. All trips we thought would not be possible 10 years ago.

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And now I share my passion for travel, my experience and knowledge with other families with Autism.  Becoming a Certified Autism Travel Professional has become a natural progression for me, and I love connecting with other Autism Moms and Dads who need guidance about how to navigate their family vacations.

Hangry Children on Vacation: How to Deal with Food Aversion on Your Family Vacation

Nicole Thibault

For most, vacations can be a Foodie's dream.  Getting to try new cuisines and tasty treats from other parts of the world. Adults and children alike love to sample new dishes and delight in experimenting with new flavors that are not readily available at your own dining room table.

That is unless you have a child with Food Aversions.

(I know that adults and children with food allergies also face uphill battles when it comes to finding safe foods, but this article addresses something completely different.)

What is a Food Aversion?

Many kids struggle with Food Aversion, but it's very common in children with Special Needs, like Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. Because of their heightened sense of smell and taste, the child will self-limit their food choices. It's not just being a Picky Eater; having Food Aversion takes picky eating to a whole new level.

And no, this is not a case of "When the child gets hungry enough, he/she will eat it." I speak from experience  when I say that kids with Food Aversions would rather starve themselves than eat something that is not in their familiar repertoire of foods.

I once tried to go gluten-free with my son with Autism. Because the bread smelled different, the chicken nuggets had a different texture, he lost 5 pounds in a week. He was so hangry, his behaviors became unbearable and we had to abandon the gluten-free diet all together.

So how does a parent deal with extreme Food Aversion when on a family vacation? Other than just staying home and never traveling, or packing familiar foods in a cooler for the entirety of the trip, here are a few suggestions for those families with children with Food Aversions:

  1. Do have familiar foods on hand while you're on vacation. Whether you stuff your child's favorite fruit snack in your luggage between your socks and shirts, or whether you have a grocery delivery service bring fresh foods and/or you have Amazon deliver a box full of your child's favorite dry goods to your resort room, be sure to have at least a few "sure thing" foods available.
  2. Find a resort with a kitchen. Many parent struggle with this; they don't want to be a slave to cooking and cleaning while on vacation, but they also don't want behavior meltdowns because their child is literally starving. Perhaps a combination of dining in and eating out is the answer. One meal can be a constant dining-in situation, with your child's favorite waffles or chicken nuggets from the grocery delivery service, but you can attempt other meals out at your destination's many restaurants.
  3. Choose a meal for your restaurant outing where you'll have the most luck. Dinners in a restaurants can bring lots of different smells that may offend the noses of your Food Aversion kid, like garlic, seafood, spices and more. But breakfast often smells like donuts, pancakes and all sorts of yummy foods, and you might have better luck getting your child with Food Aversion to tolerate the restaurant and find something on the menu to try.
  4. Research, research, research. Whether you use a Special Needs Travel Agent, or you do your own research, be sure to check out the menus of possible restaurants ahead of time. You can view most restaurant menus online, and compile a list of acceptable restaurants where you KNOW your child will eat SOMETHING from the menu.

Is this going to solve all of your child's Food Aversion problems while on your family vacation? Probably not all of them, no. There will always be food issues for those children with extreme Food Aversions. On a trip many years ago, I had done all of my research ahead of time, and knew that a restaurant served Grilled Cheese sandwiches, an accepted food choice for my son. But when it came, OH NO, it came on focaccia bread! With spices on top of the bread! This resulted in an hour-long stand-off about eating it, to which I finally decided that this was not the way I wanted to spend my vacation, battling wills over a grilled cheese, and we walked out and continued on our day.

But making sure your child has a full belly while on vacation is one good way to head off the dreaded vacation meltdown. The fun and memories made should take priority, not dealing with a hangry child!

 


Nicole Thibault is the owner of Magical Storybook Travels, a travel agency that specializes in Family Travel and Travel for Families with Special Needs. She's also the owner of Spectrum Travel Social Story Videos, a production company that creates travel social story videos for children with Autism, anxiety, and other Special Needs.

It's Not a Family Vacation Until Someone Goes to Urgent Care

Nicole Thibault

We have a saying in our family, "It's not a Family Vacation, until someone goes to Urgent Care."

With three boys, I'm sure lots of Moms can relate. While we haven't had any broken bones, we've had our share of scrapes and bruises. And we've been oh so lucky enough to have some of these happen while on vacation.

 Waiting to be called at Urgent Care while on vacation in Florida

Waiting to be called at Urgent Care while on vacation in Florida

Being in the pool 24/7 on vacation has caused more than one ear infection. On one particular trip, we were fortunate enough to score a DOUBLE ear infection the day before we were to fly home, making the flight a joy.

But our best vacation injury happened at Walt Disney World.

 Being checked out by an EMT at Walt Disney World's Fort Wilderness Resort

Being checked out by an EMT at Walt Disney World's Fort Wilderness Resort

We decided to call it a day after a tiring day at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Some "down time" was needed, having pushed the kids to their limits. We decided on going back to our resort, and exploring the activities on site, and just relaxing.

Our resort, Disney's Fort Wilderness, has horse-drawn carriage rides, and that seemed like heaven after a day on our feet. We hired the carriage, but was asked to wait 25 minutes until the next one was available.

No problem. The kids were running around, looking for those little lizards that you see all over Florida. The lizards were darting in and out of the bushes and the kids were counting, seeing how many they could find.

That's when my littlest ran his hands along the log fence and got the largest, longest, deepest sliver I've ever seen. I think guests within a 5-mile radius heard his screams; it shattered car windows. O.k. maybe not, but it certain drew the attention of everyone around us.

The son with the sliver has Sensory Processing Disorder, and was also very young at the time. I knew he would have trouble being poked and prodded, but we had to try and get the sliver out. I asked a Cast Member for a First Aid kit, thinking perhaps they had tweezers in them. But nope. No tweezers. I'd even try some tape, to try and McGuyver the situation, sticking the tape to the sliver and pulling it out that way. No tape either.

They did call us an ambulance, though. FOR A SLIVER.

During all of this, the horse-drawn carriage begins to circle around. We've paid for the ride, and my other two sons are anxious to go. My oldest son has anxiety-issues and starts repeating "The carriage is coming back! We're going to miss it!" over and over again. Like a whole "Five minutes to Wapner" situation.

My husband's eyes meet mine, as he's holding our screaming boy. The evening has turned into an absurd series of events. We know at some point in the future, we WILL laugh about all of this, but in the moment, no one is laughing. He nods, and takes our youngest boy with the sliver to meet up with the ambulance. I take the other two boys and hop on the carriage. As we ride away, I snap the photo above of him holding out littlest while the EMT checking him out.

And did the ambulance have a pair of tweezers? NO. But you better bet that I carry some in our Vacation First Aid kit now!

Now whenever we head out on a Family Vacation, we google the 3 nearest Urgent Care locations, just so we are prepared. You never know what will happen!

 


Nicole Thibault is the owner of Magical Storybook Travels, a travel agency that specializes in Family Travel and Travel for Families with Special Needs. She's also the owner of Spectrum Travel Social Story Videos, a production company that creates travel social story videos for children with Autism, anxiety, and other Special Needs.