As our tour guide, Tomas, said, "And now we will descend into the underground cave system, so please turn on your headlamps as we explore the Rio Secreto," my mind raced with anxiety and trepidation. Our family vacations can be amazing and fun, but also challenging at times, because our son has Autism.
Before we started the tour, I pulled Tomas aside and mentioned my son's diagnosis. I wanted Tomas to be prepared if my husband and I had to take some extra time with my son, and talk him through his anxiety. Tomas was completely understanding, and said he would work with us to make sure everyone has an amazing experience.
So as we headed into the underground caves, into complete darkness, my mind was going over all of the possible scenarios in which my son's Autism could impact our excursion. Would he have anxiety about being in an enclosed space? Anxiety about being in darkness? Would the water temperatures of the Secret River be too cold for him?
Luck was on our side for the Rio Secreto excursion! The only issue my son had was when Tomas asked us all to turn off our headlamps and experience complete and total darkness. I was worried complete darkness would make him extremely anxious, but since we were all holding hands, he did just fine!
The Rio Secreto excursion in Mexico was just a part of our family's newest vacation adventure -- Cruising! My husband and I decided that our kids had reached a point in maturity to take a cruise vacation, and I was very excited about the Royal Caribbean International's Autism-Friendly sailings. Royal Caribbean International has been certified by the Autism on the Seas Foundation as the first Autism-Friendly Cruise Line.
When our family was prepping for our upcoming cruise, I knew there would be areas of concern due to my son's diagnosis. Because of his sensitivity to loud noises, I knew that the Muster Drill's loud alarm would upset him. I was worried about his food aversions, and that we wouldn't be able to find enough of the five foods that he does eat on the ship. I knew that the Adventure Ocean staff (the kid's club) have been trained in Autism-awareness, but I wasn't sure how my son would do in this new environment.
As a family, I did a lot of preparation with all of my kids before the cruise. We researched our cruise route and itinerary (from Tampa to Mexico and back again), we looked up past menus online, and watched YouTube videos about muster drills and found photos of stateroom cabins on Google. We felt very prepared before boarding the ship.
Our preparation paid off, and we had little difficulty with the majority of our experiences on the cruise. We got lucky with checking in at the port; we were able to use the disabled line to check in and we did not have to wait in the longer standard line.
Our first challenge was during the ship's Muster Drill, just as I has suspected. While my son did not have a full-on meltdown, he did cover his ears and show visible signs of distress.
Meals were incredibly easy with the help of our amazing wait staff. They tried their best to accommodate any food requests we had, and their kid meals had plenty of choices. The dining room was a little crowded, but we were able to put our sons near the window where they had a little more room for comfort.
Since we were doing so well on our cruise, our family decided to tempt fate and try the ship's Japanese restaurant, Izumi. Because my son won't eat rice, or noodles, or vegetables, we needed to make sure there would be something on the menu he would eat. I spoke with the manager of the restaurant before making a reservation, and she assured us that they could provide steak, which is one of the foods my son will eat. It was such a fun experience; we chose foods that we could cook on hot stones! After a short discussion about safety and not touching the hot stones, our family was able to try their hands (and safety tongs!) at cooking their own meals at the table.
My son also experienced a few bouts of anxiety while on the ship. None of the incidents were insurmountable, but did require some intervention on our parts. One incident occurred on the cruise ship's rock wall; my son was so excited to give the rock wall a try and ran to the equipment desk to get suited up. After he had all of the safety equipment on, the staff attached him to the guide ropes and let his start climbing. Half-way up the rock wall, my son panicked; he wouldn't/couldn't go up or down, and was just stuck. I don't think we (parents or staff) properly prepared him for the fact that when you want to come down, you just let go of the wall and the pulley system gently brings you back down again. He was frozen on the wall, and no amount of encouraging support could get him to let go of the wall. In the end, the Royal Caribbean staff was able to climb up beside him and help him let go of the wall (thank goodness, or we might still be on that wall!)
The Adventure Ocean kid's club was a great success for all of my boys. The Adventure Ocean staff was amazing! When we first arrive on the ship, I filled out a form to inform the staff about my son's diagnosis. They were very inclusive and worked hard to include all of my boys in the staff-run games and activities. I felt very confident and safe with the sign-in/sign-out procedures, knowing that the kids would not be able to be checked out of the kids's club until we returned and provided identification.
Our Royal Caribbean cruise was a huge success for our family. Doing something new can be a challenge for any family, but especially for a family with a child with Autism. Stepping out of our comfort zones, seeing new places and trying new things can be difficult for our family, but with each success, the kids become more confident and independent travelers. Despite his Autism, my son is becoming a little world traveler, he's learning and growing, and we as a family are building memories that will last a lifetime.
Nicole Thibault is the owner of Magical Storybook Travels, a travel agency that specializes in Family Travel and Travel for Families with Special Needs.