We're a family with Special Needs; we have three boys, and one has Autism. With his diagnosis comes sensory issues, food aversions and lot of anxiety. We used to have more behavioral meltdowns, but as he's gotten older, he's grown out of those.
Just after our son's Autism diagnosis, I remember going to Mommy-and-Me Autism groups. I learned so much from the other Moms of older kids on the Spectrum. They had "been there, done that," and were able to pass on so many crucial nuggets of information - which dentist works best with kids with Autism, where to go for sibling support, what places around town have great recreational opportunities for families with children on the Spectrum.
One of the important questions I had for the other parents at these meet-ups was, "How do you travel with children with Autism?" I asked the other Moms in the group, because I was/am an avid traveler, and I couldn't imagine trying to take my two-and-a-half year old son on a vacation. His meltdown and sensory issues seemed insurmountable.
In response to my question about travel, most parents with kids on the Autism Spectrum said, "Well, we just don't travel. We don't go on vacations."
The parents cited that the car rides or flights were too difficult for their children to handle, they weren't sure about destination's accommodations for their children, and dealing with their child's behaviors in public, in an unfamiliar destination, seemed too overwhelming.
After our son's diagnosis and about a year of therapies, we decided to try a family vacation again. Our pre-diagnosis vacation (at age 2) had gone horribly, with meltdowns, crying, and sensory overload, so we were taking a chance on trying another family vacation.
But family travel is very important to us, and thought that the only way for our son with Autism to get better at travel was to actually, you know, GO SOMEWHERE.
On our first post-diagnosis vacation, we chose a low-key trip to Walt Disney World. I know what you're thinking, an oxymoron, right? But my sons were obsessed with Cars and Toy Story at the time, and thought having such targeted interests would make our time in the Magic Kingdom fun and engaging.
And while we had some hiccups along the way, we survived. Our vacation was not without Autism-related meltdowns, but it went smoother that the previous vacation. And we learned so much about accommodations within the Disney Parks and the resorts that made things just a little easier for our son.
Perhaps our vacation wasn't exactly like everyone else's vacation, but it worked for us. And you know what? We planned another family vacation, and another, and another.
It's been years since that first post-diagnosis family vacation, and we just got back from our first cruise to Mexico with our boys. On this past vacation, yes, we did have some Autism-related issues (as we always will), but we also had amazing family adventures: caving at Rio Secreto in Cancun, rock climbing on the cruise ship, days at the beach, and petting penguins in Orlando, Florida.
Because family travel is such a huge priority to us, we will always push the envelope of our son's comfort zones. We don't want to upset him and push him beyond his limits, but firmly believe that the only way he will grow and learn is to continually expose him to new things, new experiences and new cultures.
Our family's travels have allowed us to share unique experiences with the boys, creating memories that will last a lifetime. We've become stronger as a family because of our shared travels, and despite our challenges with Autism, we're all learning and growing together.
And while our family's travels might not look exactly like everyone else's vacations, we are still in a constant state of planning our next family's adventures. Where shall we go next?
Nicole Thibault is a Mom of three boys, one diagnosed with Autism. She's also the owner of Magical Storybook Travels, a travel agency that specializes in Family Travel and Travel for Families with Special Needs, and also owner of Spectrum Travel Social Story Videos, which makes travel videos for children with Autism, anxiety, and other disabilities.