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The Great American Family Vacation

August 8, 2020

It’s the month before school lets out, and summer vacation is around the corner. Now, let’s be honest about family vacations: they’re fun, but stressful. And perhaps a wee bit more work with younger children and those with disabilities.

The Great American Family Vacation

To me, vacation is just a change of location without most of the stuff you need. My son, Pootie, has very severe autism, a severe intellectual disability, and is also non-verbal. He is the light of our lives but taking him on the road can be a challenge.

This article is in no way implying that every person with autism has these experiences; but anyone with children (on the spectrum or not) will relate to the classic Family-Vacation Nightmare! Here’s a salute to the best and worst trips…and a bit of advice for planning your next one.

Ahhhh…the stress kicks in before you’ve even left the house, as you drive away from your dead-bolted fridge, trampoline, indoor swings, tricked-out alarm system, and a sensory-friendly, therapy-oriented, yet cozy environment.

The back of the car is crammed with a load of lame substitutes…mini-trampolines, a hammock (and you pray you’ll find two trees close together), a hotel-style door-wedge alarm (and you pray your kid doesn’t jump out a window), a deflated exercise ball, a white-noise maker, all of your child’s familiar bedding, your PECS book, and Christmas twinkle lights. Then you cross your fingers that some little cousin might take an interest in helping you keep an eye on your child since the school teacher is in another state.

Don’t get me wrong…we’ve had some great family trips, but my family vacations tend to require about a good week’s worth of recovery, i.e., laying on the sofa, mouth-breathing, and flipping TV channels because you can’t even muster the energy to move your eyeballs to read a book.

Perhaps our most memorable trip was to Rosemary Beach. A friend let us use his beautiful house for free. And what would be idyllic for most—French doors with a view to a well-manicured yard and huge pool—was my personal nightmare.

For my son, a pool view means never-ending attempts to break out of the house. And a manicured yard ain’t gonna stay manicured for long with Pootie around. He loves to stim on pine straw and is something of an herbivore—eating all vegetation in sight be it leaves, monkey-grass…whatever.

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The very first morning, I heard Pootie awake at 4:00 AM, thrown off his schedule from being in a new place. He was running around the house screaming, laughing, and trying to open the back doors to get in the pool. When the sun finally came up, I let him go swimming.

We were leisurely enjoying our coffee and praying the neighbors wouldn’t wake up, when we noticed poop at the bottom of the pool. I freaked out and immediately called the maintenance man to have him come shock the pool. We tried to coax Pootie out with some Pringles, which resulted in the entire can of chips falling in with him.

When the maintenance guy showed up, there were Pringles floating on top of the entire pool, with a bowel movement in the deep-end. He assessed the damages and said, “I’ve been cleaning pools for a long time, and this here is what I call a situation.” Two days later, he was back. And the fourth day, too. (Pootie had a bad habit of taking off his swim diaper.)

Shocking the pool means no swimming for at least five hours, so I was forced to leave the house, knowing Pootie would have a tantrum if he could no longer swim. Weary from driving around in circles without a playground in site, I finally let him get back in the pool about an hour too soon, which made his navy swimming trunks bleach out and turn white. I was scared that I had chlorine-poisoned the child.

The following day, we went to the ocean. Pootie was getting older and stronger, and was obsessed with going under the water. We suddenly realized that at this point in life, ocean-play was no longer in the cards for this chap. He loved it, but was quite happy to be carried out to sea and never return.

Quaint little beach towns like Rosemary have all the things adults like—and just a token $12-a-scoop ice cream shop for the kids. Asking Pootie to sit in a nice restaurant and wait for an hour is not at the top of my list (or his). Suddenly, I was longing for McDonald’s and Chuck E. Cheese. This trip was cut short by a few days.

The better trip choice for my children was Disney World. I personally hate theme parks…hot asphalt, crowds, sweat, long lines, funnel cakes, and rides that make me puke. It’s just not my thing. Nor was it my husband’s. We’re the types who enjoy climate control and walking around without strangers dressed in weird duck, mouse, and chipmunk suits accosting you. But…you can get a room without a pool view, kids can scream to the top of their lungs and no one cares, there’s fast-food everywhere, and there are splash-pads and rides that meet sensory needs.

Plus, this place includes a free pass to jump all lines! It typically takes about five days to cover the whole park, but with that pass, we knocked it out in about four hours.

While all the common folks are standing in lines for hours, you’re entering through the exits like movie stars. I felt like I was in a mafia movie when we went to meet Donald Duck. A guide took us through the exit door of a random building. We then passed through some kitchen, walked down a hall, opened another door, and were suddenly on a stage with Donald Duck, overlooking a sea of fans. Pootie dropped to the floor and started swimming around, stimming. Donald immediately did the same. It was the cutest thing I’d ever seen. The only hiccup was when Pootie suddenly tried to jump out of the gondola on the “It’s a Small World” ride. That took a couple of years off my life.

When it’s all said and done, a little googling goes a long way toward planning a trip that suits your family’s needs. Here’s a few trip ideas and tips tailored to autism families:

  • Legoland (Florida location only) has partnered with Autism Speaks to become entirely autism-friendly, with all staff members trained in awareness.
  • Many places in Colorado (such as Copper Mountain Resort in Breckenridge) have adaptive ski lessons and specialized equipment.
  • Royal Caribbean is the first autism-friendly cruise line complete with certified and trained autism awareness crew.
  • Disney, SeaWorld, Dollywood, Hersheypark, and Sesame Place (the world’s first theme park to be a certified autism center) all offer free front of the line passes.
  • For the international traveler, “A Million Senses” designs autism-friendly holiday experiences in Greece. They also arrange twice-daily activities led by both speech and occupational therapists for the children to give parents some individual time.

Additional tips:

  • Airlines such as Delta now offer a “rehearsal program” (called “Wings for All”) for children with autism.
  • Many Wyndham Hotels make special accommodations for guests with special needs. Book hotel rooms with a kitchen if your child is on a special diet.
  • Invest in a GPS tracker bracelet or a Medic-Alert bracelet with your contact info when going to crowded theme parks.
  • Have your doctor write a Rx for a handicapped parking pass (very helpful for theme parks with long walks).
  • Use life jackets in the ocean, even if your child is a decent swimmer.
  • Never assume someone else is watching your child just because there are many people around. Always designate a 1:1.

This article was featured in Issue 101 – Balancing The Autism Journey

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