Words by Nicole Thibault
Travelling with kids can be a challenge. Travelling with a child with autism can go beyond challenging. Some parents actually believe it to be impossible, but it’s my hope to change that belief.
According to autismtravel.com, 87 per cent of families with a family member with autism don’t take family vacations! The good news is that 93 per cent of the families polled said they would be inclined to travel if there were more autism-friendly or even autism-certified destinations available to families.
My son was diagnosed with autism when he was 2.5 years old. For a few years post-diagnosis we didn’t travel much as a family. With his sensory issues, it seemed very daunting. But my husband and I always wanted to make family travel a big priority, so we began to travel again when he was about 5 years old.
At that point we were a family of five with three little boys, and there were certainly times on our travels when things were difficult for my son and travel plans did not go according to our itinerary. In those beginning years of travel, we had to leave more than a few restaurants due to sensory overload of food issues, and needed to escape certain locations due to crowd levels and anxiety. Now my son with autism is 14 years old, and we’ve never stopped travelling.
Our trips have gone from long weekends in a low-sensory destination to week-long cruises, caving expeditions in Mexico, swimming with dolphins and looking for sea turtles while snorkelling in Turks and Caicos.
Whenever we travel to a new destination, our family does a lot of preparation before we even get on a plane. We discuss the destination at length, talking about the accommodations, activities and modes of transportation it will take to get there. We look up images and videos about all of these details so very little will come as a surprise to my son. We are well acquainted with the destination before we even arrive.
We’ve found great success travelling to autism-certified destinations recently. These destinations are certified by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Educational Standards (IBCCES). By working to gain their status as certified autism centres, these destinations have trained their staff in autism awareness and have put many accommodations in place for families with autism, like sensory guides and quiet rooms for guests who need sensory relief.
Our family travelled to Beaches Turks and Caicos Resort last October (the Beaches Resorts actually have advanced certified autism centre status). My boys spent hours at the waterpark, drank as many smoothies as they could at the swim-up bar and spent hours on the white-sand beach. The only issue we had, besides a little travel anxiety, came from my youngest son – he has sensory processing disorder and had difficulty with the volume of the nightly children’s shows. While he wanted to stay and watch the shows, he wasn’t able to stand the volume levels, so we had to find other evening activities. We were sad to say goodbye to the resort and the boys can’t wait to go back!
Another recent successful trip was to Discovery Cove in Orlando, Florida. Discovery Cove, as well as Aquatica and Seaworld Orlando, are all certified autism centres, so I was very confident about taking the boys there. The decision to go to Discovery Cove was a spontaneous one, as we were in town when they announced their certified autism centre status, so we decided to go the next day. We did not prepare for the day as we normally would, so the boys were pleasantly surprised with the quiet tropical surroundings and amazing activities. My middle son loved the aviary and getting to feed the many kinds of birds living there, and my youngest son loved swimming with the fish and rays in the reef.
While my son with autism enjoyed the quiet environment of Discovery Cove, he has anxiety about swimming with fish and sea creatures, so I was unsure how our dolphin swim experience would work for him. However the two dolphin trainers were very accommodating with him, giving him extra time to get used to being in the water with the dolphin and talking him through the procedures of touching and petting it. He was hesitant, even resistant about swimming with the dolphin, but with patience and kindness from the trainers, he was able to swim out into the pool, hold on to the dolphin’s fin and ultimately swim with her.
The photo of me and the boys at Discovery Cove is one that I will always cherish. My son with autism overcame his anxiety to participate in such a fun activity with his brothers and ended up having a wonderful time. His comfort zone grew larger that day, and he now knows he can continue to try new things and grow from our travel experiences.
This story first appeared in Travel Without Limits magazine. To subscribe to the magazine, click here.