An Autism Diagnosis Did Not Stop Us From Enjoying Family Vacations

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An Autism Diagnosis Did Not Stop Us From Enjoying Family Vacations

Nicole Thibault

We’re a family with special needs. We have three boys, and one has autism. With his diagnosis comes sensory issues, food aversions, and a lot of anxiety. He used to have meltdowns, but as he’s gotten older, he’s grown out of them.

Just after we received our son’s autism diagnosis, I began going to mommy-and-me autism groups. The mothers of older kids who were on the spectrum taught me so much about parenting a child with autism. They had “been there, done that” and were able to pass on so many critical nuggets of information — which dentist works best with kids with autism, where to go for sibling support, what places around town had great recreational opportunities for families with children on the spectrum.

One of the important questions I had for the other parents at these meetups was “How do you travel with children with autism?” This question weighed heavily on me because I was an avid traveler and couldn’t imagine trying to take my 2 1/2-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.” Their reasons were varied. For many, the car rides or flights were too difficult for their children to handle. There was the common worry over whether a destination would have necessary accommodations. And of course, dealing with their child’s behaviors, including meltdowns, in unfamiliar public places was just too overwhelming.

After our son’s diagnosis and a year of therapies, we decided to attempt another family vacation. Our pre-diagnosis vacation when he was 2 years old had gone horribly, with meltdowns, crying, and sensory overload, so we were taking a chance with another vacation. Family travel is very important to us, though, and we knew the only way our son would develop more comfort with traveling was to actually, you know, go somewhere.

On our first post-diagnosis vacation, we chose a low-key trip to 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 these targeted interests would help make our time in the Magic Kingdom fun and engaging.

While we had some hiccups along the way, we survived. Our vacation was not without autism-related meltdowns, but it went more smoothly than our previous vacation. And we learned so much about the accommodations at Disney parks and resorts that made things just a little easier for our son and other kids on the spectrum.

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. 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: exploring caves 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 for us, we will always push our son to the edges of his comfort zone. We don’t want to upset him and go beyond his limits, but we firmly believe that the only way he will grow and learn is through exposure to new activities, experiences, and cultures.

Our family’s vacations have allowed us to share unique experiences with our 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 vacations might not look like anything you’ll see in a typical travel guide, we are still in a constant state of planning our next adventure. Now, where shall we go next?