AUTISM AND TRAVELING: CAN IT WORK?
People ask my parents frequently how hard it is to travel with an autistic child. The strange surroundings, new environments and rapid impulses: what effect does it have on a child who normally doesn’t respond that well to sudden changes?
It is hard to speak for all autistic children and families. Every child and every situation is different and requires its own approach.
What worked in my favor is that my parents were fanatic travelers before I was part of their life and they started traveling with me when I was only 4 months old. Back then I was colic, a bad sleeper and feeding me was a huge challenge. However; my parents didn’t for a second relate this to autism and they lived with the idea that I was just one of those babies that cries a lot and keeps you up all night. You know, the stereotypical baby they show in movies and cartoons.
When I was two years old -the time my parents were confronted with me being autistic- I had already visited more than 10 countries, including Canada, the USA, Maldives, Spain and the Cape Verde Islands. Stepping into an airplane and sleeping in a new hotelroom every night had become as normal to me as spending time at home.
Still; there were many things my parents did to keep me relaxed and at ease which -in retrospect- was them dealing with autism long before they knew I was autistic.
About to go on my first flight (to Rhodes, Greece, October 2014): my parents had little idea what was in store for them...
The first flight I was on wasn't very nice. Out of the four hours flying, I was crying and being fussy at least half that time. Mommy and daddy felt agitated by all the stares, whispers and judgemental looks of other passengers who were obviously annoyed by 'that fricking baby on board.' I puked mid flight leaving daddy with an embarrassingly smelly and stained T-shirt until he had time to change on the ground. Yep, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever to attempt such an undertaking ever again. It was a disaster of epic proportions.
Minutes before the return flight to Amsterdam would take off: "Please behave Finn, please. We'll buy you anything you want. Anything."
But you see this is why I love my mommy and daddy so much: a few months later they -against all odds- put me back in an airplane. Yep. Packed with spare clothes, new toys to distract me and a little more of an 'don't care anymore what other people think'-attitude.
This is what I need. If mommy and daddy would avoid situations and places where I initially go all wacko, then I would have to spend most of my time at home and my world would get smaller and smaller each day. The first time in the grocery store I cried the whole time. The first time my grandmother babysitted I was fussy non-stop. The first time they took me to the swimming pool I threw a complete tantrum.
Yeah, I'm not doing so well with first times.
Mommy and daddy dared to travel with me on a plane again. And guess what: the second time went a whole lot better! Of course I had my moments, but with each flight things started to become familiar to me. Nowadays, after more than 20 flights -including demanding (even for non-autistic persons) 10+ hour flights-, I kind off know what to expect. My parents make sure I am able to peek outside. Taking off and landing has thus become something fascinating and fun to me. While in mid air, I usually take a nap which brings relief to mommy and daddy (and the other passengers). They bring new toys for me and my iPad is always nearby. At times I just want to walk around and explore the aircraft and so far the staff has allowed me to wander off and do my thing.
I think I got the hang off this flying thing.
Making friends during flight (to Mauritius, April 2016).
HOTELS AND ACCOMODATION
One of the more common ideas about autistic people is that we react extremely badly to changes. While this is true to a certain extent -also for me- it is possible to make the unfamiliar somehow familiar and to soften the effect of change so to speak. The first thing my mommy and daddy do with me while entering a new hotelroom, guesthouse or cabin is make me jump on bed, something I highly enjoy (who doesn't?). Then they give me toys I know from home and -yes, yes- my iPad. When that doesn't work, my mom and dad switch on a portable DVD player and play my favorite movies from home (which always include either Dora The Explorer or Peppa Pig).Those elements (bed jumping, toys, iPad and DVD's) have proven to be the key to make me so adaptable to constant changing places to sleep. They make me feel at home even if 'home' changes from time to time.
Me settling down at a completely new place, picture taken a few minutes after we arrived (Graskop, South Africa, Summer 2016).
A hard thing for me has always been eating. Strange texture of food has led me puking and a complete refusal to eat, something that worries my parents, especially when being abroad. To be on the safe side, my parents pack the food I like and on long, 5+ weeks trips this means they bring over 30 kg (!) of my favorite jars of baby food (I'm still stuck on smooth, easy to swallow mixtures of vegetables, meat and rice or potatoes prepared for 6 months olds). Besides this, I eat about two type of chips, certain cereals and fruit smoothies. Oh yeah, and I love chicken nuggets and french fries, but these are pretty hard to bring along (thankfully there is a MacDonalds about everywhere we go). My mommy and daddy find it important that I eat good and packing requires a lot of preparation.
Packing for a long Summer trip to Southern Africa.
When we travel we do things. My mom and dad bought an Osprey child carrier and I LOVE THAT THING! I can literally sit in it for hours and just enjoy the ride. I always have the best seat available and people are in awe every time to see it being used. I've had my picture taken many times by complete strangers, as if I were a celebrity!
The child carrier has enabled my parents to continue doing the things they love to do while traveling: hiking, climbing, exploring great cities or just taking a stroll along the coastline. I get to be part of the adventure.
Pictures taken in Canada (Summer 2015).
Mommy and daddy know I find the greatest joy being in the water. I love pools and especially the ocean. What they do is make sure that -depending where we are- I get to spend time at the beach or in the pool every day. I have my own float which is awesome. It allows mommy and daddy to go snorkeling and while they see beautiful corals, tropical fishes and sea turtles below, I get to enjoy the soothing rocking of the waves. Now, how cool is that?
Pictures taken in Maldives (February 2016) and Cuba (October 2016).
So traveling with an autistic child can certainly work. But what works for me may not work so well for another. We realise that.
The central idea of the article is actually not about taking your autistic child to the other side of the world and make it work. It's about taking him or her to the grocery store or the local playground, even after they went completely beserk there the first time.
It's about expanding their world and your own hometown can be a pretty gigantic place for them.
Too many autistic children spend too much time at home, because we had such bad experiences with them outside their comfort zones. We think avoiding the impulses is better for them.
What my parents learned by traveling is that -although it is a challenge- we can adapt. We can surprise you and do things you wouldn't initially think possible.
Don't give up on us and thanks for trying.