Traveling with children who have autism is a wonderful experience but often requires detailed vacation planning. From transportation to food to lodging, parents of children with autism analyze every aspect of the vacation to minimize change and keep our kids comfortable. While this can be time consuming, it is worth the extra effort so everyone has a good time.
Many of our children with autism like “sameness” (e.g. same bed, same food, same TV shows, etc.). When routines are the same, life is good for our kids. When something changes or is missing entirely from the routine, as often happens on vacation, the result can be a meltdown. So we plan carefully and with earnest thought. But as I learned recently, some things, often the best things, are not planned at all.
We have traveled before with our son, Tyler, who has Asperger’s, but last summer we decided to think big and took the kids to Jamaica. From the moment we arrived, I knew my son would need to make some adjustments. The first issue was the bugs and his corresponding bug phobia. It was July; the bugs were in full force - flying bugs, hopping bugs, biting bugs. Tyler had been asking about the bugs well before we got to Jamaica. And like any parent, I reassured him it would be fine. Round-the-clock bug spray saved the day. He felt safe, and our little bug crisis was averted.
Tyler's second issue was food. My son is the epitome of a picky eater. We have learned to work around it at home, but this can be a challenge in a foreign country. Most parents of kids with autism can relate to how important favorite foods are to our kids. In our case, it can make or break a vacation. So we were lucky the hotel made “Jamaican” pizza. You could almost see the relief in Tyler’s eyes as they brought out the pizza to him!
Similar to many teenage boys, we knew Tyler's last and most important agenda item would be access to the TV, computer and video games. Almost immediately, Tyler went into his room to check out the TV and set up his PlayStation. Soon, Tyler was cool in the pool, very happy with the food, WiFi, video games and cable TV. And when Tyler is happy, I am happy.
About midweek, we took our newly bought snorkeling equipment to the hotel pool. Tyler is a good swimmer, but he was not sure how to use the snorkel to breathe underwater. Without hesitation, he immediately geared up and jumped into the pool. After repeated unsuccessful attempts to snorkel, the hotel lifeguard came over to talk with him.
Not knowing Tyler's diagnosis, the lifeguard began to teach Tyler how to breathe slowly through the snorkel. He was very patient with Tyler, repeating instructions as needed. Tyler was fighting the urge to suck water into the snorkel instead of floating on top and breathing air slowly. But the lifeguard persevered. At the end of the lesson, he told Tyler he would meet him at the pool the next day and take Tyler out to the ocean to snorkel.
The next day we arrived at the pool; Tyler was ready to go! The lifeguard brought him a new snorkel and mask that better fit his face. They practiced in the pool while I snorkeled on the side, trying to breathe slowly like he taught us. After about thirty minutes, the guard said Tyler was ready for the ocean, so off we went.
My heart was pounding as we approached the beach. Being a great fan of the TV show “Shark Week,” I was nervous about snorkeling in the ocean. Even though Tyler isn't big on shark shows, he repeatedly asked the lifeguard about sharks. The lifeguard kept telling him, “We aren't talking about sharks. We are practicing snorkeling.” Somehow, his words seemed to calm Tyler's nerves as well as mine.
Tyler swam between the lifeguard and me, clutching each of our hands for dear life. Both Tyler and I were amazed at the world beneath the surface. My breathing slowed as we watched the little fish dance. And within minutes, Tyler let go of my hand. He was off on his own with the lifeguard.
Soon Tyler was snorkeling by himself. Even when it was time to return to the beach, Tyler did not want to stop. In fact, he spent the rest of the day snorkeling by himself in the shallow ocean waters. Watching him snorkel, I felt a sense of pride and amazement. He ventured out into the unknown – and was enjoying it. Tyler later told me he loved snorkeling, and that it was the best part of his vacation. For the rest of our stay, there was Tyler, snorkel and mask in hand, ready to go in the ocean.
So what did snorkeling teach me about autism? It reminded me yet again that there are so many things our kids can do…from karate to playing drums to now snorkeling. Yes, the journey with autism is a long and hard road, but as parents, there are times when we need to stop and acknowledge how great life is at that moment. We learn that a disability is just one part of life. Autism does not define Tyler. Tyler defines how he is going to live his life with the autism.
This experience also reminded me that there are people around us, like the lifeguard, who care about helping others. I am not sure if he knew something was different about Tyler; it didn’t seem to matter if he did. He went out of his way to help a thirteen-year-old boy learn to love snorkeling. That says it all.
In the end, it was a vacation our family will never forget. Tyler showed enormous growth and independence during that short week. From teaching his younger sister to hold her breath under water to learning to snorkel in the Caribbean, Tyler broke through the confines of his autism in little and big ways. Snorkeling taught me to live in the moment and not define the future by what I know now. Yes, our struggle with autism still exists. But the celebrations are ever so sweet when our kids accomplish extraordinary things when we least expect it. There’s so much to see when we look beneath the surface – of the ocean, or autism. A whole new world awaits us!