I love to travel, but going to the grocery store is a challenge when my son Liam, who has autism, is having a bad day. Going anywhere beyond a short jaunt seemed impossible—until I met Stacey-jean and Brent Inion.
The intrepid "world schoolers" are currently traveling from Pennsylvania to Argentina in an RV with their nine children, which includes five biological and four adopted from around the world. Each adopted child, and one biological, also have a range of special needs (including autism, cerebral palsy, down syndrome, and quadriplegia).
The Inions make travel look easy, so I reached out Stacey-jean for her advice on traveling with kids who have special needs. Here's what Stacey-jean had to say about some of the joys and challenges of her family's journey.
What are some tips you have for traveling with kids who have special needs?
1- Put in a little practice, which will go a long way. Two years ago we were trying to help Joshua, our son with CP and autism, to learn transitioning between walking surfaces. In our case, it was going from snow to the sidewalk. After working through a couple meltdowns (no pun Intended), he seemed to be getting it. Finally, Joshua was going from grass to gravel to ancient marble with no transitional problem. The walking surface practice was paying off!
2- Think outside the box for the equipment you need. From wheelchair parts to oxygen monitors to therapeutic toys, we have been pleasantly surprised with how special needs-savvy the developing world has become. Of course, you may need to go to larger cities for some of these resources. Because of the health insurance situation in the US and Canada, citizens of these countries may find equipment to cost less than its equivalent back home.
3- Don't be afraid to ask for personal service. In the "two-thirds world" and developing nations, an orientation to service is woven into the fabric of culture. For example, in the absence of a wheelchair ramp, Belizean hotel workers gladly carried our paraplegic son down four flights of stairs to an iguana exhibit.
4- Turn traveling into life lessons. Travel allows our children to gain a global education that cannot be gained in any other way. Traveling together builds relationships and a family bond through triumph and trial. Travel breaks through our naivety and challenges our worldviews. We are intentional about seizing every possible opportunity to help our children become global citizens, teaching them to learn from and respect our planet Earth. We hope they will respect and value all people groups and realize that we all have something to learn and we all have something to give.
What's the most challenging situation you've faced so far in your travels, especially with the kids who have special needs?
Watching our 6-month-old son (with Down Syndrome) go through heart surgery in Mexico certainly ranks in the "challenging" category. Even then, the compassionate care, the unhurried attentiveness, and the life-affirming service that we experienced further affirmed our decision to have his surgery outside the country.
Share one of the most joyful travel experiences you've had (that could apply to all the kids).
When we were in Mexico, all of the children had the opportunity to release sea turtle hatchlings. Holding the live creatures evoked smiles and squeals, especially in our four special-needs children. It was an amazing moment, watching the hatchlings instinctively head toward the ocean and get swept out at the next wave.
What has the reaction from strangers been like? Do they help, ask questions, stare, etc.?
All of the above! We expect the stares...our crew of nine children is fair game for that reaction. Returning it with a smile is usually disarming enough. As mentioned above, the "two-thirds" world is very quick to help those who have obvious accessibility issues.
In some cultures, special needs children are kept from the public eye. In these places, having our children in public is a highly unusual situation. It opens the opportunity for dialogue. Some even break into tears, give gifts, or speak to us candidly about their own (hidden) special needs child/sibling.
Where else are you planning to go and how will your children's abilities and limitations affect your travels?
Four of our nine children are our adopted treasures, each one labeled with a profound special need. We looked into the eyes of our quadriplegic son and realized that the day would come when he would be too heavy to backpack up pyramids and over mountains. We looked at our children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, and autism and we realized that sensory appreciation could be felt on the back of a horse, smelled in the cool water of the sea, and heard in the guttural screams of the howler monkeys. Varying their tastes of foods and other cultural experiences would provide a depth of therapy that a sterile classroom could never provide.
Instead of allowing labels to put our children in a box, we decided to break free of the system and give them the world. We realize that our time to do this is limited. There will come a day when a travel lifestyle will not be possible for some of our children. For now, they are thriving in the warm sunshine, excellent medical care, and a Latin American culture known for embracing children.
Stacey-jean's got much more practical advice, wisdom, and inspirational stories from her family's trip to share on her website, traveldeepandwide.com, but I'm feeling braver already.
How about you?
Jamie Pacton lives near Lake Michigan where she drinks loads of coffee, dreams of sailing, and enjoys each day with her husband and two sons, Liam (6) and Eliot (4). Her writing has appeared in the Autism and Asperger's Digest (2011-2013), Parents, and the book collection Monday Coffee and Other Stories of Parenting Kids with Special Needs. Find her at www.jamiepacton.com, Facebook (Jamie Pacton), and Twitter (@jamiepacton