Autism brings many challenges for my son Liam, a non-verbal 7-year-old. He struggles to express himself (though he does use RPM). He flits from one activity to the next because of a short attention span. His many sensory issues make ordinary things, like a trip to Target or riding in the car, sources of great stress. Liam thrives in a predictable environment, and although my husband and I take him to the zoo or to museums, we haven't been on vacation in over four years because of the stress inherent in travel. I love to travel—and in the last year, I've met intrepid parents who travel the world with their kids (some of whom have special needs)—but, whenever my husband and I talked about even short weekend trips, we decided upsetting Liam's routine, the car travel involved, and the logistics of staying in a hotel were just not worth it.
Then, my husband got a job in Oregon, over 2000 miles away from our home in Wisconsin. Flying wasn't an option (we needed our car out there), so we did what had to be done: loaded Liam and his younger brother Eliot in the car and hit the road. It took us six days to go through seven states, but along the way we learned a lot about what's possible for our family and for Liam. I want to share some of those insights here, to encourage you all to not let autism or other special needs limit what your family can do or where you can go.
Spending hours in the car together can be a good thing.
I never thought I'd say this, since car trips in our house tend to be punctuated by Liam's screaming, but we enjoyed being in the car together for hours at a time. When I was driving, my husband played games with the kids and told them stories, we all listened to books (love the Magic Tree House series for this age!), lots of silly jokes evolved over the week, and the boys giggled and played together as they sat in their car seats and the miles rolled by. The physical closeness of being stuck in a car together (in the middle of windswept prairie with nary a rest stop in sight), let us bond in ways we've never done before.
It's possible to create familiar environments while on the road.
I really worried about both boys being thrown off from all the transitions involved in this trip, so we tried to create environments that felt like home. When possible, we stayed in hotels like Marriot's Residence Inn, where there are kitchens, separate bedrooms, and space for everyone to stretch out a bit. We went to the grocery store, bought familiar foods, and we ate at the table in the hotel room, like we would at home. We also avoided most tourist activities and opted instead for ordinary places—playgrounds, splash pads, and public parks— to help keep life as normal as possible.
It's possible to keep a child with autism safe while traveling.
Liam's a runner and he likes to wander off, so whether we were at a park or in a hotel, my husband and I were constantly thinking about how to keep him safe. In public settings, one of us always stayed near him, and we opted for family restrooms whenever possible. In our hotel rooms, we set up baby gates to block the door (he discovered how to undo deadbolts and chains in about 5 seconds), we put all the shampoo and soap away the minute we arrived in the hotel (he loves to sort these and then taste them), and we would check to make sure knives and all chemicals were put away. It was a quick-check that evolved into a routine for each hotel, but it meant we ended the trip with no calls to poison control or trips to the ER.
A child with autism benefits from the seeing new places and experiencing new things.
Although Liam doesn't talk, I can tell he soaked in a lot from our trip. As we drove across the Rocky Mountains, he stared out the window, mesmerized by the trees and heights. At a gas station in Montana, he jumped with delight as a train rumbled past. He got to play in the sand by Puget Sound in Seattle, ride luggage carts through hotels, swim in many pools, do laundry with mom in hotels, eat Nutella on a bagel as part of a continental breakfast, and hang out in the gift shop of a renovated Wild West saloon. The trip was full of moments that let him experience the richness and beauty of the world, and that's important for any child's growth.
Challenges existed, but they weren't as many as we thought.
Of course there were tantrums, some pinching and screaming, and sleepless nights (from both kids) on this trip. There were times when we were all cranky, hungry, tired, and ready to get out of the car. A tornado was spotted outside our hotel in Bismarck a few hours after we arrived (so my husband and I packed up necessities and let the kids sleep while we watched the sky). There was whining, a few tears of frustration on my part, and some unexpected scrapes (Liam dove into a hot tub in one of our hotels—ouch!).
But overall, none of this was all that bad. All the problem behaviors we anticipated didn't materialize; we made it through situations we thought would be impossible, and people treated our son with autism with respect and compassion (though occasionally this took an explanation of the different ways his brain works, which I think helps raise autism awareness).
It was beneficial to face our fears.
I see now, on the other side of this epic journey, that we have been ruled by our fear for a long time. It's prevented us from trying new things with our kids, going new places, and having new experiences. This forced road trip made us face our fears and my husband and I are stronger, braver, better parents for it.
We had a lot of fun!
In all these insights, perhaps the most profound one is the simplest: We had fun. Pools, parks, eating ice cream outside, watching the sun rise and set, playing at the beach, getting fresh donuts, seeing horses and buffalo, and so much more made this one of the most fun weeks we've ever had as a family.
On this road-trip-turned-vacation, my husband and I learned we can see the world, and bring both our kids along for the ride. We're already planning our next trip (a short 9-hour jaunt to Redwoods National Park), and rather than worry about all that could go wrong, we're excited about the journey and about the new experiences we'll have with both of our children!
Images provided by Jamie Pacton