Planning autism-friendly holidays where I actually get to kick back and recharge!

Ok, so since we started travelling as a family, we have only attempted sightseeing holidays that involve being on the move constantly.  This has largely been built around Touristo because as long as we are doing something novel and are in a constant state of motion, he is the easiest kid on the planet.  I haven’t even vaguely considered a beach holiday because “oh my goodness Fiji is just one giant body of un-fenced water” which makes me immeasurably anxious and would involve being more hyper-vigilant than I am at home. Additionally, the idea of him going to a resort kids’ club or having a nanny watch over him has also filled me with fear – he just hasn’t been ready and how can Touristo access kids’ clubs whilst still ensuring he has someone to keep a close eye on him due to his tendency to bolt?

We have now gotten to a point though where my husband and I haven’t been on a date by ourselves in nearly 6 years (seriously) and whilst I feel we still have a great relationship, we need to take some time (at least whilst we are on holidays) to check in and reconnect.  I also feel like we need a little time when we are not in a state of hyper-vigilance, ensuring Touristo’s personal safety 24/7 as it is exhausting.  So I have declared 2018 as the year of holidays that include some down time for mum and dad, with one week-long break mid-year and one week at the end of the year.

Now I should clarify that I LOVE travelling with Touristo and the Princess.  I love experiencing new and exciting things through their lens.  It is nothing short of magical.  I have read articles written by various members of the ‘Perfect Parent Brigade’ that like to trot out the same old message of “why did you even have kids if you just want to dump them in kids’ club / with a nanny whilst you are on holidays?  Don’t you want to spend every glorious waking moment with them?”  Well that’s nice….. I still want to spend the bulk of our time on holidays as a family unit, but no, I don’t think there is anything wrong with my husband and I having an hour or two each afternoon of a holiday to just be alone by ourselves, talk, reconnect and relax……maybe even go to a fancy restaurant and slowly savour our food.

But the question still remained, how on earth am I going to make this relaxing happen?  Touristo is going to be six years old soon and still has considerably high needs.  I would not feel comfortable leaving him in a kids’ club without a set of eyes that are just on him.  Also, where can we go that our family feels welcomed and not a nuisance?  In Australia, I feel that oftentimes (not everywhere) the customer service level is quite low in comparison to other parts of the world, and disability access/accommodations can be either non-existent or you are made feel like you are making people go out of their way (this kind of ties in with the below average customer service)…… So further afield we go…

Well the first holiday turned out to be an easy pick.  I love cruises because everything is prepaid, I don’t need to plan where to eat and what to do.  There is a schedule and routine for every day (that I don’t have to organise), and there is a pool, cocktails and tons of entertainment.  All of these things make me really happy……but can a cruise accommodate Touristo now that I am looking for some downtime and not wanting to chase him around the boat every minute of the day (which I did do when he was 2.5 years old)? Also, can we go on a giant boat bobbing in the water when I am very anxious about Touristo’s personal safety?

In a previous post, I have mentioned Royal Caribbean’s ‘Autism Friendly’ initiative. Due to this commitment to inclusion, this was obviously my first stop – but which cruise?  Whilst my biggest fascination is aviation, I would have to say a close second is my obsession with mega liners.  I love following innovations in this area and delight in every new advancement, so my pick of course was ‘Ovation of the Seas’ (www.ovationoftheseas.com.au).  It is a brand new boat, looks amazing and what really sold me were the bumper cars and circus school at sea.  Another bonus of this ship is that there are a multitude of really innovative ways that you can connect staterooms which is very friendly for families travelling together. The balcony still concerns me though, so I have looked into some additional child proofing measures I can take with me, and to counter the worst case scenario – I have picked a room on deck 6 where the balcony is one floor above a deck and not over the sea.  If you are planning on being this overly specific about a room on any cruise line in school holidays, you want to book as far out as possible, especially if you want to book affordable interconnecting cabins as these go FAST.

Now for the relaxing bit!  Royal Caribbean offers flexible age grouping for their kids club for those with a developmental delay.  For us, this means that both children will be able to go to the same program and the actual space used for this in the ship is very well contained and looks quite secure.  Because Touristo has a very long history of absconding, I have also asked if it is possible to hire a babysitter on board to attend with them to provide additional support, just to make sure he doesn’t escape.  They also offer in-room babysitting when staff are available, so my husband and I might be able to enjoy a leisurely dinner here and there.  It’s more than a year away, but I cannot wait to go and to report back in.

So that is settled.  Next – somewhere to go in the middle of the year…. We wanted somewhere that is not a huge flight (under 9 hours – trust me, that’s not a huge flight for Australians), offers cheap flights, a bit resort-ish but also somewhere that still has a ton of stuff to do should our little monsters get sick of pools and beaches.  So I think we have settled on Singapore (because of Universal Studios on Sentosa Island, and also Lego Land being an hour and  half away).  I haven’t gotten to the point of booking this yet (so I will outline the master plan in a future post), but I have started making inquiries at resorts regarding the accommodations we would need in relation to Touristo’s care for a few hours here and there.   I have been absolutely overwhelmed by the responses which typically outline that they are inclusive of all children, very welcoming and don’t make me feel like a nuisance for making extra requests.  So for now I am really optimistic and hope that this can but put into practice when we are there.  Crossing my fingers in advance!

So look out world in 2018, Touristo and family are coming!

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Why I consider travel to be such a massive priority, particularly with an autistic child on board.

So today I am going to deviate from what has been a bit more of an instructional format and get a bit more personal, but that said, I hope you guys out there in the interwebz are able to take something from it.

It’s interesting…… when I tell people about my family’s upcoming trip (which is a month visiting Seoul, then travelling from Sapporo, down to Hiroshima) the reaction is always either “wow, that sounds awesome” or “oh my gosh you are a crazy person!” The latter is normally from people who know Touristo is autistic, and also know that generally speaking, autistic people feel most comfortable when supported by routine, structure and sameness. Travelling throughout various cities in East Asia for a month is pretty much the antithesis of the comfortable familiarity of life in suburban Sydney, so I understand why people think I am nuts.

So why do it? – A bit of backstory

Before Touristo was born, I had been working for various corporates in Sydney’s CBD for about 12 years. My husband and I had not travelled much in our time together as we were too busy just doing the grind. After Touristo was born, I could feel the four walls at home closing in on me. It was me and a newborn at home every day, and Touristo was not a particularly easy newborn. Touristo was at his absolute best when we were out and about with him in his wrap carrier, experiencing different sights and sounds whilst being calmed by the pressure of the wrap carrier and the gentle rocking. At this time, I really started questioning the grind with no breaks for my husband or I, and so little opportunity for my husband to spend really good chunks of time to bond with Touristo. So all of these factors combined (and cheap flights to Asia from Australia) made me book our first overseas holiday, and when Touristo was just under 6 months old we went on our first trip to Japan together for just under two weeks.

During this trip, Touristo thrived and it gave my husband 2 weeks where he was able to intensely bond with his son, probably more than the whole of the six months prior (and he is a great, hands on dad). This bonding time as a new family was beyond invaluable, so we have travelled most years since, doing more trips to Japan and also exploring China, Hong Kong, and Korea. We find Asia to be a great destination for us because it is not a super long haul trip and we are able to remain in relatively the same time zone whilst experiencing cultures that are quite different to our own. As the kids get older and they can better cope with longer flights and time zone changes, we aim to travel to Europe, the Americas and Africa.

So why do I think travel in general is important for all kids?

– I think travel with your family, whether it’s a camping trip 2 hours down the road, or travelling halfway around the world, offers families the chance to bond in a way that is not achievable by any other means. As kids, we generally did two holidays a year. One I loved, and one I did not love….which was camping (camping presents certain sensory issues for autistic people – and if I haven’t mentioned it before, I am autistic too). But even the experiences I did not love at the time, gave us the chance to bond as a family unit and also suppled a lot of memories that we still talk about today, 30 years down the track.

– I also think that family travel offers learning opportunities that cannot be replicated by any other means.

……however, I think there are even greater benefits when you have a member/s of the family who is/are autistic, which are:

– Those real life learning opportunities are bigger and greater for autistic people, especially when looking at adaptive skills
– No matter how hard you try (and believe me I have tried), the real world cannot be entirely routine and familiar all the time. Travelling from a young age that includes really motivating activities, is a nice way of getting you/your child out of their comfort zone for a bit
– The opportunity for family bonding is even more crucial with a child on the spectrum, because you leverage off that connection to develop other skills. Anecdotally, my son has always made his biggest leaps during times when the four of us (we now have ‘the Princess’ as well as ‘Touristo’) have been trapped in tiny hotel rooms (or cruise ship cabins) for weeks on end.
– There is more opportunity for Touristo to observe a variety of social interactions during travel, whereas at home we are restricted to the same interactions week in, week out.
– There is more opportunity to experience new sights, sounds, foods, language and activities, which encourages flexibility. Touristo now seems particularly interested in listening to me speak Japanese, and last trip tuned in to the point where he repeated a couple of phrases (when he was speaking very, very infrequently at home), probably because it was novel.

I could probably carry on with this list for the better part of a day and is certainly not an exhaustive rationale as to why I think travel is so important, but it’s a good introduction. I will also add, that no it is not always easy…….there are sometimes very fraught moments, but really good planning (see some of my earlier tips for more info) can go a long way and the amazing experiences in my opinion, far outweigh the difficult bits.

I hope I have encouraged someone out there to give it a go and would love to hear some of your family’s travel experiences via Facebook (link to the right).