Published in The Globe and Mail, August 16, 2016
Travelling with my autistic son is both fantastic and formidable
I knew we were in trouble when a group descending the rain-forest trail we were struggling up were wearing helmets.
“It’s really steep and there are loose, falling rocks,” the guide explained, noting our bare heads.
Oops. We’d also forgotten to bring any snacks except for a half-eaten bag of tortilla chips, or an extra litre of water in what felt as though 40-degree heat. Our family jungle trek at Mayflower Bocawina National Park in Belize was threatening to turn into a major parenting fail.
Complicating matters further was our eight-year-old son, Bennett, who was stumbling behind us on this Central American version of boot camp. Many boys would find such an extreme adventure thrilling, but Bennett has autism and strongly dislikes outings that are beyond his comfort zone.
Instead of caving in to common sense and turning back, however, we carried onward and upward, sweating buckets in nature’s steam room. Bennett seemed game enough at the start – he likes traditional hiking and was motivated by the reward at the top of the trail: a swimming hole fed by Antelope Falls, one of several waterfalls protected by the park.
But travelling with an autistic child is challenging, and there have been moments on past vacations when everything has gone off the rails. We’ve endured a two-hour tantrum while trapped on a flight back from Mexico. He has bolted out of public spaces – the Arizona Science Centre in Phoenix, and the Garvan Woodlands Gardens in Hot Springs, Ark. – after seeing or hearing something that frightened him. And at Disneyland, Bennett was terrified to go on any rides after his Fantasyland initiation on the Matterhorn Bobsleds.
True, other families suffer through meltdowns, illnesses and phobias while on holiday. But while those instances are usually one-offs, ours aren’t, and we try to learn from these holiday mishaps. It would certainly be easier to stay at home, but since three out of four in our family thrive off seeing new places, we make it work for Bennett.
We prepare him for each trip by creating a “social story,” which is a picture book that includes images of where we’re going, staying and what we’ll be doing. We stick to Bennett’s gluten-free, dairy-free diet by renting vacation properties with kitchens, and by bringing staples from home. He loves swimming, animals and being active, so in recent years we’ve visited San Diego, Costa Rica and Belize.
In fact, some of our fondest travel memories are from watching Bennett try something new – horseback riding at a dude ranch near Tucson, or body surfing in Costa Rica. Travel, in many ways, opens up Bennett’s often small, always scheduled, world, and frees us all from the rigidity of his autism.
So when we found ourselves helmet-less and snack-less on the gruelling uphill slog to Antelope Falls in Belize, we decided to just go with it. If all went well, we could add “two-hour, Indiana Jones-style jungle trek” into the travel memory bank.
We soon left behind the relative ease of stair climbing and began to scramble up networks of tree roots and jagged limestone outcrops, with the aid of a series of knotted ropes. My husband hoisted Bennett up the gnarly sections, and doled out patient, detailed instructions (“Okay, Bennett, now hold the rope with your hand and put your foot here,”) and enthusiastic encouragement (“Great hiking, buddy!”). Our son didn’t complain or ask for a snack during the entire trek. Our daughter forged ahead of our trio the whole way, hiking with family friends.
I, on the other hand, was the one who would have benefited from a social story that showed a successful outcome to our family’s craziest adventure yet. I was stressed out about rock slides, heat exhaustion and the possibility of an autistic tantrum. Once the danger passed, though, it was easy to enjoy the reward – I don’t know who got into the swimming hole faster: me, or Bennett.
Shortly after we reached the waterfall, one of our friends said, “I’m amazed at all the things you guys do with Bennett.”
Looking back, I’m pretty amazed, too. Travel with a child on the autism spectrum is both fantastic and formidable, and I know we’ll continue to challenge the limits of Bennett’s autism, one trip at a time.