Why Vacations and Time Spent With Family is So Important for Families of Children with Autism

I was dreading it like a root canal. Our upcoming trip from Orlando to California to visit family meant we faced two three-plus-hour flights, a three-hour time zone difference, staying in an unfamiliar location, eating unfamiliar food, and being around unfamiliar people. Each alone could disrupt routines that my nearly four-year-old son with autism and ADHD thrives on.

Routine disruptions can cause severe side effects such as meltdowns, aggressive behavior, and sleeping and eating issues. In addition, I am hypersensitive to him disturbing other people, such as on airplanes. The second he kicks the seat in front of him or gets loud, I feel my cheeks burning, my heart racing, and my anxiety skyrockets. 

I had a thousand concerns about our upcoming family trip. What if we get kicked off the airplane? What if he has a hard time adjusting to the new time zone? What if he doesn’t play well with his cousins? What if our family thinks we are bad parents? What if, what if, what if.

As it turns out, a lot of what I feared did happen. The flights were pretty rough. Fortunately, the lady in front of my son on the first flight was very understanding. I tapped her on the shoulder before take-off and told her my son had autism and ADHD and may kick her seat but that I’d do everything in my power to stop it. She was a very kind pediatric nurse and said it’s no big deal. My son was in his car seat, so his legs were at the perfect angle to kick her seat, and he did, pretty much the entire flight. Despite my attempt at distractions, despite my attempt at holding his feet, he kicked away. 

On the second leg, we opted to check the car seat, and that helped a lot! He didn’t kick the seat in front of him nearly as much, but he did find other ways to get people’s attention. He was watching How to Train Your Dragon on the iPad, and every time the dragon roared, my son roared louder. Our family received glares from several other passengers. No one said anything, but I felt their annoyance.

Once we got to our resort, he was exhausted. Because, of course, he didn’t nap one millisecond on the plane. He immediately laid down and passed out on the floor. I transitioned him to his pack and play, and my husband and I started unpacking. It was then I discovered one of his daily medications had burst and leaked out completely, AND I forgot one of his daily supplements. The next day I’d have to deal with that aggravation. 

I felt defeated. I told my husband I am never doing this again. It wasn’t fair to our son, and it wasn’t fair to me. It wasn’t fair to the passengers on the plane who had to deal with him kicking their seats and screaming. We hadn’t spent one day on our trip before I’d called it quits on any more upcoming trips. But the next day, to my surprise, wonderful things started happening!

In the morning, my son woke up super happy. Throughout the day, he had a blast at the resort pool and rec room. Once our family arrived at the resort the next day, things got even better. He was so excited to see his older cousins, grandparents, aunt, and uncle, and they were excited to see him. 

My sister-in-law had asked me before the trip what to tell her children about their cousin’s autism. I so appreciated that. I could tell the boys understood their cousin had some differences, but it didn’t deter them in the least from wanting to engage with him. They’d all play together, and when my son drifted off into his own world, they just watched with such a keen interest. His play was intriguing to them. They gave him his space when he needed it and engaged with him when he allowed it.

Also, all of the adults made me feel at ease. Even when my son did something atypical, they offered to help. They understood. They were warm and caring. The entire week wasn’t easy. There were meltdowns. There were aggressions. There were some challenges for sure, but it was not much different from when we are at home except that our loving family surrounded us this time. They were getting a chance to catch an authentic glimpse at our son’s challenges as well as the things that make him unique.

When it was time to leave, I was pretty emotional. I had worked up in my head how difficult this trip could be, and it was the exact opposite. I think for my nephews, they got a first-hand experience of being around a child with autism. I think they’ll be great in dealing with peers with differences. My in-laws got to experience the highs and the lows of our autism parenting journey, and it was met with no judgment, just acceptance and compassion. My son got to spend time with family. People who unconditionally love him for exactly who he is.

The two flights home went remarkably well! He slept for nearly the entire first leg, and the second he quietly watched a movie. That was great because it helped to end the week on a high note. He transitioned back to Eastern time in one night and went back to ABA therapy happily the very next day.

I learned a lot during this trip. For one, I am guilty of creating a lot of thought distortions in my mind that simply aren’t true. My son has autism. Me worrying about what COULD go wrong isn’t going to change what could go wrong. Me worrying about the fear of judgment isn’t going to create judgment. The only thing I CAN do is plan and prepare, and I did that. My overwhelming desire to protect him and protect myself shouldn’t deny us both the potential for wonderful experiences.

I am so glad we went on this trip. I am not saying I am ready to jump back on a plane, but I shouldn’t keep my son from family and adventure because of my irrational fears. I know many parents who have special needs children are guilty of the same type of isolation I often create. Yes, it’s easier to keep my son home in his own environment that I can control, but that’s not healthy for anyone. We all need a variety of exposure and experiences to thrive.

Despite the hurdles that parenting a child with autism involves, I urge you to get out of your comfort zone. Take your kids on adventures. Make memories. Yes, it will come with challenges. But it’s still worth it!

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone. – Neale Donald Walsh

Published by

Amy Nielsen

Amy Nielsen is a former children's librarian of nearly twenty years. She now spends most of her time obsessively pounding on a keyboard. She is the author of It Takes a Village: How to Build a Support System for Your Exceptional Needs Family, Goldilocks and the Three Bears: Understanding Autism Spectrum Disorder. Her upcoming YA Worth it debuts in May of 2024. She is also a freelance writer for The Autism Helper. When she's not writing, she and her family are most likely crusing the waters of Tampa Bay.