Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Our First Family Vacation

Our seemingly endless winter has us thinking about vacations. Spring Break is not too far off and, hopefully, summer will eventually arrive as well.

Vacations are supposed to be fun and relaxing, a getaway from all the stress of daily life. But, going on vacation with a child with autism can be even more stressful.

Until last year, other than trips to visit family, my wife and I had not taken a real vacation with our son.

When Kai was younger, especially, it felt risky being in public with him for long stretches. We may not have known when or where something would happen to set him off, but we felt it was just a matter of time.

Often, his fuse would be lit by having to wait. And on vacations, there are plenty of occasions that require a lot of waiting: Waiting in the security lines at airports; waiting for food to be served at restaurants; waiting to get on rides at an amusement park.

By early last year though, he had made progress in a lot of areas. He was able to wait longer. He did not get upset as often.

And so, last spring, with his grandparents wanting to take him to Disney World, we decided to go.

The short version of the story is that we had a great time. Kai enjoyed the 3D movies the most, but he enjoyed all of the rides he went on as well. But, being Kai, he also had as much fun riding the elevators and counting the floors in our hotel, and studying the maps of all of the different theme parks that we went to.

We tried to prepare for the trip as best we could. Here are some of the things that may have helped things go relatively smoothly:
  • Create daily schedules: Kai likes to know what is planned so he can organize the day in his head. So, my wife created a schedule for each day’s activities. We were able to set expectations and prepare him for what was coming.
  • Get the special needs’ pass: Disney makes accommodations for those with special needs that minimizes the time waiting in lines for attractions. Without the special pass, there is no way we would have even considered going to such a popular place. It is unfortunate that this benefit remains unique among major family vacation destinations.
  • Avoid overload: Our typical day involved going to one of the parks right after breakfast, but coming back to our hotel room for lunch. Then, we would play in the hotel pool and relax in the room before heading back out to a park later in the afternoon. We pretty much saw every attraction we wanted to (thanks to the pass), and felt far less stressed than we would have if we have tried to stay out at the parks all day long.
  • Minimize time in restaurants: We were able to stay in a suite that had a full kitchen and eating area so that we could eat all of our meals there instead of in restaurants. No restaurants meant no waiting for a table, no waiting for food, and no resultant meltdowns.
  • Ship the things you need: Kai takes a lot of supplements and is on a gluten-free casein-free diet. Rather than carrying his supplements with us in our luggage and spending time trying to find stores that carry special foods down there, we shipped almost everything we needed to the hotel ahead of time. With airlines charging for every piece of luggage these days, we may have even saved money by doing it this way.
  • Stay nearby: We stayed at a hotel that was near the Magic Kingdom, and a monorail ride away from Epcot. Doing so reduced the time waiting for buses and traveling to the parks. We also were able to see the nightly fireworks from our room on the nights we decided not to stay to see them in the park.
  • Go with grandparents: As my wife’s parents live on the other side of the globe, we don’t get to see them too often. So, it is always a special time when we get together. Getting to share the experience of their grandson’s first trip to Disney World was an exceptional treat. And, it never hurts to have an extra caregiver or two around on a trip like this.

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the impression that everything went perfectly. There was one incident where Kai got very upset while we were at the Magic Kingdom. It started when he may have gotten something in his eye. When we couldn’t get him settled down quickly, we decided to go back to our hotel room. I may still have a scar from where Kai was biting my arm while I held him as we rode the train that goes around the park back to the entrance. But, once we returned to the haven of our room, he calmed down and was fine.

That aside, the trip was everything that you would want a vacation to Disney World to be. I had heard others describe the wonder in a young child’s face when experiencing it for the first time. It warms my heart that I got to see that same expression on our son’s face, too.

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