by Sarah Friedman
One of the many things an ordinary family often give up as the result of having a child with autism, and one of the many life differences between an individual with autism and one who is not, is the ability to travel. In fact, it is an extra in life, a pleasure not often given to those who have been deemed unable to appreciate it by regular standards or too difficult to accommodate. And yet this belies the notion that not only is accommodation possible, but travel itself can be beneficial to everyone, not just those who are not on the spectrum.
I worked with a family that had 3-year-old twin boys with autism. I remember their mother planning a summer trip to Florida and the extra stress of making sure that each stop along the way could accommodate her situation. I was no longer working with them anymore by the time they went on their trip, but I imagine for her it was hardly a vacation at all. I also imagine that as the boys get bigger, trips like that will become significantly harder to manage and after a point they probably won’t happen at all. Traveling with an individual with autism can be very stressful and proposes different issues, depending on the severity of the symptoms. From simply keeping track of where someone is in a new and different physical environment, to dealing with behaviors related to the change in routine or location, to making sure that unknown or undesirable people don’t get too close. The world is not always the wonderful place we would like it to be and not everyone can be trusted. Keeping a certain level of security is important for those who can’t as well discriminate between good people and bad.
No long ago there were not as many programs related to helping special needs populations get out there and travel, but now more and more are sprouting up for this purpose. Autism is no longer a shady beast lurking in the shadows. It might not be well understood, the cause disputed, and the different treatments debatable in their effectiveness, but it’s definitely here and very visible. With more and more children being diagnosed each year, the idea of keeping this growing population in the loop of normal life and experience has led several organizations to start programs to assist families members, or individuals on their own, with a diagnosis of autism to be able to travel abroad.
For example, Alumni Cruise’s ‘Autism on the Seas’ (http://www.alumnicruises.org/Autism/Autism_Home.htm), a division of the cruise line devoted to providing cruises for people with special needs like autism, complete with special diets, staff and doctors experienced with the disorder, and programs designed to help with the transition onto the boat. They provide a PECS system to help non-verbal guests, access to private, less crowded decks and dining areas, and even access to the excursion specialist to help determine which excursions should be taken. The cruise line works with groups and families prior to setting sail to make sure that any extra needs can be met. All of this to allow families a chance to actually relax in an environment away from home that is safe and accommodating to their very specific needs and behaviors.
Recently, Taglit-Birthright (http://www.birthrightisrael.com), the program that pays for Jewish young adults to visit Israel for 10 days free, has started allowing people with special needs including autism onto tours. For Birthright, different organizations plan the trips separately and several different ones have started initiatives to bring the special needs population on board. The Jewish Child Care Association of New York planned an all autistic tour for 12 college age men and women in the tri state area. Mayanot, a Jerusalem Yeshiva, designs trips specifically for people with developmental disorders which include doctors, nurses and therapists on every tour bus and one staff member per every three participants. The National Jewish Council for the Disabled also provides trips for people with all disabilities and an experienced staff to work with them. It is a strong belief by these organizations, and others, that having disabilities should not limit a person from being able to participate.
For higher functioning individuals there is Mobility International USA (http://www.miusa.org), an organization that puts together short term international exchange programs for people with disabilities of all kinds including people on the autism spectrum. Their programs are educational and aim to bolster a sense of growth whether the participant is involved in an academic program, learning a new language, or volunteering. They coordinate exchanges all over the world that can be tailored to the specific needs of the participants, and they supply prep materials for all trips to help people deal with their various disabilities in foreign locations.
Frontier Travel Camp (http://www.frontiertravelcamp.com) provides tours through the US (including Alaska and Hawaii) and Canada for high functioning special needs teens and young adults that include hiking, rafting, and exploration. The Guided Tour (http://www.guidedtour.com/) does much the same planning national and international excursions for unaccompanied adults with developmental or physical disabilities. Both organizations put together adventures meant to increase feelings of independence and social growth while maintaining a safe environment and assisting with everything from medication taking to appropriating and using money to assisting with medical and behavioral needs.
Anyone interested in the programs mentioned above should feel encouraged to research them further. Unfortunately, not everyone with autism will be able to travel, whether due to expense, severity of behaviors or otherwise. But hopefully in the future availability of such programs will be increased to more people. For now, it’s simply nice to know that more than ever is being done to include the developmentally disabled in the wonderful world of travel.