Traveling With An Autistic Toddler

michael-helping-us-pack
Traveling with a child that has autism can be challenging but there are ways to make it easier – and it is all worth it for the amazing things they can discover

I know what everyone with an autistic toddler thought when they saw the title of this article. They thought, well this is going to be a short read! A blank page maybe? Or a description of how awful and difficult traveling with an autistic child of any age can be. How it’s so much easier not to even leave the house?

Last year when we took Michael (who was just under two at the time) on a cruise to Tasmania, I thought it was going to be a nightmare. I was really just trying it because I am a person that tries things. Plus we had free babysitting (family coming with us on the cruise) so I thought we might have a couple of hours per day of peace and relaxation.

And let me tell you I was wrong! IT WAS AWESOME!!

I should make something clear at this point. This post is not sponsored. No one is paying me to write this. (Maybe if I mention PRINCESS CRUISES enough they’ll give me a discount on my next trip? PRINCESS CRUISES. Or I’ll take ROYAL CARIBBEAN or CARNIVAL. Oh and I can’t forget P&O). I am at this moment making last minute preparations for our next cruise to New Zealand where we are cruising with PRINCESS CRUISES. We are looking forward to it so much that I didn’t even mind the hours of my life I wasted trying to take a photo of Michael. (Taking a photo of an autistic toddler that meets all the passport photo requirements is like trying to catch a sunbeam with a colander).

Someone else cooked for us – any amount of courses we wanted, with a menu that changed every day (PRINCESS CRUISES). Someone else cleaned for us. Other people made our bed not once but twice a day. We saw many new and beautiful things every day and we didn’t even have to leave our room to do it!

did I mention how good the food is?
did I mention how good the food was?

Entertainment

They kept all the kids entertained. Michael wasn’t old enough for the kids clubs but loved exploring the pools, the corridors and the gangways (the big walkways all around the ship). The chef custom made all his meals the entire trip. My other kid Brad (also known as my husband) enjoyed the table tennis opportunities and the cocktails.

enjoying a cocktail and a show, almost like a normal person
enjoying a cocktail and a show, almost like a normal person

I loved the fact that other people were doing all my jobs for me. No cooking, no cleaning, no laundry for 8 days! (thank you PRINCESS CRUISES). The cocktails were divine. And I loved that every day we were in a new place, and we could get on or off any time. We could get off, explore the botanical gardens in Hobart, and be back in time for Michael’s nap (hello, free room service!). We could hand Michael over to family in the evening and go enjoy the trivia (I totally nailed the Broadway Musicals and ABBA lyrics ones) or get off and explore evening Melbourne.

More cocktails but this time in Melborne
More cocktails but this time in Melbourne

The shows were fun and only lasted 45 minutes, which is about as long as I can go without needing a nap. The restaurants were great and it only took us five minutes to catch the lift back to our room when it was our bedtime (for me, that’s usually about 9:30 but I stretched it out to 10:15 for a special occasion).

And best of all – at night the ship would travel between ports, which meant that it swayed from side to side on the waves, which also meant that Michael slept LIKE A ROCK! It was SO GOOD!

Michael did not enjoy the need for a collared shirt on formal night.
Michael did not enjoy the need for a collared shirt on formal night.

Why Traveling is Necessary for the Soul

Trips are awesome. They make you remember the beauty of life. Every-day life, especially with a toddler, can be full of mundane, boring, repetitive things. And I think if that’s all you see, you begin to focus too much on the detail and forget the big picture. I know we didn’t go to Europe to see the Parthenon, and we didn’t make it to Japan or New York. We probably won’t for a while. But there are so many beautiful sights to see right here near us. Seeing them through Michael’s eyes just makes them that much more special. He deserves to see the world outside his immediate home. And we deserve to remember that we are human beings with a love of beauty – and nice food.

Hobart Botanical Gardens - one of my favourite places on earth
Hobart Botanical Gardens – one of my favourite places on earth

When we boarded the ship and went to our room his eyes just lit up at the view of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge off our balcony. He ran up and down that balcony for the next eight days with so much pure JOY! He loved all the new sights, the feel of the ocean air, the salt (he licked our balcony railing so much we just ended up washing it every day) and the new people. I don’t think I’ve ever been as happy as he was at the feel of the ocean breeze in his face. If it all got too much for him, it was very quick and easy to take him back to the room, where he could relax and recuperate.

Michael loved the balcony
Michael loved the balcony

There is Something For Everyone

Everyone went out of their way to look after him. He can be very vocal, but he had breakfast, lunch and dinner at all the restaurants (with the help of our trusty iPad) and he was just fine. Did we get some funny looks? Sure. But we get those at home at the playground, we may as well be eating lobster while it’s happening.

Michael loved the pools
Michael loved the pools

My husband and I are very different travellers. We discovered that on our honeymoon. I always wanted to get up and go see everything that day, and he just wanted to find a nice café and stay there for as long as possible. On the cruise, we could do both. We could sit at the foodcourt and have a five star view of Port Arthur or Melbourne. We could relax on the balcony with a glass of champagne while Michael napped in his room – and look out at Wineglass Bay. I never got bored and he never got anxious or tired. (Which one haven’t I mentioned for a while? Oh yes. CARNIVAL)

Scenic cruising around Tasmania - wine glass in hand, baby asleep
Scenic cruising around Tasmania – wine glass in hand, baby asleep

Or we could get off, when we had the energy and the weather was just right for Michael, go for a walk along the harbour or catch a taxi to where we want to go.

Port of Hobart - another beautiful view without leaving our balcony
Port of Hobart – another beautiful view without leaving our balcony

Cruising makes it really easy to travel with other people. You get to places at the same time, but you are not tied together. They can get off the boat any time and come back, and then look after the little one in the evening. Or not. There’s kid’s clubs for over 3 year olds and there’s nannies. It is a parents’ paradise. Did I mention the cocktails?

Going for a walk through Hobart Botanical Gardens
Going for a walk through Hobart Botanical Gardens

Royal Caribbean and Autism Friendly Cruising

At this point I have to put in a special word about Royal Caribbean. I have never had the good fortune of travelling with them myself (hint hint guys!). I’m very impressed however that they were the first cruise line to get an ‘Autism Friendly’ certificate. All their Youth staff have been trained on autism awareness and they have many special programs in place, such as:

  • priority check in and departure
  • all special diets catered to
  • grouping children by ability rather than age in their Adventure Ocean program
  • pagers/phones provided for parents of kids in the Adventure Ocean program
  • a free Autism Channel
  • autism friendly films
  • an autism friendly toy lending program
  • a cruising Social Story that can be printed before boarding

To find out more about Royal Caribbean autism friendly features, have a look at their website.

So if you do feel that traveling is impossible for you, maybe because your child is very sensitive and can’t face a long flight, consider cruising.

Or maybe like me you’re worried that your little one won’t have anything to eat – just think of the special breakfasts, lunches and dinners that were prepared for my son.

Think of the room that you can always come back to and the room service you can order. A lot of cruise lines offer ‘taster cruises’. These go for only a few days, so you can test if it will be something for you.

And just go for it, because sometimes you need to do that to remind yourself you’re still alive.

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