Traveling long distances with small children can be rough at times. Occasionally, it can feel down right daunting and exhausting. For those super hero parents who have children with special needs, your vacation turns into a full time job of careful organization for a smooth trip.
Back in May 2017, our son Jase was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and sensory processing disorder. He has many different needs and requirements to remain comfortable, content, and happy to avoid any meltdowns. The hardest struggle of it all is getting Jase to eat a variety of food that doesn’t cause him to gag or dry heave. Currently, his diet consists of apple cinnamon oatmeal, pretzels, crackers, and milk and has been that way for the last 3 years. With his ongoing weekly therapy sessions, not to mention how complicated things can be, having a much needed family vacation isn’t always possible. Sometimes it feels more of a hassle than what it’s worth but the truth is, we as a family need a break from the norm to experience new things, new places, and most importantly, make memories together.
Jase was 6 years old when we decided to take a real family vacation. We chose to visit the Great Lakes because (1) it was within driving distance from home (the airport is a sensory overloaded madhouse so we avoid it) and (2) Jase has a fascination with seeing the water, especially very large bodies of water. For a long time, we had been avoiding the inevitable triggers and challenges: his diet struggles on the road, his fear of automatic hand dryers and toilets in public restrooms, the smell of food inside restaurants, the constant needed breaks which stretch out our trip even longer, any sudden weather changes that may leave pavement and sidewalks wet which can be a horrifying experience for him, and the most aggravating and disheartening thing of all, the unwanted judgement, snickering, and staring from the general public when our son turns a minor situation into a full blown crisis.
This was the reality of our lives. We couldn’t run away from it. So what exactly do we do as parents to try and enjoy ourselves while caring for our children’s needs? We prepare, predict, and have a plan!
Our first trip took much preparation and I don’t mean double checking that our hotel reservations were secured. I’m talking about packing at least 12+ boxes of instant organic apple cinnamon oatmeal (did I mention it’s all he eats 3xs per day?) and an abundance of Snack Factory pretzels (it absolutely must be Snack Factory since we are dealing with texture issues here). Let’s not forget the special organic lactose free whole milk that Jase gets the majority of his protein and fat from. Where exactly are we going to find that conveniently in-route to our destination? Bring the cooler and pack at least 5 to 6 half gallons!
And one other important thing: bringing the camp stove so Jase can actually eat his oatmeal. Sure we could stop and have a hot meal at a restaurant and ask for a bowl with hot water to make his oatmeal at the table. But it often leads to strange looks and questions which can be exhausting to explain, and sometimes emotional. It’s just easier for all of us to eat on the go, in a parking lot, or inside our hotel room.
As a mother to a special needs child, I am a super duty heavy predictor/mind reader/fortune teller because I have to be. Jase’s comfort depends on it. I knew before going on this trip that visiting the Great Lakes involves water, sand, and wind, all for obvious reasons. And I know that if he gets the slightest bit uncomfortable to these three factors, he will be miserable. I ensured that he had everything he needed, such as extra pairs of shoes in case one gets wet or filled with sand, a pair of rainboots in case the first idea didn’t work out, a change of clothes for the same reasons as having the extra shoes, and a hat to cover his hair from the wind in case it bothered him. Ear muffs were also a must. Remember when I mentioned those automatic hand dryers and toilets? In order for Jase to utilize a public restroom, I need to make sure he isn’t going to scream when he hears one of those things go off. I kept them safely packed inside my purse at all times.
When planning our trip to the Great Lakes, it was important that we included Jase in all the fine details. Not only did he feel helpful in the planning process, but it mentally got him prepared for the trip since going on a vacation disrupts the everyday routine Jase is used to. We showed Jase maps of each state we would visit, which hotels we would sleep at, including a how-to process of booking a hotel room, and all the sites we would visit such as museums in Chicago and the lighthouses along our route. We gave Jase paper maps and brochures to read during our drive and had him assist in operating our GPS. Also, we made sure to take adequate breaks at any nearby playgrounds so Jase could release some energy. Jase’s involvement in planning and navigating our trip gave him a sense of control and a smooth transition from his day to day routine.
Our Great Lakes vacation turned out to be a huge success! We made so many memories, saw many things, and learned so much about the area and even about each other! Jase enjoyed this trip so much that he created a painting of Lake Michigan with a lighthouse and three stick figures standing on a beach that represented all of us together. The hassle was all worth it!
Katharine is a natural light family photographer and homeschooling momma living the rural life in Iowa. She
is married to her high school sweetheart and together they have one son. Her free time includes baking,
raising backyard chickens, and photographing everyday moments at home.
Facebook: Katharine Vogel Photographer