Stresses & Successes Of Family Vacations With A Child Who Has Autism

Stresses & Successes Of Family Vacations With A Child Who Has Autism

I consider family vacations the most important thing our family does for itself. But these outings have never been without complications, and having an autistic child in the mix makes everything a bit more challenging. Although Noah is now 20 years old, vacations are still something to which we give great thought, and through the years, we’ve learned a lot, struggled at times, and racked up some pretty spectacular memories.

I recall the first time we took Noah on a plane. He was about 4 years old, and we took him and his older brother, Sam, to Florida. About 15 minutes into the three-hour flight, Noah was ready to de-plane. It was not a pretty sight, but my husband and I did our best to distract him, and we got to our destination not too much worse for wear.

Over the years, our family travels became much more ambitious. My husband’s default has generally been, “This is not going to work for Noah. What will he eat? What if he can’t handle … (fill in any type of activity, flying time, etc.)?” My responses have been, “We’ll make it work. No child willingly starves himself and you can find milk, spaghetti and peanut butter everywhere. I’ll help him handle whatever comes up. We’re at our best as a family when we’re on vacation, and I think we’re building his muscle memory and connectivity to us and to his siblings.”

I carry in my head amazing images of us with Noah all over the world. Noah on a zip line in Costa Rica. Noah riding a bike through the streets of Amsterdam. Noah at a family bar mitzvah in a Paris synagogue, sitting like a prince through a three-hour service. Noah wearing a hard hat during a carriage ride through old Montreal. Noah on a zodiac, speeding toward a glacier in Iceland. Even Noah throwing up during a whale watching trip in the Dominican Republic.

The flip side was Noah having a pretty significant tantrum atop Masada one August, because his dimwit parents didn’t bring enough water, it was about 110 degrees, and there was no shade. On the other hand, we found joy and relief at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem when we stumbled across someone selling Pringles. Noah would not starve after all.

I have been relentless in pushing for family vacations because we are truly at our best then, more connected to each other, more engaged, and more openly curious and wondering about all we see and do. No, these trips are not without their stresses, but the successes so far outweigh the struggles, and even the struggles become part of our collective family memory, our shared experience. It’s amazing to hear Noah ask to go back to Amsterdam. OK, so it’s because he wants to eat at that Chinese restaurant again, but still …

And though much has gotten easier as Noah has gotten older, we don’t ever forget how truly impaired he is. And Noah’s being diagnosed in recent years with Crohn’s and epilepsy means we’re a lot more sensitive to where we might find — or be too far from — needed medical care. But we don’t plan for his being ill; we plan for his being drawn out of his habit-filled life, out into a world where he gets pushed to experience new things. And no one motivates him like his siblings, so the motivation to take family trips is even greater.

Still, we’re not blind to the degree of Noah’s impairment, and the ways it constrains our choices, even as I try to push the envelope. One very recent example: my husband took Noah and Sam to San Francisco for a long weekend. On the way home, Len let Noah take himself to the bathroom at the airport. When he thought too much time had passed, he walked toward the bathroom to find him, only to see Noah walking toward him, escorted by two police officers. He must have taken a wrong turn out of the bathroom and lost his way. Terrifying, to be sure, but no reason not to keep venturing out into the world, where memories are waiting to be made.

Nina Mogilnik's professional career has encompassed work in the philanthropic, nonprofit and government sectors. Nina is presently consulting to a select group of nonprofit and foundation clients. She also serves on the boards of Birch Family Services, and the Good People Fund. Nina is also an avocational writer, and has had a number of essays about her experiences dealing with her father's Alzheimer's and her son's autism published in Haddasah Magazine and in The Jewish Week. Nina's proudest accomplishment — and hardest job by far — has been as a mother. Nina has degrees in philosophy from Union College (B.A.) and from the University of Chicago (M.Phil). She lives with her husband and kids outside New York City.

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