Vacationing with Autism on the High Seas

Apr 25, 2018

With summer around the corner, families are turning toward vacation plans. But travel for those with autism can be a challenge. In the next installment of our series on autism, WMRA’s Jessie Knadler explores a cruise ship specifically designed for those with special needs …. so the whole family can R&R together.

Aimee Cayer lives in Connecticut. She has a 14-year-old daughter named Jules who’s on the spectrum. Jules is high functioning. This means she’s able to communicate her needs.  She attends a regular public school, and doesn’t require a lot of therapy. But trying to do Disney as a family?  Forget it.

AIMEE CAYER: The lines were just too much for her … the heat … standing around waiting … the crowds. It was just overwhelming.

Waiting on line for “It’s a Small World” is a hellscape for anyone, but for those on the spectrum, it can be an actual sensory overload. Jules became upset.

CAYER: You always get looks, like, what’s wrong with your kid? And she’s high functioning so we’d get even more looks, like why can’t you control your kid?

It was one of those need-a-vacation-to-recover-from-the-vacation scenarios. So the Cayer family pretty much stopped taking them.

You hear this a lot from people who have family members with developmental disabilities. Vacations end up being the opposite of relaxing.  Families feel like all eyes are on them.

Rachel Potter in Staunton has a 13-year-old son with autism.

RACHEL POTTER:   Everyone is going to think I’m a bad mom because my kid is going to be kicking and screaming.

The travel industry has finally started to cater to families with autism and other special needs in the last decade or so.

Autism on the Seas has been offering cruises on Royal Caribbean ships since 2007. One of many perks: All special needs families get expedited boarding while all the “typicals” – the non-special needs cruisers -- have to wait in long check-in lines.

POTTER:  We were like VIPs onboard. It was an absolutely amazing experience.

[fade up dance party]

Here, kids with special needs sing along to Katy Perry during an after dinner dance party aboard the ship. The sound is from a video posted to Autism on the Seas' YouTube channel.

KIDS:  Baby, you’re a firework!

And where are the parents? They’re probably enjoying respite.

Moms and dads get three and a half hours over the course of each day to themselves. Roughly 200 staffers, all trained professionals in special needs care and therapy, take charge of the kids so parents can relax. The ratio of staffers to special needs cruisers is roughly two to one.   And the kids enjoy respite too. Here’s 14-year-old Jules:

JULES:  My favorite thing to do onboard the ship is probably respite after dinner every night. I get to hang out with all my friends. The staff members are really great and friendly and it gives my parents some nice relaxation time. I really enjoy seeing them relaxed.

And for families such as Aimee Cayer’s and Rachel Potter’s, this is Autism on the Seas’ ace in the hole. It’s a cruise for special needs families, sure. But it’s also a reset for exhausted parents. Rachel Potter:

POTTER: Your kid says they’ve got to go to the bathroom. And you’ve just sat down with your glass of wine, right? And the staff member says, Oh, Rachel, you sit down, it’s okay. Sally and I will take him. And you’re like, what? You mean I get to sit here and drink my glass of wine … and somebody else is going to wipe his butt? Are you kidding me? You have parents at the end of these cruises when they’re saying goodbye to staff who are … weeping.

[fade up child boogie boarding on wave simulator]

Here’s the sound of a special needs child learning to boogie board on a giant wave simulator on the ship. It’s also from the organization’s YouTube channel.  The child is assisted by three staffers as his family proudly looks on.   

[fade down]

The closest port is in Norfolk. Rates are customary cruise rates plus about $30 per person per day. Families tend to book trips again and again. Some parents are so touched by the experience they end up volunteering on trips, like Rachel Potter. Aimee Cayer actually works for Autism on the Seas. Her family has cruised three times. Jules is gearing up for a fourth.

JULES:  I hope to go cruise to Europe next.

 [fade out Katy Perry “Firework”]