We originally started with the idea of meeting my father in London while he was traveling there on business. After seeing the price of airline tickets, we decided to see everything we could.
I gave them a choice to see Eastern Europe or Western Europe. PJ, my son with autism, immediately replied that he wanted to go to Italy to eat pizza with a fork.
Well then, I thought, Italy it is.
Planning was crucial in this process, as I wanted to make sure PJ knew where we were going and what to expect. Involving the boys in the planning helped them feel comfortable with what was going to happen. I believe kids, and adults for that matter, can be freaked out by the unknown. I would let the boys look online at potential hotels, sights, trains, museums, etc. so they felt like they had a part in the preparation process.
Setting expectations was a second crucial part of this adventure. This included discussing lack of sleep on a plane, potential terrorism, pickpocketing, communicating in a foreign language, navigating transportation, etc.
Fun tip as it relates to communication: Practice some words and phrases. I created index cards with some common phrases that we might need in French, Italian, and Turkish. We went to Istanbul, Rome, Florence, Pisa, Venice, London, Windsor, Paris, and Versailles.
Another tip: Ask your airlines to board early. They don’t second-guess you if you mention you are traveling with an individual with disabilities. In fact, most airlines will let you peek into the cockpit and meet the pilots. My dad always says, “Ask not, get not.”
The experience was an adventure of a lifetime for the three of us.
We climbed to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, saw the Mona Lisa, viewed Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower, saw the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, gazed at the only bridge in the world that connects two continents (Asia and Europe) in Istanbul, and so much more.
PJ’s autism will often show up in the form of curiosity. Meaning, he will just dart into a street to see something interesting, run off from the group in an amusement park, and lag behind the group to touch a leaf or pick up a rock.
One of the things we embraced in Venice was letting him “get lost.” He could meander down the twists and turns of the alley ways/streets in Venice and travel down any path that interested him. All the while, JJ, his twin brother, and I were behind. That gave him the opportunity to explore his way and feel free to be himself. As you are traveling, embrace your children’s differences and likes.
Be adventurous, not nervous. You, too, can have an enjoyable trip. I hope my story of planning, setting expectations, and highlighting the actual adventure provides encouragement to families to travel more, despite disabilities—whether it’s to the town 20 miles away or a country 20,000 miles away. Your loved one with disabilities just might surprise you and find a new love of traveling.
You will also find many travel tips and information by using a keyword search in the blog articles on this site.
Living with a child who has mental health issues can come with a lot of unknowns just like having a child with physical health issues. But society can treat both children very differently.