Ideal Summer Camps for Autistic Teens

In this article I explore ideal summer camps for your autistic teen.  While the thought of planning out your next summer may be way off your radar, the winter months are actually the best time to do some research.  You can discover what is available in your area as well as apply for early-bird special rates and even scholarships.

The Ideal Time to Explore Summer Camps for Autistic Teens is…WINTER!

Right now, the holiday decorations are out. People are buying last minute gifts before Christmas. Kids anticipate the jolly guy any day now.  Summer seems eons away.

But early winter is the best time to start planning for the summer months if you are toying around with the idea of a camp experience.  Even if the thought of sending your autistic child away from home for more than a day is scary, I urge you to still explore options.

Why now?

  • Summer camp registrations often open in the winter or early spring.  It’s usually a “first-come, first-served” process.  It’s best to sign-up before it fills up.
  • Many offer early-bird rates for signing up early.  For example, EasterSeals in Indiana offers $100 off if you register in the winter versus in the spring.
  • Some give scholarships. If you dependent on financial help to get your child to summer camp, it’s best to apply and know whether you got accepted before applying with a deposit.
  • If you are thinking of taking a family vacation as well, you’ll need to know dates of these summer camps.

Where to Begin Exploring Summer Camp Options

You can start with a simple Google search. But it may take a lot of time to find what you are looking for.

Explore your options through the American Camp Association.  Filter by the type of experience you are looking for and by location.  When you refine your search, be sure to scroll down to “Disability and Special Needs” and filter by “Autism” or any other criteria.

The “Very Special Camps” website lists many camps around the country. Filter your search by your state and program type to see what is available in your area for your child’s particular needs.

For those living in Indiana, the Indiana Resource for Autism has provided a terrific list of summer camp programs.  These include residential day programs as well as overnight camps.

Here are some other specific suggestions to explore for ideal summer camps for autistic teens:

Special Autism Camps

Some summer camp programs are only geared toward those with special needs, including serving those with autism in particular.

EasterSeals

Easterseals sponsors Camp Rocks in central Indiana.  Many states have Easterseals programs, so hopefully you can find something close by well-suited for your needs. They also have early-bird registration that will save you about $100 on the registration fee.

My daughter has participated in this camp for the last two summers.  It is a week-long and specially designed to provide a fun experience for autistic teens and respite for their parents.  She loves it, and I love it! She really enjoys performing impromptu skits with other campers.

Every staff at Camp Rocks is well-trained to handle behavioral situations related to autism.  Several are specifically wanting to work autistic youth in future careers, so you know they have a heart for serving your child.

Your Local Therapy Agency

Some agencies sponsor camps themselves. Some might be day camps while others are overnight experiences.  For example, my respite agency LEL provides offers special weekend getaways at a camp during the summer. Or, we can participate in their monthly meet-ups at a horseback riding stable or lake for swimming.  Ask if your therapeutic agency if it sponsors or knows of any summer camps ideal for your autistic teen.

Traditional Summer Camps

Hopefully there are some traditional programs that might be well-designed to accommodate the needs of your autistic teen.

Local City Parks and YMCA

Not all summer camps offer accessible programs for specifically for autistic teens.  But don’t also assume your local YMCA or city park will not have accommodations already in place. It may not be evident on their promotional material that they serve those with autism.

Call them up to see if they have staff trained for assist special needs. You may need to share exactly what kinds of accommodations your autistic teen needs (i.e. dietary, sensory, visual schedule, etc.). Then they can match you with the best program.  Check out this search feature through the YMCA to find a local resident day program or an overnight camp.

This article by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism may answer a few questions you have about if non-special needs organization can and should accommodate for autism.

Scouting Organizations

Scouts BSA offers a wide variety of fun summer camp activities.  If your son or daughter has joined a troop and you are unsure how he or she may handle a week-long summer camp away from home (and you) for the first time, check out my article Autism Preparations for Scout Summer Camp. I provide tips for preparing your scouter before the grand experience.

Definitely let the camp director know ahead of time what kinds of accommodations your teen or pre-teen will need while at camp.  She/He will have to alert particular staff (cook, nurse, merit badge counselors, etc.) about your child’s needs.  Here is another resource to share with your scout leader when you register for summer camp: “Preparing for Summer Camp

 

Ease Into the Camp Experience (if Necessary)

If the idea of leaving your autistic teen at a camp all week away from home gives you pause, then consider doing day-camps nearby.  Get him or her used to the idea of camp activities and interacting with others.

See about registering 1- or 2-nights for overnight camps that are within an hour from home. If something happens, you can easily pick up your child.

Scholarships

For any summer camp inquiry, always ask if there is a scholarship opportunity available.  It often is not apparent on their websites.  If they have deadlines, then they will most likely be in the winter or spring. That’s why it’s so important to start your research now.

Search NOW for Ideal Summer Camps for Autistic Teens

I urge you to take some time before spring hits to discover the perfect summer camp opportunity for your autistic teen.

Summer camp experiences last a lifetime. They are great for making memories and building relationships beyond the program. My daughter and I got together to hang out with one young girl she befriended and her mom a few times after the camp.

Summer camp gives teens confidence that they can manage their own lives without mom and dad around.   My son took his summer camp experience to a new level when he started working living there for 6 weeks (only coming home on weekends).

You never know the kinds of growth that can come with taking a leap into a new supportive environment with new faces.  I’m so glad we took a chance on our summer camp experiences!

 

Sharing Autism Travel Insights with “Traveling Mom”: Short Getaways

Your Autism Guides Shares Special Needs Insights with Traveling Mom

I was invited to share autism travel insights describing the reasons why short getaways are perfect for autistic children with the website Traveling Mom.

I discovered this web resource in a search to find helpful articles about traveling with autism.  This site contains a lot of useful information about different destinations written by other moms who had “been there, done that.”

Browsing the site I noticed an inquiry form to write for Traveling Mom.  Intrigued, I thought “why not.”

I applied.  And I was invited to write a guest post.

I submitted two ideas that related to our experiences traveling with two autistic children, one of which was accepted for publication.

 

Short Getaways are Sometimes Best

When I reflect upon the different traveling experiences as a family, I fondly think of our short simple vacations.  I go back through my photos and realize that we took as many as 4 or 5 little short getaways every year.  (It’s even more if we counted all of the Scout campouts.)

Sure, we had deep-lasting memories of long vacations to Disney and the Florida beaches.  But something about taking an impromptu trip made life a little more exciting.  We always had something to look forward to!

Our favorite getaways were waterparks, zoos, and interactive play-based museums.  We are blessed that we live within 2-4 hours of some incredible destinations.

Read about how we safely hiked Hocking Hill State Park (OH) here.

Ready about our trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum here.

Taking a quick getaway relieved stress through playful activities and relaxation. I also appreciate that mini-trips can take place over the weekend and not require a lot of money.

Despite most trips lasting only a couple of days, they had lasting impact on our family. I loved seeing the little improvements in social interaction or language that came just from having fun.

 

Writing with Autism Families in Mind

I totally understand the experience of a meltdown in a very public place. It feels like a million judgemental eyes upon you and your child.   And all you want to do is escape!

Obviously, not every trip will go according to plan.  But it’s reassuring for YOU to go somewhere closer to home if it doesn’t.

Your child needs a sense of security. Bringing along a “part of home” is reassuring for your CHILD when exploring a strange environment.

But whatever you do, don’t give up the idea of taking trips with your autistic child.  The world found in TV, computer and social media will never replace the real one.  Exploration of our world through travel can make one feel fully ALIVE!

 

Why I Felt Compelled to Write this Article

It breaks my heart when I read about a family’s reluctance to travel with their autistic child.

They don’t have to “go all out” in a grand vacation.  If their child is not ready for a week-long trip, make it a couple of days. It can still be a fun getaway!

Every little trip has lead us to bigger adventures over time.  I say, let your child explore the world in his/her own time and in his/her own way.

Discover many more reasons and benefits of taking short getaways with your autistic child in the article below.  I do hope you can find that the autism travel insights I share will inspire to start planning your own short getaway adventures!

Traveling with an Autistic Child: Reasons to Book a Short Family Getaway

 

 

 

Accessing Accommodations in Scouts BSA

Special Needs Accommodations in Scouts BSA

Serving Scouts with Disabilities

It wasn’t too long ago that those with disabilities were actively excluded from life of mainstream society.  If they didn’t automatically look, think, act or speak like everyone else, they were often shunned. If they were given similar opportunities, they were segregated away from others. Accommodations for special needs Scouts were rare.

Fortunately, thanks to some fiercely passionate parents and other advocates, things have changed.  Those who are physically, intellectually, and neurologically different are now encouraged to participate alongside everyone else in school, sports, band, and other social clubs.

Likewise, Boy Scouts of America encourages its units to welcome youth of all abilities into their troops.

But the journey to full inclusion and rank achievement is not always clear and easy for those with disabilities.

 

Feeling Included

In the past many troops did not feel they had the adequate resources to properly accommodate some potential members.

The issue today is not necessarily the lack of accommodations provided by BSA, but the lack of awareness that they exist, both by troop leadership and parents of special needs Scouts.

Another potential problem could be the lack of willingness of the troop leadership, its members and/or the Scouts parents to push for assistance despite knowing help exists.

It’s for all of these reasons, both past and present, that the Boy Scouts of America created the National Disability Awareness Committee for Special Needs Scouts. It’s mission is to to help all youth who joins its ranks for feel welcomed and included.

Yes, there are some troops that are specifically designed for special-needs Scouts only.  But the organization would argue that those scouts are best served in regular patrols. Everyone benefits by including those with differences.

I heartily agree. That is why my autistic daughter has joined a regular inaugural girls BSA troop.

 

All in the Family

My husband is a Boy Scout “lifer”.  He earned his Eagle Scout rank and received the Vigil Honor of Order of the Arrow. He worked at a few Scout camps and now serves as a troop Scoutmaster and Wood Badge staff.  To say he’s deeply committed to Scouts is an understatement.

 

 

My son also earned his Eagle Scout.  Like his sister he also has autism.  But he started right at age 11 and had a lot of support from leadership. We did not request any special needs accommodations as we felt he was progressing through the ranks well-enough.

My daughter entered Scouts at age 15.  She has greater difficulty understanding auditory information and memorizing the Scout Oath and Law. Due to these conditions, we are seeking accommodations that will enable her to progress at her own comfortable pace and in her learning style.

 

 

I became an Assistant Scoutmaster both to help her and other leaders best serve her. Because our entire family is so involved in Scouts, we are heavily networked to people who will help my daughter succeed.

Despite her challenges, we are committed to helping her forge her own path in Scout as far as she is willing to go. I believe firmly in the power of Scouting to build solid life skills and self-confidence, as we have witnessed with her brother.

(Read my article HERE on why I believe Scouts is the one of the best organizations for those on the spectrum.)

 

A Special Needs Parent’s Role in Scouts

I understand many parents won’t involve themselves at this level, and that’s okay.

But to ensure the success of a youth in Scouts, it’s vital that the parent be a vigilant advocate for his/her child’s entire Scouting lifetime.  

To help me better understand how Scouts BSA accommodates special needs families, not only for myself but other families, I reached out to Julie Hadley.  She is the Disabilities Awareness Committee Chair for our council (Hoosier Trails).

I consider Julie a special education expert not only in Scouts but personally and professionally as well.  She is mom of three, all of whom had a range of educational challenges.  She has also served as a special education teacher since 2007. As she put it, “I have been on both sides of the table for IEP meetings. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

I asked Julie a range of questions related to special needs accommodations in Scouting programs. I believe her answers will help any new Scout and Scouting parent start off on the right foot.

 

Scouts BSA Accommodations Q & A

1. How do parents go about asking for accommodations with their own scout troop?

Parents need to talk to the scoutmaster and troop leadership as soon as their child joins a troop or pack. The way things have been in recent history, parents are not asking for accommodations until almost time for the youth to age-out. Parents are talking to the scoutmaster a month or a few weeks before the youth turns 18, when they see that he is not going to make Eagle (Scout).

 

2. What kinds of accommodations can they ask for?

This absolutely depends on the needs of the scout. What accommodations do they receive at school?  No two scouts are the same, so accommodations are absolutely individualized. My guidance is that parents talk to the scoutmaster and discuss what accommodations the school is using.*

*Side note: Later on, the parents and scout leaders will work on formulating the right accommodations using the Individual Scout Advancement Plan ( BSA-ISP-form.pdf (142 downloads) ).  Bring along your child’s IEP to help figure out the right accommodations with troop leadership.

 

3. How can scouts with disabilities get an extension on the age-requirement to achieve the Eagle Scout rank?

There is a common confusion: an “extension” is not what special needs scouts need.

Special needs Scouts need to complete the form REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY. That registration stays with the council and we approve it as a committee.

Extensions are specific for only extra time and are approved by National. They are difficult to get and the youth has to have some life changing event that they have had no control over. National does not approve many of these.

 

4. How might a special needs parent role be different from a non-special needs parent role in a scout troop?

Special needs parents know all too well that their child is going to need extra support. Like every parent, we volunteer to support what our children get involved with.

Possible roles for special needs parents include: educating troop leaders on what their child needs and educating other youth on those special needs. I have seen parents jump in with both feet and become part of troop leadership.

 

5. What should the leadership of a troop do to ensure full inclusion of the special needs child into a regular troop?

Start with open honest conversations with the parents, asking some of the tough questions. Learn about the disability, and learn what the youth needs or doesn’t need. Troop leadership needs to know what parent expectations are. Troop leadership needs to ask the youth what they want to accomplish in scouts.

 

6. Is training providing for troop leadership to better understand the special needs of their scouts? Who does that training and how do they go about asking for it?

University of Scouting offers special needs training.  University of Scouting happens at various times of the year in our neighboring councils. Classes are taught by volunteers with a lot of experience in that area.

 Training Expo in our council hold special needs classes that are taught every year on various topics. Training Expo occurs every February and class topics are suggested by individuals who volunteer to teach the class.

Troop Leadership and parents are free to contact me and I will help with educating leadership or directing them to someone in their area that have a lot of experience.

Training is always a hot topic when everyone is a volunteer.

 

7. What should be considered when joining a special needs troop (if available)? Is there a link to find them in someone’s local area?

When joining a special needs troop or forming a special needs troop, figure out the primary goal for your child. What experiences do you want for your child?

The best way to find out if we have special needs troops is to call council.

 

8. What are the ways the family of a special needs child can advocate for him/her beyond the troop level?

That’s an interesting question that I’ve never been asked. The best answer I have is to contact our committee and work with the committee.*

*Side note: Those on a Council Disability Committee can serve as an intermediary between the special needs scout and his/her family and troop leadership if a problem arises.  The committee member can assess the situation from all sides including the Scout’s, helping everyone come to a resolution. Sometimes that resolution can be positive if a plan-of-action is put into place long before he/she ages out. But if the Request for Registration Beyond the Age of Eligibility form was not completed, the process can be much harder.

Sometimes if troop leadership is not willing or able to accommodate the requests of the special needs Scout, often he or she moves on to another troop and/or is not able to achieve the highest rank desired.

 

9. Is there a troop assessment instrument to measure how inclusive a troop is of a special needs scout?

There is, not to my knowledge, an assessment like this. This would be interesting and something that would have to be re-evaluated with every change in leadership. For some troops that happens every couple of years…and some troops it is MANY years between changes.

 

10. Where can special needs families go to get more resources to help meet their needs?

There are several special needs and scouts webpages. National (Scouts BSA) has resources listed. There are special needs trainings with the national committee at Philmont (New Mexico) every summer.

 

How to Access this Important Accommodation

The most important lesson is that it’s best to file the REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY form as soon as a special-needs Scout joins a troop.  For my daughter, I plan to do this very soon.

To get the process started, be sure to follow these steps:

1. Contact your council’s disability committee to start the paperwork: registration-beyond-the-age-of-eligibility-1.pdf (108 downloads)

2. Schedule a meeting with parents, Scoutmaster, committee member and Scout.

3. Parents and Scoutmaster(s) work together to complete the paperwork.

4. Submit the paperwork to the committee member.

5. Decision will be made by the committee to accept the form.

 

Rely on the expertise and guidance of those in the Disability Committee of your council throughout the years your child will be in Scouts.  They represent the best of Scouting because they are committed to making sure your special needs Scout has the opportunity to grow and achieve great things among those who care.

 

For more information, visit the Disabilities Awareness page on the Scouts BSA website.

For disability assistance with the Hoosier Trails Council, visit their Facebook page “Hoosier Trails-Disability Awareness”.

 

Overcoming Fears of Traveling with Autism

Overcoming Fears of Traveling with Autism

Nervous to Travel?

Do you worry about traveling with your child who has autism?

Maybe you’re thinking, My child can barely handle being in a local public space, let alone somewhere far away.

Don’t worry…you’re definitely not alone.  I was in the same place when my kids were young.  I was hesitant to take the leap into a major, week-long vacation.

Here’s me:

What if my kids have a terrible time?  What if we spend all of this time and money but our trip ends up a disaster?  What if….? What if…? 

I realized that this kind of irrational, excessive worry lead me feeling locked up in a self-made prison of fear.  If you ruminate on the “what ifs” and never take the leap into the wider world, you’ll never experience true joy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!  You can learn to overcome those fears about traveling with special needs.

Did you know…?

A “worry experiment” was conducted to see if what people were afraid of actually came true.

What 85% of test subjects worried about actually never came true!  And with the remaining 15% whose worries came true, they realized they misperceived or exaggerated their problems.  They viewed those “bad events” as a good life lesson in becoming better problem-solvers and less worriers.

When I catch myself worrying too much, I often reflect upon the self-fulfilling prophesy phenomenon:

Did I make something come true just because I was afraid of it to begin with?   Did my kids sense my apprehensions and then react to my behavior with their own fears? 

For some families, though, the sense of fear is founded on something that has happened over and over again.

Like running away from home.  Like being attracted to water but unable to swim.  Like harming oneself and others in the family during a meltdown. 

THAT is their REALITY.

Overcoming Fears of Traveling with Autism: Important Tips

You probably know the “Serenity Prayer.”  It is often used in AA for recovering addicts. But in case you don’t know it or need a reminder, here is my interpretation:

Grant me the serenity of mind to accept what can’t be changed; the courage to change what can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference.

This little bit of truth has gotten me through some pretty “rough seas” in my life, especially when coming to terms with both of my children’s diagnosis of autism.  Maybe you feel the same.

It’s good to be reminded of that in every facet of life…even when taking major vacations or little getaways.

Learn what CAN be changed

  1. Is there something YOU can change before planning a trip? Maybe it’s an adjustment of expectations of what a vacation means to you. Or your expectations of your child. Or maybe you can assess the things you need to do to prepare your child for the trip. Or…maybe it’s identifying the root of your fears and understanding how they can managed.  Simply adopting a “let’s have fun no matter what” attitude goes a long way!

 

  1. Are there things that YOUR CHILD can change before a trip? Is there something you can work on a home to prepare your child for a trip?  Recruit the help of people who know and care about your child. Rely on their expertise to draft social stories for the trip, for example. And remember, if you plan a trip a year or more in advance, just know that your child WILL mature in a way you may not quite see yet!

 

  1. What can YOUR VACATION DESTINATION do for your family? Are there certain days that are better to visit than others? If the accommodations needed for your child don’t appear on listed on the website, give them a call.  Maybe they can provide those things simply because you ASKED!  And don’t forget you can rely on a travel agent (like yours truly) to give you advice about certain destinations.

 

Learn what CAN’T be changed

Autism therapies are designed to alleviate meltdowns or sensory overload or language difficulties.  They help the child, the parents, teachers and others who interact with your child in various ways.

But can they actually “cure” autism?

Personally, I don’t believe that is possible to ever change the genetic predisposition of a person with autism.   But, I’m not getting into THAT debate…

I bring that up to say that it’s important to recognize that despite good effort, some issues related to your loved one’s autism may not change.

At least at the present moment.

Some therapies may not produce desired results.  Some environments may not be conducive to making your child feel safe or you feel at ease. Forcing massive change on your child in order to go on that dream vacation may just not be prudent.

Certain vacation destinations will be more accommodating than others.  Some hotels and theme parks are more “autism friendly” than others.  Camping is an experience that may require some brief experimentation before an “all-in” investment in equipment.

If your destination does not provide what you need, bring it from home.  For example, try out eloping technology at home first to see how it works with your child before using it on vacation.

It helps to know not only how “adaptable” your child is to different environments but also how flexible certain destinations are to the needs of your child.

Wisdom to know the difference

How do you know exactly what you can change and what you cannot?

I recommend talking to other parents with autistic kids.

Pick their brains: Where did they travel? How was the experience? What did they do to plan for their trip?  What accommodations did they create at home versus need at the destination?

Their experiences may spark inspiration. Their advice will give you direction and encouragement.  While their experiences are their experiences, you can still glean some nugget of insight to help make better decisions.

You can always start a conversation with me!  Now that my kids are nearly adults I have become a little wiser along the way.  I can never pay back those who helped me through this journey when I started.  But I can “pay it forward” to others!

Think “happy thoughts” to overcome your fears

I was just stubborn enough to make sure we traveled as a family despite the fears.  I adopted the “do or die” attitude whenever we went somewhere…to the children’s museum, to the outdoor historical park, the movies, to the local playground, to the amusement rides at the county fair, etc.

While my kids were young we weaned them into travel experiences. We took mini-vacations or local staycations so they got used to different routines and environments. They developed the skill of “adaptability”. Slowly we overcame our fears of traveling considering their special needs.

But after a while, I learned to just “let go” and “jump all in”.  I was SO ready to behold the castle at Walt Disney World! After a year of watching park planning videos, so were my kids. They were just as excited as I was. And the trip ended up blowing my worries out of the water!

 

Overcoming Fears of Traveling with Autism through “life lessons”

Will you be part of that 85% that worries over nothing? Or are you that 15% in which what you worry about happens, but the experience made you or your child a better person?

Failure will happen.  But you, your child and family will come out braver and stronger than before.  If those “big, bad worries” happen on your trip…well, consider it a valuable life lesson.

The more you travel the more you’ll reach those “mountain top” experiences of achievement (maybe even accomplish those skills your child been working on for months in therapy).

I have NEVER regretted the time traveling with my autistic kids, not even when they had meltdowns and I was at my wits-end.

I recommend viewing any trip outside the home as an adventure to explore the world and learn new and fascinating things. Life is a journey filled with experiential learning.

Consider making your vacation decisions and planning in light of the wisdom of the “serenity prayer”.

And…a joyful, positive attitude goes a long way!

 

If you need someone to rely on for special needs travel guidance, please consider me.  I would love to help you!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

 

Autism Travel Tips with Wolf+Friends

Autism Travel Tips with Wolf+Friends

 

Autism Travel Tips from Your Autism Guide…featured on “Wolf+Friends”

 

Just recently I had the pleasure of sharing some autism travel tips with PJ Feinstein, founder of the website and app “Wolf+Friends“. This helpful resource connects parents of special needs children with local therapists and well as other parents for a peer-to-peer support system.  Wolf+Friends also features terrific articles that highlight both the challenges and joys of raising those with autism and other diagnoses.

 

Here is the article featured on the Wolf+Friends app. (Simply download the app to continue reading the article.)

 

9 Things to Do Before Your Family Vacation

Angela Zizak, A Certified Autism Travel Professional, Offers Planning Tips For An Easier Trip.

By PJ Feinstein

Travel has always been a passion for Angela Zizak, so much so that the part-time adjunct instructor of sociology recently decided to become a travel planner. Drawing from her experience raising two teenagers with autism, she specializes in creating customized vacations for families with children on the spectrum. 

“When my daughter was six and my son was eight, we stayed at Walt Disney World for a week.  It was the first time we took advantage of an autism accommodation, and it made our trip even more magical,” says Angela. Now a certified autism travel professional, she runs the website Your Autism Guide, encouraging special needs families to step out of their comfort zone and explore exciting destinations.

Angela understands all too well that some travel experiences will be stressful but encourages parents to “think of them as ‘therapeutic growth experiences’’ for your autistic child and the whole family.” Traveling helped her kids to better cope with transitions and new environments, and she and her husband, Tony, learned to become more resilient and playful.

Angela shares 9 tips for parents who aren’t sure how to start planning a vacation with an autistic child or are just nervous about traveling in general.

I would love to help you plan a fun-filled getaway!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

Packing as a “Teachable Moment”

Packing as a “Teachable Moment”

Packing as a “Teachable Moment”

 

I regret I didn’t always see vacation packing as a “teachable moment” for my autistic kids.

 

I was in full charge of packing all of their items they would need for our trips.  I packed their clothes, shoes, toiletries, and other essentials while I let them choose a couple of their favorite items to bring along.

 

Eventually I let them pack their own bags. Only problem…I would sift through their luggage and start throwing out unnecessary items. I raided their dresser drawers to find the more important stuff they didn’t include.  Sometimes the result was frustration, anger and even a meltdown—by everyone—because they didn’t “pack right” the first time and I was taking out their beloved possessions.

 

On one occasion I let my daughter pack her own things without any preliminary checking before the trip.  Upon arrival of our destination I discovered she was missing some very important essentials (like enough underwear and socks). She had also over-packed non-essential items. She packed 15 stuffed animals in one big bag and brought along another bag stuffed with loose-leaf papers. I understood her need for comfort, but no wonder we could barely get everything in our trunk!

 

I was fully aware then that packing is a learning process that takes time to learn.  Looking back, though, I wish I could have done things very differently.

 

Not truly helping them…

 

By packing for them, I didn’t help them.  I enabled them.  I lost out on the opportunity to use packing as a “teachable moment” to help foster self-help skills.

 

I was also sending them very mixed messages: I told them to pack their own things…believing I was empowering them to be self-sufficient.  And then, I turned around to “undo” their efforts by taking things out or adding them in…not empowering at all! 

 

I lost out on a very BIG “teachable moment”.

 

I was not teaching them in a positive, hands-on way HOW to pack.

 

Sometimes I think we as parents lose sight of how our “means” of interacting with our autistic children might actually be more important than the end-goals.  Every little “teachable moment” has the capacity to help our child develop important life skills.

 

Packing for any trip is indeed a very important “teachable moment” for autistic children. It’s not just arriving at the destination that matters…it’s the act of preparing for it that can set up the attitude for the entire vacation.

 

In addition, there is so much potential skills-building in the act of packing, especially those critical executive functioning skills needed for a self-sufficient, happy life.

 

Don’t make the same mistakes I made! 

 

 

If I had to “do it all over again”, I would teach my kids not only how to prepare for a good travel experience but important skills learned in the process of packing.

 

Here are 5 tips to make packing a “teachable moment”:

 

1. Have your autistic child create his/her own packing list…with your guidance.

 

Once your destination and date of visit has been decided, figure out—with your child—what you need to take. Use apps, destination websites, and videos for help. Have him/her write down, type out, point to, or verbally record two (2) lists of items for (1) larger suitcase; and (2) a personal travel bag.  Help your child figure out what is necessary based on certain conditions:

  • Are you going to the beach or a theme park? Will you visit the desert or mountains?
  • What will the weather be like? Will you be visiting during the summer or winter months?
  • What are activities you plan to do there?
  • How long will you be gone from home? How will you be traveling?
  • What sensory, comfort, or interest-based items would your child like to bring along in a personal bag while traveling to the destination?

 

RECOMMEND: Download important planning apps like The Weather Channel, Waze, and those associated with your destination (like those for the cruise lines and Disney parks). Try to encourage your child do as much of his/her own research and planning as possible.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Research and problem-solving; dressing appropriately for weather and seasons; self-advocacy and social-communication of personal needs and wants. 

 

2. Create a finalized “picture list” of the items in each bag…if necessary.

 

Have your child (or you, if necessary) take pictures of the items on the lists. Using a Word document, put those pictures in one column and then include space to check off the items packed in another column.  Consider laminating this picture list for future travel; use a dry-erase marker for checking off packed items.

 

RECOMMEND: Provide help only if necessary; use this process as a “teachable moment”.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Technical skills with camera and computer (if he/she can’t use these then have your child observe the process); translating written/audio to a visual element to self-advocate; organizational skills and self-confidence.

3. Have your autistic child to pack his/her own bags…with supervision.

 

Using the packing list your child created, have him or her start gathering the necessary items together. Pack one larger suitcase for clothes (stored in the trunk or cargo hold) and the other for personal use while traveling in the car or plane (preferably a book-bag). They must be light enough for your child to carry; otherwise, just have him/her carry at least a personal travel bag. Do a final check with your child: make sure that what they are putting in those bags are “reasonable items” for travel.

 

RECOMMEND: Use a sturdy book-bag comfortable on the shoulders and a lightweight rolling suitcase to pull behind. Start packing at least a few days before the trip, in case anything you need or want is missing.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Accountability and responsibility for taking care of personal items during travel and on vacation; organization; understand the process of making realistic choices for travel.

 

4. Have your child transport his/her own bags while traveling…with some reminders.

 

Being responsible for your own possessions at all times is actually not an easy skill for kids to learn.  Many adults can barely do it! Some autistic kids have a harder time keeping track of everything than others. My older son often loses things, so we have him “practice” carrying around a bag with non-expensive/non-critical items.  You may need to gently remind your child (maybe quite often) not to forget his/her bags during transport. That includes carrying a day-bag into a theme park.

 

RECOMMEND: Consider putting a tracker device (like Tile) on your child’s personal bag and suitcase, if necessary. If they want to take their own money and phone everywhere, consider having them wear a fanny-pack or something similar that won’t easily be lost.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Executive functioning and self-help skills; care-taking and responsibility for personal belongings; pride of ownership.

 

5. Have your autistic child re-pack his/her own bags during and after the trip.

 

It’s not enough just to pack your bag before you leave for your trip.  Encourage your child to be accountable for his/her own possessions during the entire trip.  For example:

  • Designate a special place in your resort room to put their own things (i.e. their own drawer, own hanger in the closet, etc.)
  • Help them pack a day bag when you do outings (i.e. swim/beach items; sensory kit; music, books or games, phone, etc.).
  • Take the “pictures lists” with you while you travel. Use this as a visual checklist for all items when leaving your destination. This will be especially important if you have planned several hotel-stays during your trip.

 

RECOMMEND: Consider creating a “picture list” of items for different planned activities.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Organization; self-help skills; care-taking and responsibility for personal belongings; independence and self-confidence.

 

Packing for a “lifetime”

 

It’s hard—especially for us moms—to take a step back and let our kids figure things out for themselves. Often, we intervene for the wrong reasons: to stay on schedule, to avoid a meltdown, because it makes us feel good to help…

 

But they don’t learn when we do everything for them.  This is not leading them toward self-empowerment.

 

Instead of doing things FOR them, we can GUIDE them using a structured framework.   If we really want to empower our autistic kids to become self-reliant, self-sufficient, and self-advocates, we as parents need to “do less” and “guide more”.

 

Despite the challenges of autism, travel can actually be a therapeutic growth experience. By using the process of packing as a “teachable moment”, your child will reap the benefits of gaining valuable life skills long after your trip is over.

 

From travel tips to destination ideas, I would love to help you plan a memorable getaway!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

SENSORY TIPS FOR A ZOO VISIT

 

Does your child love animals but you are unsure about taking him or her to the zoo?  In this article you will find important sensory trips for a zoo visit that will be hopefully help you and your whole family have fun there!

 

My autistic kids have always loved animals. Farm animals. Zoo animals. Neighborhood animals.  Zoos are naturally attractive to young kids and more so for those kids who have an intense fascination with animals.  But it’s very important to consider the impact of the all the noises, sights, smells, and sounds of the zoo on a child with autism.

 

 

AREN’T ANIMALS THE BEST?

 

They are loyal and love on us. They ease our fears and keep us grounded. They connect with us despite the communication gap.

 

Many autistic individuals find comfort in the presence of animals. Whether it’s a pet at home, livestock on a farm, or a service-dog, animals bring amazing benefits to the lives of those who often feel frustrated by a lack of understanding from other humans.

 

So, visiting a zoo seems like the most natural place to go for an autistic child, teen or adult.

 

Except that not all zoos are created equal.

 

Just because a zoo has animals doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to be a great experience.  Other people will be there, too…LOTS of people!  The potential for sensory overload can be high, depending on the level of crowds and the type of sensory environment zoo architects have designed.

 

To date (summer 2019), only three zoos in the entire country are certified autism centers.  Several may be “autism friendly” by having some sensory kits available or special “autism awareness” days.

 

Our nearby zoo is not deemed a “certified autism center”. In fact, the Indianapolis Zoo had ZERO assistance for anyone with sensory-cognitive issues. No sensory guidelines, no sensory kits, no calming room, no wait-assistance…nothing.  Even one staff member expressed her concern about having to leave the zoo early because her autistic nephews were having sensory meltdowns. (Sounded like my kids’ first zoo trip!)  Needless to say, I was disappointed with their lack of autism accommodations.

 

Even so, we still made up our minds to go.

 

And that is exactly what most autism families do.  Despite a lack of accommodations, they will still visit their favorite places!

 

My autistic daughter and I visited the Indianapolis Zoo on a day that was dry and sunny with low-crowd level predicted.  We ended up having a fantastic time.

 

However, the last time we went—when my kids were toddlers—the trip to the zoo was just about a disaster.

 

Through lessons of my past and most recent trips, I hope to provide some guidelines that will ensure a more fun and worthwhile trip to the zoo.

I will also provide tips to empower you to advocate for your autistic loved one.

 

SENSORY TIPS TO CONSIDER BEFORE MAKING A ZOO VISIT

 

You have picked the date.  A zoo trip is now in the works!

 

Before you think about “winging” a visit to a zoo, consider all potential scenarios during your time there.  In other words, at what point will you and your autistic loved one be tired? Hungry? How will a sensory-overload episode be handled? What happens if you lose sight of your loved one?  Here are some sensory tips for a zoo visit:

 

1. First check the zoo website for accommodation information.

Is the zoo you are visiting at least “autism friendly”?  The Indianapolis Zoo website had no link or any mention at all of having accommodations for those on the spectrum. They did host an autism awareness day with a local agency.  (But one day is clearly not enough).  You may need to call the zoo directly if they have anything at all to assist those with autism. Knowing this will determine next steps to prepare.

 

2. Decide how much time and money you will spend at the zoo.

To save some money, I recommend you buy tickets in advance, which are often cheaper.  There may be some coupons at given times, but no deep discounts were available by having the Medicaid-based Access Pass. We entered the parking lot 15 minutes before opening.  No parking lot attendant was at the booth to take the parking fee, so we saved money by getting there early.  Other questions to ask yourself: How tired does your autistic child get walking around for several hours?  How often do you eat?  Are you wanting to save money and bring your own food in?

 

3. Download the zoo map.

You may want to study the amenities, exhibits and other accommodations in order to plan out a visit-strategy. What are your child’s favorite animals? If he or she loves giraffes, then don’t miss out on the feeding opportunities. Often this requires a separate ticket and designated feeding times at most zoos (including the Indianapolis Zoo).  Is he or she crazy about dolphins? Don’t forget to get a separate free ticket at the entrance for the show. Plan your visit around those important feeding or show times.

 

4. Figure out if it’s worth spending extra for the attractions.

Most zoo admissions include some limited animal interaction and shows.  But they don’t include rides and other things like animal feedings.  Indianapolis Zoo has the TAP (Total Adventure Package), which is an extra $12. We found it worth purchasing it in advance.  Instead of buying one-time-access tickets we had a wristband. It allowed us unlimited access to those extras, so we could go on rides again and again. We got more than our money’s worth out of it!

 

5. Research or inquire about the dietary offerings at the zoo.

Most snacks, I noticed, were not gluten-free or casein-free. If your child is not a big salad-eater, then perhaps consider bringing in your own snacks and meals.

 

6. Pack a sensory kit.

Some zoos may have sensory kits to offer families. But a safe bet is to assume they don’t. I highly recommend headphones for those with sound-sensitivities.  It was at the dolphin show years ago that we realized our autistic son’s limits to loud music and noise. He had a complete meltdown during the show, so we left early.

 

7. Bring someone along to assist.

If you have more than one autistic child and/or a child that is a toddler, preschooler or elementary-age, it may be helpful to have an extra pair of hands. Having a 1-to-1 ratio is best. My kids are almost adults, so that ratio is not necessary. Having another responsible adult is beneficial for other reasons (which I’ll get into later in this article).

 

8. Check the weather forecast.

Plan your trip accordingly.  How much cold or heat can your child tolerate?  What about rain?  Most zoos I know have the majority of their exhibits outdoors. The Indianapolis Zoo has two large indoor areas—Oceans and Orangutan Center—but would be crowded during a rainstorm.  Also, animals tend to be more active on cooler days and early in the morning, especially because zookeepers are feeding them.  The park is also less crowded then.

 

            

 

SENSORY TIPS DURING YOUR ZOO VISIT

 

Finally…a perfect day to visit the zoo has come! You feel prepared enough, maybe pre-purchased tickets.  Here are some sensory tips for a visit to the Indianapolis Zoo—although many other zoos have similar exhibits which you may find relevant.

 

1. Animal experiences…

Besides passively viewing the animals you can also actively interact with them in a more meaningful way.  The experiences vary in intensity.

Calming:

  • Petting a shark. No, REALLY! The Indianapolis Zoo has very large shallow shark touch pool in an indoor atmosphere that is very peaceful. It’s relaxing watching their graceful movements in water. The Oceans exhibits are by far the most calming.

 

  • Animals in the Plains and Forest areas—elephants, bears, giraffes and tigers—are slow-moving but fascinating to watch.

 

  • The orangutans are altogether special, often leaning their heads against the windows for a very up-close-and-personal encounter.

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits    

 

Intense:

  • Feeding the lorikeets. This was our favorite animal encounter, so much we did it twice. Using our TAP access we fed them a liquid solution out of a little cup, which they licked.  One moved up my daughter’s arm to top of her safari hat in search of food.  We couldn’t stop smiling and laughing!  On the other hand, they can be very loud, especially when they perch on your shoulder and chirp right in your ear!

 

  • We also hand-fed a giraffe and flamingoes.

 

  • In terms of animal observations, the most active were the lemurs. They proved to be very amusing to watch, thwarting the zookeeper’s efforts to corral them back inside by constantly escaping.

 

  • The dog show was lively. There was enough space for seating and it was shaded. It was hard to discern what the presenters were saying with loud music playing in the background.  (Headphones recommended)

 

  • The dolphin show, while very enjoyable, was perhaps the most intense experience with music that was a bit loud and very crowded with spectators. (Headphones recommended)

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits        

 

2.  Rides…

Slow-moving rides—like gondola systems and boat rides—tend to be relaxing experiences. Train rides can be both relaxing and intense at the same time. The greatest difficulty would be waiting in lines.

Calming:

  • The Skyline is the most relaxing, as long as everyone in the party can handle gliding 50 feet in the air. Although it was intended to observe the orangutans swing from massive heights, we didn’t see any outside. It is mostly to be enjoyed as a slow-moving ride above the zoo and skyline of downtown Indianapolis.

 

  • The train was relaxing but a bit more intense. A voice on a loudspeaker provided a “backstage tour” of the zoo. Sit in the back of the train to avoid the loud whistle in the front.

 

  • Compared to those at amusement parks, the Kombo Coaster would be considered a “kiddie coaster” (so not THAT intense). There were no lines for the ride during the entire time of our visit. So, if your child is a sensory-seeker and meets the height requirement, this would be a perfect attraction to ride again and again with the TAP.

 

  • The carousel appeared to be more intense than calming, considering it was placed in a more visible place in the zoo with higher crowds. (We did not ride this attraction, so I cannot comment on the volume of the music.)

 

 

ADVOCATE FOR YOUR LOVED ONE’S SENSORY NEEDS

 

If the zoo you visit has NO special accommodations for those with cognitive-sensory needs, then you’ll have to advocate for your autistic child or other family member.

Here are some suggestions that might work for you:

 

1. Consider having someone to be a “line placeholder” if necessary.

The Indianapolis Zoo does not have a “wait outside the line” accommodations. We waited 40 minutes for both the train and Skyliner rides.  That may be entirely too long for some on the spectrum.  Some zoos might have line accommodations—check in advance.  I suggest you let someone at the ticket booth know you will have a placeholder in line (that extra person you bring along) while you wait nearby with your child.  Or…you could always ask a stranger if they can hold your place.  (Never hurts to ask.). Ask guest services at the zoo entrance what they can do to help you.

 

2. Create a small laminated card that explains your autistic child’s needs and maybe how they can help.

Sometimes it’s necessary to convey your needs in a non-verbal way with staff.

 

3. Make staff aware if your child is a “runner”.

If your child has a lack of personal safety and runs off, be sure to alert zoo staff at guest services as well as at each exhibit. They usually have personal radios to communicate with one another in the event your child goes missing. Have your child wear identification with your phone number.

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit       

 

PRECIOUS MEMORIES MADE AT THE ZOO

 

Some zoos have a very spacious feel and are better designed to handle more crowds, especially if they have very wide walking paths. The Indianapolis Zoo is one such place that can accommodate many people without making you feel claustrophobic.

 

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, while one of my favorites, has very narrow walking paths which can create bottlenecks and tight spaces. Recognize your child’s ability to handle crowds. Watch videos of the zoo you want to see to get a better sense of space.  This may affect your choice in which zoo you do end up visiting.

 

Zoos can be both peaceful and thrilling experiences all at once.  Sensory-seekers love the hands-on interactions with the animals and the rides, while sensory-avoiders can just observe them play.  Just be sure to do your research before you go.  And if your autistic loved one has had enough, try again another time.

 

Our family has continued to go to a zoo year-after-year despite meltdowns. Every trip to has been better than the one before it. I loved watching their progress on outings like this.

 

It takes time to become acclimated after recognizing how your autistic loved one reacts to the sensory environment of a zoo.  I encourage you to just appreciate the smiles and joy felt by your kids watching and playing with their favorite animals!

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

 

Consider planning a weekend getaway to Indianapolis. Check out my article on making the most of a trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum! 

Respite Vacation at Home

Respite Vacation at Home

Have you ever considered having a solitary respite vacation at home? 

Seems like an oxymoron concept, right? Vacations are supposed to be AWAY from home to be a real vacation.  How can you truly take a respite vacation at home when it reminds you of all you need to do?

Well, that depends on your definition of “vacation”.

If it’s defined as a chance to explore new places and seek thrills, then yes, that makes sense.

But if “vacation” means gaining a new perspective and just relax, then you don’t have to seek it elsewhere.

For five whole days, my entire family was gone.  While they were at different camps, I was by myself at home.  As in…alonewith no one around…to need me.

It was amazing to find solace in my entire house for more than a day. And not just in a bathroom locked away to escape the kids for a few seconds!

In other words, I experienced the pure bliss of SOLITUDE!

For me, that describes a respite vacation at home perfectly.  When you get to a point in your life when you actually fantasize being a jail for a little while just to escape the pressures of home-life, then you NEED a respite away from others!

Respite doesn’t have to be expensive or far from where you live.

In fact, I encourage you to consider taking some time to be by yourself in the comforts of your own home.

 

Take nature walks during your respite vacation

Why a “solitude vacation” is “what the doctor ordered”

Have you ever wondered what daily life would be without someone else needing you every second of the day?

I can’t describe how lighter I feel by not having to worry about the demands of anyone else but my own.  At least just for a little while.

Well, that’s not entirely true…

I still maintained a semi-normal routine: I still had dogs, cats and chickens to feed.  And I did do laundry and dishes… only ONCE this week! I did cook…a few times.

BUT…I didn’t have to pick up and put away loose articles of papers, clothing, or shoes that weren’t mine.  I didn’t have to run errands for someone else. I didn’t have to take someone to therapy or scouts or band or piano lesson.

I visited places I wanted to go, when I wanted to go.  I could drive to another city and visit a friend. I could stay up and sleep in. Or, go to bed early and rise early…all because I could.

To a person without kids, the idea of staying at home but still having to work in the yard doesn’t sound like a vacation.

But to any parent of children, no matter how many, no matter what age and size, no matter their abilities or disabilities…BEING ALONE IS A VACATION!

 

Relax with a book during your vacation at home

Get into the “respite mindset” at home

Since you don’t have the distractions of serving and caring for others, you have more free time.  How you want to use that free time is now your own choice. You don’t have to fit it into your schedule around others’ needs.

You do need to adopt the attitude that your home-space can be a vacation-space.  That means letting go of obligations that haunt you into feeling guilt if you don’t do them. It may take a day or two to unwind to figure out how to take a respite vacation at home. Be kind to yourself!

First, what are your end-goals for respite? 

  • Figure out what you want to get out of your time in blissful solitary confinement at home. How do you want to feel by the end of the week? Do you want to feel calm and at peace? Do you want to feel more energy and alive?  Do you want to gain a greater appreciation and gratitude for the blessings in your life? Do you want to feel more spiritually centered?

 

  • Be aware of how you feel when doing certain things. If the act of performing a certain task itself brings you joy, then by all means do it. If the process only adds to your stress, forget it! For example, putting clutter away and doing some light cleaning at the start of my respite brings me to joy and peace to see order out of chaos. But I am not about to spend a whole day or week doing that.  Blah!

Second, what are the means to achieve your respite goals?

  • Create two different lists: “Tasks to NOT do” as well as “Tasks you want to do”. Drop certain task your normally do (like laundry) or at least minimize the time you spend on them if they stress you out. Maximize your time for things you always wanted to do but normally can’t with life’s constant distractions (like taking a whole day for reading your favorite novel or journaling).

 

  • If you have some long-term “bucket list” goals, consider using this time to start working on those. Do you want to create new healthier habits? Do you want to reconnect with others you hardly get to see?  Do you want to organize the mass of family photos in shoeboxes? This period of respite could enable you to gain the momentum to form new habits that will carry you through the more hectic days.  Just as long as you have JOY in doing those things!

 

  • Here are some specific things I did with my time: (Feel free to steal ideas…)
    • Visiting with close friends without rushing back home
    • Jumping on my son’s trampoline
    • Laying outside and daydreaming as I watch the clouds go by
    • Mowing the lawn (no joke, I actually enjoyed this)
    • Sipping on a Frappacino at Starbucks while working on my blog
    • Doing DVD exercises in which the instructor is in a gorgeous tropical setting
    • Organizing my computer desk while watching Netflix comedians
    • Hearing a political figure discuss foreign policy at my local university
    • Participating in webinars that teach about cool vacation destinations
    • Dealing with a thieving racoon at 3 am (okay…that was not on my to-do list)

 

Invite a friend over for tea during your respite

Recruit others to “lift your load”

Let me guess.  You’re probably thinking, Just exactly how am I supposed to get alone-time?

All I can say is…find ways to MAKE IT HAPPEN!

If we as autism parents don’t ask for help in the first place, it’s never going to come.

1. Take advantage of respite camps!

For me, it has become a lot easier now that my kids are teens. We can take advantage of opportunities built for this purpose.  My daughter attended an autism camp about an hour away.  Not only does it help her build self-confidence and independence skills, but it is designed to provide respite for special-needs parents.

2. Find local special needs day camps.

I urge you to contact local or state autism or special-needs advocacy groups for more information on opportunities like this.   Some YMCAs even offer day-camps for special needs kids. If you can’t get an overnight break, then at least a day-long respite would suffice.

3. Get respite help through the Medicaid Waiver.

The Medicaid waiver provides respite as a service for parents.  Find an agency that hires skilled workers you trust.  Some agencies may even permit you to use allotted respite hours over a few days instead of a couple hours per week. If you trust your respite worker with your child overnight, then try at least a day or two away to see how that arrangement works.

4. Ask family or friends!  By all means bribe them if you have to!

For one week my parents took care of our two kids when they toddlers. I went with my husband to the Walt Disney World area for a couples-respite. I didn’t even step foot in the parks. I de-stressed in solitude at the resort while my husband was at work conference.  In the evenings we had fun and reconnected after the last few years of 24-hour baby care.

Since then, I have asked family, maybe once or twice a year, to take my kids overnight for a few days.  They get to enjoy their grandkids more, and we get a much-needed parenting break.

5. Hire special needs caregivers.

Other avenues include hiring caregivers from companies located on the internet.  An Indiana mom started a company called Synapsesitters after she had a hard time locating someone knowledgeable about autism.   Another company to consider is Care.com, in which you can hire sitters and nannies who have experience with special needs.

Ask your therapy agencies for help in locating good help.  Undoubtedly, they have clients who have probably requested the same thing. They may be able to recommend certain websites or local services over others.

 

Treat yourself to a spa day during your respite vacation

Drop the “parent guilt”…and GO FOR IT!

I love, love, LOVE my respite!  I feel refreshed and de-stressed.  The daily routine doesn’t feel like a heavy burden. When I see my husband and kids again, I appreciate them more because I missed them. This time also helps me recognize unhealthy parenting habits that I need to change.

Too many autism parents neglect their personal need for respite. The excuses?

No one understands my child’s needs. I don’t have money or time for that.  No one is around to help me. My child absolutely needs me all the time.

Guess what? Your child will survive without you for a little while! The compounding stress of daily life without a break over weeks, months, or even years may make you resentful or make interacting with your autistic child more frustrating.

Recognize when you need to take a step back to renew your mind, body and perspective on life.  Plan respite time far out in advance like a real vacation.

Do EVERYONE a favor, but especially yourself:  take advantage of a respite vacation at home and all the benefits it will bring to you and your family!

For a wonderful therapeutic getaway in an ethereal setting, visit Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. Perfect for a family or friends vacation…but also great for taking time for yourself!

 

Retreats at Hocking Hills

Retreats at Hocking Hills State Park

Cabin retreats at Hocking Hills

Blissful Getaways: Retreats at Hocking Hills

 

There is nothing like being completely surrounded by a canopy of trees…and little else.  Our hideaway cabin in the woods was the perfect getaway to visit such an ethereal place.  From cabins to campsites, you’ll find a wide range of retreats at Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio.

 

During the Memorial Day weekend holiday, we met up with my own family here.  The house we rented was large enough to accommodate all eleven of us comfortably.  With 3 floors we never felt that we were “invading” each other’s space. It was located only 10 minutes away from any of the trails of the park.

 

Hocking Hills has no shortage of cabins to rent for a weekend retreat or a longer vacation. They also have several campgrounds and hotels if you are looking for a cheaper alternative.

 

Not all lodging at Hocking Hills is equal.

 

Autism families may need to conduct some research into the different kinds of accommodations best suited for their needs.  Besides web-searches, you may need to make a few phone calls to make they have everything you need.

 

Cabin Rentals

 

My sister did some web- surfing for cabins until she found something she knew we would both like.  I ended up calling the owner one of the rental cabins. I was sold by his friendly phone demeanor and enthusiasm for what the house and property had to offer.

 

Welcome to the Sieri Glen                     Backyard campfire at the cabin

 

Corban Cabin GetawaysThe Sieri Glen is a log cabin that, while rustic-looking, was not lacking in the finer amenities.  My daughter honed her skills on the pool table while my son appreciated the outdoor hot tub.  It has 4-bedrooms and 3 futons, DirectTV, board games, a full washer-and-dryer set, 2 indoor fireplaces and an outdoor fire-ring.  My favorite moments were sitting in a rocking chair on the back-porch listening to refreshing sound of the rain on the trees.

 

Relax on the backporch                          Plenty of recreation options

 

Corban Cabin was perfect to help our family who live far apart to reconnect.  After a few hours of hiking it was nice to just cook for ourselves and relax in a comfortable house to talk, laugh and play games.

 

The cabin was not cheap, however. At least three families paying equally makes it comparable to a one-night stay in a nice hotel.  Another downside is that the cabin is not wheelchair-accessible. There are stairs throughout the house and up to the front porch.  The steep, gravel driveway may become inaccessible during the winter months.

 

My sister has previously stayed in the Chalet A-frame cabins which are suitable for small families and look to be more handicapped accessible.  They also have their own pool for guests and accept pets.

 

Chalet cabins at Hocking Hills                Swim in the sun at the Chalets

 

Campgrounds

 

There are several private campgrounds in the Hocking Hills area.  Many are extremely affordable.  Hocking Hills Adventure Camping has primitive riverside sites for as little as $26 a night.

 

We drove through the state park campground right next to Old Man’s Cave entrance.  The campground was very full, although some of the unreserved spots were still available on a Saturday afternoon. I found the sites to be narrow and short—cars and trucks had to be parked next to the campers. There was partial shade but mostly sun for most sites.   Their full hookup sites had electric, water and sewage.

 

Campsite at Hocking Hills State Park campground              Camping at Hocking Hills

 

Hotels & Bed & Breakfasts

 

If you’d rather stay in a hotel, there are some available in the vicinity. But they may not be very close to Hocking Hills State Park. Any hotel located in Logan, Ohio (including Holiday Inn Express) would be closer to the trails.

 

If you want lodging with a medieval flair, check out Ravenwood Castle.   They serve as a wedding venue as well as a site for gaming conventions and other events.  Besides suites they also have cottages that are reasonably priced.

 

Ultimate Nature Retreat

 

With the right planning and “pre-exploration” of the lodging available at Hocking Hills, you can ensure a relaxing getaway for your autism family. It’s the perfect place to unwind, unplug and reconnect with family and friends.

Bonding with family at a Hocking Hills cabin

 

Whether you are looking for a primitive camping experience or lodging that makes you feel like royalty, you can find a wide variety of lodging accommodations close to the park. Explore the vast range of retreats at Hocking Hills state park by visiting their tourism website.

 

I get a feeling we’ll be back within the year.  It’s allure not only as a nature preserve but as a retreat from everyday life makes Hocking Hills one-of-a-kind park.

For more getaway ideas like this, just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

 

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Basking in cascading sunlight at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills: Unplug…unwind…breathe deep!

 

Tired of living in our stressful modern world?  You can find the perfect atmosphere for nature therapy at Hocking Hills State Park.

 

We live in fast-paced movements; loud artificial noises; concrete scenery; electronic addictions; and compartmentalized living.  No wonder people want to escape it!

 

These sensory-intense, disconnected environments are often “toxic” for autistic individuals, aggravating their sensitive neurological systems.

 

But being in nature, even for a few minutes, can have instant benefits. Studies have found that being in nature decreases cortisol (the stress hormone). Those that make longer commitments to be in nature, often on guided group adventures, have found lasting healing from chronic pain, such as PTSD.

 

Breathing in the forest air immediately brings peace to mind, body and soul.  It is calming and rejuvenating at the same time…which can help both sensory-seekers and sensory-avoiders.

 

Nature therapy through forest breathing

 

Being in the forests of Hocking Hills in Ohio fulfilled my need to escape daily living for a while and feel refreshed.  I felt centered, grounded, at-peace and brimming with joy among the trees.  My autistic kids absolutely loved spending time there with other family around.

 

Besides physical health, being in nature can also help improve sensory-integration, spatial/body-awareness, and executive functioning.

 

Nature therapy at Hocking Hills is ideal for autistic individuals and their families needing a calming atmosphere.

 

“Forest therapy”

 

The Japanese call it “forest bathing”.  It is the act of being attuned to the smallest of sounds and the scents of the trees. It is not fast-paced hiking. Rather, it is slow strolls or sitting quietly in nature. It is feeling the “life” of the forest.

 

Reading about others’ experiences with “forest bathing” gave me the sense that they were getting in touch with the “kid inside”.  You know, the one who took mud baths, ran barefoot in the grass, and spent most of the day outside with friends.

 

WHAT TO DO:

  • It’s very simple…take your time to walk along the paths. Reflect upon the beautiful scenery and try to think of nothing else for the moment. Let your child take his/her time to explore along the path.

 

  • As you walk or hike at a faster pace, inhale slowly and deeply. Show your child how it’s done.  Take breaks to just sit and relax.

Just being in nature has been proven to provide many benefits for kids:

  • Leads to increased collaboration, imagination, concentration and positive feelings.
  • Fuels higher levels of Vitamin D from natural sunlight, providing an immunity barrier against illnesses and protect against weight gain.
  • Teaches kids how to assess risk better than being in a “safe playground” space.

 

The power of nature as a healer for physical and social health is amazing.  But it also contributes to sensory wellness, perfect for those with autism.  (Don’t believe me?   Read this article.)

 

Sensory Integration Therapy

 

Autistic children can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to the environmental input around them.  They react in different ways to make sense of it all. Determine your autistic child’s key sensory issues and use nature as a “therapy tool” to work on them.

 

Body awareness:  Some with autism have vestibular (balance) issues.  Others have a hard time knowing where their body is in space relative to other objects or people (called proprioception).  Some of the best things to do to improve this condition—besides working with a PT or OT in an indoor, highly-structured setting—is to practice in natural settings.

 

Take care of more treacherous paths

WHAT TO DO:

  • Those with more severe issues can stay on shorter trails that are relatively flat and/or paved in the gorges. Gradually move to more rugged paths and those with no safety rails when you feel confident your child can handle those.

 

  • With gentle guidance on the nature trails, you can challenge your child by slowly and carefully walking over tree roots, climbing over rocks, and wading in a stream.

 

  • “Show and tell” how you walk down muddy steps, then let you child follow one step at a time.

 

  • Consider buying a stable, well-built hiking stick or two (one for each hand). Even experienced hikers use these for stability and support. These are a great therapy tool to practice coordination.

 

The 5 Senses:  Nature, especially in larger state or national parks, provide a more serene atmosphere with much less sensory output.  No extreme visual, auditory, or motion-based triggers here bombarding your autistic child.  Your child can focus on receiving and processing input one aspect of nature at a time.

 

WHAT TO DO:

  • Hiking in nature can be part of your child’s sensory diet. For example, if you child needs help with auditory input, help him or her pick out the different sounds with active listening.  Or, let him or her touch plants, rocks, leaves, running water, etc. (anything non-poisonous, of course).

 

  • Shut out one sense to heighten the experience of another. For example, have your child close his/her eyes to feel a natural object or to hear birds. Or, apply sound-barring headphones to focus on the visual elements to play an “I-spy” game.

 

Executive-Functioning Therapy

 

Many autistic kids remember a million tiny details but cannot remember 2-step directions. Organizing information in their brain is hard.  Add all of life’s daily distractions and environmental sensory triggers and it becomes impossible to focus.  But a calm environment with “no rules” can be a good place to practice those executive-functioning skills.

 

Appreciating the natural beauty of Hocking HillsWHAT TO DO:

  • Practice following 2- or more-step directions with simple task along the path. For example: “first, find a rock that is round and then throw it in the creek.” Or “find two sticks and put the smaller one behind a big rock”.

 

  • To help with understanding sequences, take photos of places along the path. Have your child take some of his/her favorite spots as well. When you get back from your trip you can create your own social story of your memories in order you did them. (Note day and time of your photos and add them into your story.)

 

  • Have your child help pack the hiking bag with needed supplies. Ask what they think is necessary for the amount of time you’ll be gone of the trail. This helps with learn the process of planning.

 

Reconnecting with Nature

 

Tackling important sensory and life skills doesn’t have to happen in a lab-like, institutional clinic.  Some of the best progress happens in more natural settings having fun with one’s own family.  The truest breakthroughs for those with autism happen in joyful connection and relationship with others.

 

Simple fun at Hocking Hills

 

Hocking Hills is the perfect respite for autistic individuals to connect with self and to forge greater bonds with their families.

 

See for yourself why people come back to Hocking Hills in Ohio again and again…any time of the year!

 

Now, let’s move on to the lodging accommodations available at Hocking Hills!

 

Besides Hocking Hill, go out and discover “nature therapy” in any city, state or national park wherever you find an abundance of trees.