When Nicole Korosa's parents offered to fly her and her boys, one of whom has autism, to Florida for a visit, she thought, "I'm not passing up this trip. I will deal with two-and-a-half hours of a screaming kid."
But Nicholas, 7, didn't scream-not even going through the security checkpoint at the airport. He became so engrossed in the conveyor belt that he didn't even mind taking off his shoes. And he loves airplanes, so he loved flying. It was the beach that freaked him out-he doesn't like sand or sun or wearing sandals. "My dad stayed with him a lot in the house," says the Homer Glen mom.
While experts have general ideas about where to consider vacationing with a child on the autism spectrum, they all agree that it can vary greatly from child to child. For example, at least one expert recommended heading to the beach because it tends to be a calmer destination than, say, Disney World.
Korosa, however, says that while Nicholas hated the beach, he had a great time at Disney. He wants to go back, even though the only ride he wanted to go on was the tea cups.
Julie Martin, executive director of By Your Side, a Burr Ridge-based speech and language therapy center for children with autism, notes that it's tough to predict what destination will work for kids on the autism spectrum. In fact, she says, places that work for kids with autism don't always work for kids with Asperger's and vice versa.
It's important always to call ahead and talk with someone at the destination-not just rely on Internet research-to ensure the place can accommodate your child's needs.
With that caveat, here are a few destinations worth investigating if you want to take a family vacation with a child with an autism spectrum disorder.
1. Try a dude ranch. Some children with special needs find it comforting to be around the huge animals, and several dude ranches offer special programs for children with autism. For example, Snow Mountain Ranch in northern Colorado, a resort-style property operated by the YMCA of the Rockies, offers therapeutic horseback riding programs and summer camps for children with autism. Similarly, Tanque Verde Ranch in Tucson offers to tailor programs for children with special needs.
2. Book a condo, house or suite. This is Korosa's recommendation. Nicholas finds hotel rooms too confining. But there are hotel chains that cater to families with special needs children, such as the beautiful TradeWinds Resort in St. Pete Beach, Fla. The resort has been named an autism-friendly business by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities. It offers a social book online for families to review prior to their arrival, has a gluten-free menu, and provides free hotel room safety kits, including outlet covers, corner cushions and a hanging door alarm.
3. Visit during a less chaotic period. At the Children's Museum of New Hampshire, that means going on the second Saturday of the month for the "Exploring Our Way" program. The museum is open from 10 a.m.-noon only for families with children on the autism spectrum. If you set your sights bigger-an amusement park, for example-go in the off-season or choose a smaller, calmer park like Holiday World in Santa Claus, Ind.
4. Look for a place that offers special programs for special needs visitors. In Utah, that includes the National Ability Center in Park City, which offers summer camps exclusively for children with autism and sports programs that allow the whole family to learn and play together.
5. Consider Madison. The capital of Wisconsin has a small town feel, but a plethora of autism-friendly attractions and support programs, says Judy Frankel, public relations manager for the city's visitor bureau and the mom of a son with autism. The city has an array of offerings, from yoga classes to a local theater that offers a program one Saturday a month for kids with autism.
Cindy Richards is the mom of two who gets her muse from traveling the world, usually with kids in tow. She also writes for TravelingMom.com, where she also serves as editor.
See more of Cindy's stories here.