We planned our trip with enthusiasm. Myself and my three children were going to venture out to see the country in our mini-van. We planned it for months. We knew the places we wanted to see and we had fun filling in and researching the other spots. As we got closer to the trip though, my son, 9 years old, was becoming very anxious. He was diagnosed with mild-autism around his third birthday. Although he has come a long way, he still has trouble dealing with transitioning and with change.
He was even able to verbalize his frustration, when he yelled, “Mom, you know I hate change. I hate new things. I hate new places.” All of this as his fists pumped the air and his chin and lower teeth were thrusted forward.
The challenge for me was that he is absolutely right. He’s awful at change and transitions. What was I thinking dragging him around the country where every day was going to be different? And then for some reason it just came off my lips without really any thought behind it, I said to him, “Every day will be almost exactly the same. We will wake up, have breakfast and get in the car and drive. We will explore and then we will go to a hotel that will have a pool where you can swim with your sisters, then we’ll eat dinner, we’ll watch a little tv and go to bed.”
He said he hates to go to news places. I said it will be the same every day buddy, only your eyes will see new things. His sisters reminded him of how much he enjoys driving to Florida every summer.
I tried to be as prepared as possible; dvd player, i-pod, books, army men and his journal. He actually did fantastic. We were on the road for five weeks. Days would go by, sometimes, and we wouldn’t even turn the dvd player on. He could listen (to the same four songs) on his i-pod and stare out the window, coming up with these beautiful incredible, descriptive descriptions of the mountain ranges and clouds, “It’s a dragon that has a baby in it’s arms, but it’s not the dragon’s baby, it is a puppy dog.”
He noticed all the different accents from the international tourists at the National Parks, of which there are more Europeans in the parks than there are Americans. I guess it is a result of the weak dollar and all. He started imitating all kinds of accents with keen precision. The girls would try this too, but he was able to pick up on subtle nuances in the accents pointing out the difference between the Australians and the English and he would correct his sisters; this would make his Uncle Gorm, that speaks 12 or so languages proud!
There were certainly difficult moments. He cried almost every day because he missed his dad and his friends. (He cries every day at home over something pretty much as well. (We were able to call dad whenever these crying spells came about, and I started letting them all buy postcards and he would write a short note to his friends (even a girl!). He would mostly just describe what he had just eaten, but it helped him feel connected.
He was fascinated with the Navigation system in the car and couldn’t believe how far away from home we really went. He loved jumping in the front seat and hitting the “Go Home” button and seeing the path we had to take to get there. When were in the Southwest, though, he wanted to just head in a straight line to get home quicker, we explained to him we wanted to see Mount Rushmore, Chicago and Niagara Falls. He didn’t like this at all. We had described the trip to him as being able to see Arizona, the Grand Canyon and then meet up with his dad in Las Vegas, so he really didn’t see any point in having to go further north and then east. After a while he described the trip to people as a rectangle trip. I realized that to him, most trips are A to B and then B to A.
At one point from the back of the car I heard, “Mom, can we go back to that crusty, crumbly mountain? You know, the “scaly” mountain?” I didn’t know what he meant but then remembered that the last National Park we had stopped at had this amazing landscape that he was completely captivated by. It was dried out dirt where the top layer of the soil was crusty but then underneath was like sand. He really got it that it had been an ocean floor and it was completely amazing to us all how he had described it. We were actually going to be winding our way back to that mountain range, it was the Escalante Mountains, and they border Arizona and Utah. We also, found that the Badlands National Park had similar “crusty and crumbly” mountain ranges, that were so accessible. You could just pull your car over on the side of the road and have the kids play and play. This was my favorite time, when it was a little unplanned but we were still on schedule.
Traveling with autism: it makes me realize that there is a little of it in all of us.