When I ask Nicole Thibault to tell me about her earliest travel experiences with her 13-year-old son, Tristan, she laughs.
It’s the kind of nervous laughter that parents of young children will immediately recognize: A fatigued chuckle laced with an “I’m glad that’s over” sigh.
There was a time when Thibault and her husband, Chris, would’ve described themselves as travellers; it ended when Tristan was 2.
“Everything was horrible for him,” she recalls. “The lines to go through security, the airplane ride, the bus to the resort. … Everything we did made him scream.”
It turned out to be more than the terrible twos. A diagnosis of autism followed shortly after their return and Thibault’s travelling family dreams seemed in jeopardy.
Thirteen years later, Thibault is happily showing me photos from two of her favourite family adventures. In them, Tristan is beaming alongside parents and his younger brothers, Sebastian, 11, and Emerson, 10, during family trips to Walt Disney World and Mexico.
It’s a photo Thibault was determined to make happen, but it took some time. The knowledge she gleaned along the way is helping other families with special-needs children travel, too.
First there was Magical Storybook Tours – the agency she launched after conversations with other special-needs parents made it clear that many had given up travel entirely. Clients have ranged from an aunt with deaf nieces to a child with anorexia.
Her first-hand knowledge of what it’s like to travel with a special-needs child and her belief in Temple Grandin’s “loving push” theory – which suggests kids with autism need to be gently pushed from their comfort zones – made travel seem possible for her clients.
“Every time we went [on a trip], we’d try something new so that we could expand his safety bubble,” Thibault explains. “That’s my whole mission.”
The Mission grew last year when she created a new initiative: Spectrum Travel Social Story Videos.
People on the spectrum can sometimes find comfort in knowing exactly what to expect from a situation, she explains. It’s why “social stories” – printed booklet roadmaps explaining through words and pictures how to navigate anything from riding a train to going to the dentist – are often used to prepare kids for new events.
But in an age when YouTube videos are more popular than the printed word, paper stories weren’t as convincing as they once were and the videos she was finding on YouTube weren’t family-friendly or destination specific. She decided to change that.
Families can now go online and find her collection of seven-video series (one for parents and six for kids) highlighting concerns like where to find a quiet space at Universal Studios or how to avoid the disco elevator at Legoland. She funded them with the help of her family and went to each of the destinations highlighted to video the space and ask the questions special needs families need to know in order to travel confidently.
The reaction has been positive.
“It’s been such a calming experience for so many of the families to actually see things beforehand,” she says. “Their anxiety level is much lower now. And then they can concentrate on having fun with their families.”
The autism community has taken note, too.
Her videos have been selected for partnership with AutismTravel.com. The website run by IBCCES (International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education) is behind the recent autism accreditation drive focused on moving destinations and travel agents from simply claiming to be “autism-friendly” to proving it.
There are already 10 destinations that have received accreditation including Beaches Turks and Caicos and Sesame Place in Philadelphia.
The partnership would make Thibault’s videos a certified resource and provide funding to do even more videos and, more importantly she says, reach a larger audience.
As a certified autism travel professional herself, she recognizes that travel isn’t a possibility for every special needs child. Still, she points to the incredible ways that Tristan has taken to travel and the positive impact it has had on her family’s life as a beacon of hope for other families.
“[Our travels mean] that we’re not limited in any way,” she says. “I think we have more opportunity than ever to continuing broadening the horizon for him and expanding his bubble just a little bit more.”
A is for Autism
Looking for resources and destinations where travellers on the autism spectrum can find safe, fun places to relax? The good news is that today there are more than ever before. With one out of every 66 children between the ages of 5 and 17 in Canada now diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum (according to the Public Health Agency of Canada), parents, teachers and companies are increasingly in tune with sensory, physical and behavioural support needs. Here are just a few to consider as you plan a vacation:
Surfside Beach, S.C.
The town that sits just south of Myrtle Beach works with restaurants and other hospitality offerings to raise awareness, acceptance and understanding. Events, including barbecues, play dates, fishing from the pier and movie nights, are all noted as autism-friendly in the hopes that more families will feel comfortable attending.
Channel-Port aux Basques, Nfld.
Newfoundland comes in with the highest number of kids in Canada (one in every 57) diagnosed as being on the Autism Spectrum. But, thanks to a pair of women there, it is also home to one of the most autism-friendly towns. AIM (Autism Involves Me) is a community group co-founded by April Billiard and Joan Chaisson that works to make the community a comfortable and safe space for local kids on the spectrum. Visitors can reap the benefits, too.
Pearson International Airport, Toronto
Travellers passing through Canada’s busiest airport can download the MagnusCards app ahead of time. The airport has step-by-step cards on their that will help travellers anticipate and understand the various airport processes they’ll face when they visit.
Shannon Airport, Ireland
A sensory room at this airport offers travellers with sensory sensitivities a quiet space to wait before boarding. Calming projections and sounds are far easier to manage than typical airport buzz. You’ll find similar offerings at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta.
Chelsea Hotel, Toronto
The hotel partnered with an Autism Organization to develop the first Guests with Autism Comfort Package, which includes social scripts to help with the understanding of the hotel and its amenities and Fidget Kits to help those with sensory issues.
Hotel Port Aux Basques, Newfoundland
Billed as Canada’s first “autism-friendly hotel,” the hotel boasts a play lounge suitable for kids with sensory sensitivities and a fully trained staff.
In addition to staff being nationally certified and being host to Julia – Sesame Street’s only autistic Muppet – Beaches offers special sensory friendly areas throughout the resorts for families needing a break from the raucous excitement outside.
The entire fleet of ships is certified as autism-friendly. It means parents can request special dietary accommodations, bypass kids club toilet-training policies and more. Also of note: Adults with autism are also welcomed and accommodated.
The Theme Parks
Morgan’s Wonderland, San Antonio, Tex.
Created by businessman Gordon Hartman after seeing other children shun his severely autistic daughter, class="">Morgan’s Wonderland has served more than 1.3-million guests at its fully accessible theme park. Recently the offerings grew to include Inspiration Island – an accessible water park – as well. Best of all: Kids with special needs do not pay to enter the park – a recognition of the often-increased demands on the financial resources of special-needs families.
Sesame Place, Philadelphia
Certified “autism-friendly,” it’s now easier than ever for people on the spectrum to make their way to Sesame Street, interact with characters and enjoy the rides. Accommodations (including information on how each ride might affect the senses) and quiet rooms are among the help available to make it easier.