Learning to Not Be Clark Griswald as a Special Needs Dad

My wife thinks I am a living, breathing replication of Clark Griswald. Not just in that I can be absent-minded and get myself in all kinds of jams, but mostly about how I try hard to have the perfect family vacation. I want my kids to have special memories of trips and going to places with us as I had with my grandparents, so I will over-plan trips, try to think of everything to do, and then wonder how all the plans fall apart.

My inner need to be a Clark Griswald and create the perfect family vacation gets challenged by the realities of caring for our autistic son. Vacations are a challenging experience for him. He enjoys going places, but even things he loves to see can be overwhelming because they are not part of his routine. He is a child who depends upon his routine – same foods, shoes, chair, etc. – for security and comfort.

Vacations upend his routine. You do not sleep in the same bed. You may not have access to your preferred diet of foods. You have to travel, which comes with the various sensory inputs of locations, cars, and sounds. I don’t think I’ve always paid attention to how much his world is changed and challenged by simply wanting to have a good, old family vacation.

You learn to adjust your expectations to make a vacation memorable and comfortable for everyone, especially our autistic son. For this to happen, it has meant that I have had to grow in what I expect of myself and how I respond to vacation to make it possible.

For one, I have learned that it is perfectly acceptable not to arrive at a destination in one day. My preferred mode of traveling is to leave early, drive all day, and get to the place as quickly as possible. I expect to travel with limited stops, for them to be as quick as possible, and to keep moving. That works for me, but it does not work for our son. That kind of traveling creates an overwhelming experience for him. It puts him in a pressure-cooker situation for an entire day. While he loves car rides, it is still an overwhelming experience of taking on new sensory inputs, being held down for long periods in one place, and not having much control over where we are or how long it will take to get there.

So, you learn to adjust your expectations. One of my learning adjustments has been to recognize how long our son is comfortable being in a car traveling. I have learned to modify our, really my, expectations for how long it will take to get to a specific destination. His limit is about six hours of traveling by car. It took us a lot of time, and stressful car rides, to get to this realization.

I have learned to adjust how long it takes to arrive at a specific location. A trip that might take someone a day may take us two full days so as not to allow him a chance to breathe and not be overwhelmed. Yes, this might increase costs and limit the amount of time you are at a place, but it is worth it to not create additional anxieties in an already stressful situation.

Hotels have been a learning curve for me, as well. I expect to find a quality hotel at a reasonable price that will provide the basics in necessities for an overnight stay. I’m not looking for much but a clean room, a good bed, WiFi, and a decent breakfast. It took me a while to realize that our son needs more space than we realize. He needs room to breathe and to let out his emotions from being stuck in a car all day.

The adjustment here is that we look for rooms with a separate living suite or a standalone Airbnb location, even if it is only for one night. The additional space is worth it to provide a little bit of comfort and to give him the space he needs to readjust. It is helpful to have that room if we have more traveling to do the next day. Larger rooms without the suite are not always good because of the sound bouncing off walls, which can create additional stress points for him.

Another adjustment has focused on how long we stay somewhere, especially at a beach or a museum. I expect to spend all day or good portions of it at various locations and enjoy everything the place has to offer. That doesn’t always work for our son because being around a large group of people can overwhelm him.

I have learned to adjust and lower my expectations for how long we will be at a place and to enjoy the time for whatever it may be. Time at the beach can still be enjoyable, even if it means you spend more time setting up the chairs than in the water. A trip to a museum can still be fun, even if you could not see everything you want. What matters is listening to your child’s clues to know when they have had enough and not forcing them into situations that may cause harm in order to see and do everything.

Vacations can be stressful for a special needs family. They were for a long time for us, primarily because I wanted the Clark Griswald experience without lowering my expectation of reality. As I have learned to adjust, it has led to the moments I have craved as a father – an enjoyable time away with my family that we will remember for a long time.

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