Tremendously Successful Travel With Leelo

I'm not sure why I said I would write this post earlier today. I needed to get Iz to camp, get Leelo back home and ready for the schoolbus, take Mali to swimming lessons (which she uses to hone her comedy routine, not learn water skills), and then pick up her friend Lucy to distract her with imaginary Sparkle Puppy Super Veterinarian scenarios. Thinking I could do anything beyond kid-prep and chauffeurring and popping out some tweets was poor planning.

Still, no harm done. We are having a relatively mellow summer week and blogging is an elastic medium. But last week's San Diego trip with Leo? That was planned, examined, tweaked, and replotted until we had accounted for every detail we could anticipate. Planning was what made that trip with my boy and his autism possible.

And it worked. Leo was a star on his visit to San Diego. He cheerfully tolerated the flight down and the marathon road trip back (he was a much better sport than his Bickerson sisters), and was mostly happy and content to stay at my mom's house.

Here's how we prepared for our boy and his autism to have a successful trip away from home:

1) Do a Local Trial Run.
Leo and I recently spent one, experimental night at a hotel. I chose a location (Sebastopol, two hours away) that was close enough to turn tail and run home if we had to. We stayed at a hotel because I didn't want to risk interrupting family or friends' sleep. Leo did not have a problem sleeping away from home (though he did have issues with the pool not being open at 7 AM), and we had evidence that successful travel with our boy was indeed possible.

2) One-Way Flight the First Time
Leo and Seymour flew Southwest, which has an official policy of pre-boarding kids like our son. Leo enjoyed the flight down, but if he hadn't then we didn't want to worry about flying him back. Our destination was a day's drive away; I took the car down ahead of time and met Leo and his dad at the airport, and we all drove back together.

3) 48 Hours Are Plenty
We didn't want to push our luck, or stress Leo out with a long trip. A short, two-night visit seemed like the best way to succeed -- and indeed, it was. Leo got to have plenty of fun before coming right back home to his regular routine. We might try a longer trip in the future.

4) Choose a Destination With More Options Than You Think You Need
My mom's place is an ideal vacation spot for Leo, and I wouldn't take him anywhere that didn't have a similar variety of options. We could walk to one beach, and drive to several more. There is a hiking path out the back door. A nearby park has swings and a slide. There is a wonderful waterfront for taking walks when Leo goes into dawn-greeting rooster mode. There is a porch swing for Leo to chill out on if he gets overwhelmed and needs a quiet space. We rarely had to worry about how to keep him happily busy.

A Spot to Chill Out

5) Stay With People Who Will Help You
Traveling with kids who need 1:1 supervision can be exhausting, even if those kids are good-natured. So we stayed with relatives who were happy to hang out with our boy in short stretches. If we attempt future non-family trips, I will research local special needs babysitting options in advance, so we can have a small bit of respite. As much fun as we all had, if my mom and brother hadn't pitched in occasionally, we'd have been exhausted.

6) Rearrange Accomodations As Needed
Leo loves my mom's house, but he simply cannot sleep in her guest room. It is too bright, and its location on the top floor makes it too hot for him during summer nights. Leo was up by 3:30 AM on his first night, which had us worried that he no longer tolerated sleeping away from home. But once I pleaded with everyone in the house to play musical beds and he got to sleep in a dark cool room on the ground floor, he slept through the night. *Whew*

7) Bring Lots of Engaging Activities
Leo currently enjoys dot-to-dots, mazes, matching activities, etc, and he likes to do the same activity multiple times. Instead of buying several of the same activity book, I made copies of their pages to tuck in every backpack and bag we brought with us, and laminated other copies to use with dry-erase markers. And I have mentioned these multiple times (and am not employed or compensated by their producer), but the My Busy Kits are a great idea -- lots of sensory, tactile, and open-ended activities, good space-savers, and all three of my kids love them (Leo was the focus of our trip, but he does have sisters). No matter where we were, we always had something with which to engage our boy.

8) Plan Time-Consuming, Self-Directing Excursions
The shore walk mentioned above takes at least an hour. Going to the beach takes at least two. Leo needed supervision but was otherwise self-directed during both. During these activities, my and Seymour's energies were able to shift to lower gears. Plus we enjoyed the swimming and walking as much as Leo did -- I was positively giddy to see my entire family having a good time in a crowded public beach.

Obligatory Sandstone/Waves Meditation

Hitting the Waves

This was the first full-family trip we'd taken since Spring 2008, when Leo exploded in the SeaTac departure lounge. We pretty much gave up on traveling with him after that, which is why I am so excited about last week's success. I almost can't believe Leo was such a happy and willing traveler, but am so, so grateful.

We may not be the globetrotting family of my pre-parenting dreams, but I'm tentatively hoping to resume traveling on our previous scale (before Leo's rough behavioral patch, he'd been to Hawaii, Seattle, Southern California, and Nevada, several times). We'll keep our destinations reasonable, and tailored to his needs. Who knows, Leo may one day get to fulfill his grandparents' dreams, and come boating with them. He loves to contemplate waves and water, and I love to think how soothing he would find the scenery below.

Broughtons Behind Our Boat Wake

I won't despair if extensive travel doesn't happen, but how wonderful to once again imagine that it might!


  1. I'm so impressed with the outings your family goes on -- Glad this trip was a success!

  2. Kvelling and weeping at all once, my friend. Such a wonderful and successful trip!

    You also give me hope that we, my own family, can one day resume traveling even if only for short trips; right now they are impossible. Your tips are invaluable and your flexibility inspiring. Really.

  3. Bravo, and so happy.

  4. I was so inspired reading your tweets about your trip and now here's a whole post, with photos! Thanks for sharing the hope (and Jim must have been feeling it because just today he was talking about driving to California).

  5. I wouldn't be able to conjure up hope and renewed purpose in a void, so thanks to you all for setting your own examples of perseverance.

  6. Just found your blog, looking forward to catching up and reading about your discoveries while on the autism journey. I have a 5 year old boy who is also on the spectrum and I talk about him and the journey we've been on, on my blog. It's been quite a year battling the public school and getting him the resources that he needs. Thanks for being so honest and open about your family. people like us make the diagnosis less "scary" for other newbies. all the best! gretchen


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