How to see the world with an autistic child
By: Heather Greenwood Davis
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 travelers; 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 traveling family dreams seemed in jeopardy.
Thirteen years later, Thibault is happily showing me photos from two of her favorite 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.”