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Travel is Possible: How to Plan an Autism Friendly Cruise Vacation

Embarking on a cruise vacation can be a dream come true for many families, offering relaxation, adventure, and unforgettable memories. However, for families with a member on the autism spectrum, meticulous planning becomes essential to ensure a smooth and enjoyable experience for everyone. Navigating the intricacies of a cruise itinerary, understanding sensory considerations, and finding accommodating cruise lines can seem daunting. Yet, with careful preparation and the right resources, planning an autism-friendly cruise vacation can open up a world of possibilities for individuals and families alike.

The first consideration is to understand the kids’ camps on board. The staffing ratio will not be the same as you will find in self contained classrooms, however when children are younger, there will be more staff caring for and involved in camp activities. All camp staff will have certifications when it comes to taking care of children. Many counselors have degrees. It is always fun to read where they are fun and the degrees that they have. You will want to investigate if they have additional training above the average camp, i.e. have they trained and received autism certifications. There are a few cruise lines that have that and are more autism friendly.  All kids’ camps have a variety of activities to include sports throughout the week. Most are very flexible when it comes to participation. They do not force a child to participate. Our youngest is mentally delayed. We have asked on numerous cruise lines to have him go down a level. We are fortunate that he is small, so it’s not too awkward. We started doing this when he was 11 and is now 14.

Another consideration are the staterooms. If you need an accessible stateroom, there is a limited number, therefore you will need to plan early. If needed, the ship provides for free a raised toilet seat and a shower stool. The bathrooms are much larger than a standard stateroom and allow for you or your family member to use a wheelchair within the bathroom. There are additional accommodations that fit into a stateroom to include a hospital bed. You can also coordinate for or have your travel agent coordinate for items such as oxygen, a beach wheelchair and more. These items are arranged with an outside vendor that works hand-in-hand with the cruise line.

There are so many activities on board to fit the most active of families to those that just want to sit and relax. If your family enjoys singing, there is family karaoke, family shows and more. If your family enjoys playing together there is mini-golf, swimming, water slides, and more. Before you make your reservation, take an honest look at what your family enjoys together but also what is the best environment where everyone will enjoy the vacation. There are a few cruise lines where the entire staff is trained to understand the world of autism. This means those that are outside of kids/teens camps are also trained. My son wanted to try the surf simulator on one of the ships. This was six years ago. He is not a talker. The instructor thought he did not speak English. I went up and said he had autism. The instructor used different words to describe what he should do. It worked! The instructor stayed with him for almost 10 minutes to ensure he had fun and a successful time on his board. Because he had such a positive experience, he now wants to try again every time we are on a ship or at a resort that has this activity.

Finally, to ensure you start your vacation on a successful note, I recommend coordinating assistance for embarkation and debarkation. This means that you will be escorted on and off the ship on both the first and last day of the cruise. There are now lines for those that need special assistance. This was not the case even 10 years ago. Now, you must coordinate this at least 60 days prior to the start of your cruise. This ensures your family does not need to stand in line with everyone. If you can, I recommend staying in a suite. You have additional perks if you are in a suite. Suite guests, in general across cruise lines, have their own lounge, restaurant, pool, grill and more. You are also escorted on and off the ship to include port days and oftentimes have reserved seats for shows. I mention this because with the smaller dining rooms and pools, there is less noise and stimulation, which I find extremely helpful. It may also include a butler to help take care of things you need.

As we conclude our exploration of planning an autism-friendly cruise vacation, it's evident that with thoughtful preparation and consideration, families can embark on a journey filled with joy, relaxation, and lasting memories. From choosing the right cruise line that offers inclusive amenities to communicating with staff about specific needs, each step taken ensures a smoother sailing experience. By embracing flexibility, understanding, and the unique needs of individuals on the autism spectrum, cruise vacations can become not just a getaway, but a transformative journey of exploration and connection for the whole family.

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