This article may contain affiliate links.

special needs vacationMany of you forego family vacations for numerous reasons, in whole or in part, connected to your journey with autism, sensory processing disorder, or some other special need. Autism on the Seas would like to change that.

Back in 2011, my family utilized the free/no-cost services of Autism on the Seas (see Cruise Assistance Package without Staff) to prepare ourselves for a Disney cruise to Alaska aboard the Disney Wonder. This was a somewhat last-minute decision, so I set about quickly preparing our son for the upcoming adventure.

Preparing for Your Cruise
Here are some easy things I did to prepare our son for our cruise:

  • Autism on the Seas provided us with PECS as well as a social story about cruising. These can be easily modified and personalized to your child.
  • Cruise brochures can be cut up to make a “My Cruise” poster, and children can contribute their own picture cut outs to begin visualizing themselves on the ship.
  • Disney Cruise Lines offers a DVD that, while its intent is marketing, worked well to show our son the ship, familiarize him with the swimming pool options, the restaurant and dining style choices, and the kids play areas. The DVD features your child’s favorite Disney characters dancing and skipping throughout the ship making it easy to watch, and fun for children. After viewing the DVD, my son established that he would feel comfortable swimming in “The Goofy Pool” which saved tremendous time and energy once we got on board. We did not need to locate and familiarize with each of the amenities, we only needed to find “The Goofy Pool,” and he wasted no time in getting in.
  • Back in 2011, I did not find any iPad apps to navigate the cruising process, but embarking is very similar to an airport experience — without any fee for luggage. Two checked bags were allotted per passenger, and we took advantage of this by packing lots of comfort and play items from home, plus clothing for seven days of questionable weather.

The primary role of Autism on the Seas (for our family) was to negotiate accommodations with the cruise line behind-the-scenes. They were prompt and professional in their contact with me, and Disney Cruise Line Special Services was wonderful as well. Both organizations contacted me a few weeks prior to our cruise date to discuss their own policies and accommodations, and to answer remaining questions.

Things to Consider During a Cruise
When considering a cruise with your child, keep these things in mind.

  • The stateroom is your “home base” and can be the ideal way to travel for a child craving consistency. Bring his own bathtub crayons, toiletries, and a few decorations and let him set up a drawer or cubby right away. (Or right away, after the pool!)
  • Choose port excursions with your child in mind. I discovered that the White Pass and Yukon Route railway tour was an ideal activity for the whole family, while the audience participation component of The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show was way too loud for this kid.
  • Consider having one day to go your separate ways. Dad wanted to ride an ATV in the Alaskan wilderness. Mom wanted to zip line the forest canopy. Grandma and son walked through town. Everyone had fun, and shared photos over dinner.
  • Disney characters are frequently appearing throughout the ship, especially before dinner. Depending on your child, this can be a good thing, or a bad thing. Mine was terrified, but enjoyed watching them in the lobby, from two floors up.
  • If your child is following a special diet, Autism on the Seas will assist you with making these arrangements with your cruise staff. It does add a degree of complexity to your vacation, but this is expected. I have a picky eater on a regular diet. He ended up consuming a great deal of cheese. However, the rest of us ate extremely well!
  • BYOHS (Hand Sanitizer). One activity for which I was not prepared adequately is the vigilance of hand washing on board. Workers are stationed at every door with hand wipes (not gel or foam or soap). My son did not like their scratchy toilettes. Either start practicing now, or pack your own mini bottles (several) of his favorite hand sanitizer.

We traveled as an “individual cruise”, meaning that we selected our cruise and date on our own and just happened to be traveling with a passenger on the spectrum. By comparison, Autism on the Seas can provide a schedule of organized autism group cruises WITH their staff, as well as group discounts without their staff. If you’d like to assemble your own group of cruisers with and without autism, they can handle that as well. Happy cruising.