Imagine taking a vacation with the whole family–a real vacation. And on that vacation, parents can rekindle their relationship, siblings can go on adventures, and kids with special needs can be themselves and have fun doing things like ice skating or going to a pool party with new friends. Autism on the Seas is a unique company offering vacations just like this to individuals and families living with special needs. Jamie Grover, Director of Group Development, explains, “I’m the father of a special needs child myself, so I understand some of the challenges that you go through. We really wanted to provide a total vacation, not only for the child on the autism spectrum or with Down syndrome or whatever the special need is, but we really wanted to provide a vacation for the moms and dads and the siblings.”
When a family books a trip with Autism on the Seas, they have an opportunity to fit in with the general population on a cruise ship and experience a vacation like a “typical” family. Grover brings a staff on board from a pool of over 300 people all over the U.S. who volunteer to come on the cruise or to a resort and help out with the families. The ratio of Autism on the Seas staff to kids with special needs is usually 1:3 or 1:4. The staff is made up of special education teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, ABA specialists, or people working on some form of degree in child development. “If you’re going to school to be a special ed teacher, you’re going to school to deal with a child with special needs, but what you don’t get is the family dynamics that you get on a cruise for seven days,” Grover says.
Although the name of the company is Autism on the Seas, Grover stresses that they do not discriminate: “We’ll take any disability whatsoever, and age range, too.” Travelers as young as three years old have been in the Autism on the Seas group, and the oldest person to date has been a 54-year-old man on the autism spectrum. The company occasionally does adult-only cruises as well, but they truly seem to shine when they cater to families with children. They pride themselves on providing respite care for the parents and siblings, while the kids with special needs have fun in the kids club on the ship, play bingo or do crafts. “It’s a good learning opportunity for other kids to see our kids and have a chance to talk to our staff to understand why they’re different than them,” Grover says. “We really practice being inclusive with our kids, and it gives a better understanding to the typical kids within the group to understand that there are special needs kids and they’re not to be feared. This is just part of life.”
When the ship docks at a port, the Autism on the Seas staff members will volunteer to go with families on shore excursions. Families will pay for them to do an excursion, and that will be their compensation. After hours on the ship, when respite time ends around 10 pm, families can also arrange in-cabin babysitting for a few extra hours, either with the ship’s staff or the Autism on the Seas staff.
The true testament to the work Autism on the Seas is doing comes from the families who cruise with them every single year. They are very comfortable with the staff, and they especially enjoy the networking with the other parents. Grover explains, “It’s a great relief for parents to be on our cruises because they’re with other parents that have their same plight in life. None of the parents are going to worry about your kid having a melt down in the dining room or refusing to sit down at a meal. Those things don’t phase us.”
Families who would like to take a trip with Autism on the Seas can book directly through their website. They can click on the booking tab and select a cruise or a resort stay right there. “We can take care of the flights, hotel accommodations, transportation, transfers, we can do it all for them,” Grover says. There is also a link on their website for families wanting to do a group cruise to apply for a grant through Skyward Bound Ranch for financial assistance. This nonprofit organization has sponsored over 200 families on cruises this year.
Coming up in October, Autism on the Seas will be hosting a special iPad cruise to Bermuda. “Not only is Skyward Bound Ranch charities providing grants to families to cruise on that, they’re also supplying the first 25 families to book with a free iPad,” Grover says. The director of iTalk will be joining the cruise, along with other specialists in iPad apps for kids with special needs. There will be workshops on board the ship to teach the kids to use the iPads and to teach the parents how to use the iPad to communicate and work with their kids. It’s not too late to sign up!
Autism on the Seas is also always looking for qualified staff to go on vacations. Grover asks that if there’s anyone working in the special needs field that would like to cruise, please email him–particularly males. There are not enough males working in this field with the kids, and some families will request them.
Grover urges families to contact him directly if they have questions. “The one thing I’ve noticed over the last five years of doing this is that when parents get over the fear of their child jumping off the ship or not being able to eat because of a special diet, it’s easier for them to let their hair down and really enjoy the vacation. And I don’t mind talking to anybody.” And speaking of special diets, “There’s not a diet a child can be on that we cannot accommodate on a cruise ship or one of our land packages,” Grover says.