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Challenge: Kids with Special Needs

The Staycation: A Perfect Solution for a Special Needs Family

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Courtesy of Susanna O'Brien, Parent Ambassador for Anderson Center for Autism

Susanna O'Brien, parent ambassador for Anderson Center for Autism in Staatsburg, New York, reflects on why the "staycation" is a better option for her son with autism.


The allure of the staycation may have initially came about during downturns in the economy, but for some, this phenomenon has been part of a ritual in their families for decades. For our family, it was easier to travel with our children when they were younger; little kids meant little issues that could generally be remedied by a distraction, a nap or a snack.

I was in Hannaford supermarket over 15 years ago when Matty, our younger son, went sprinting off from the safety of holding on to the shopping cart. I sent his brother Daniel to the rescue. While Daniel was off wrangling Matty, an older woman I had never seen before approached me. I remember it like it was yesterday. I guess she had watched the chase unfold. She started out with, “sorry I was staring, I just was thinking about my grandson Kevin…… he lives at a residential school in Pennsylvania.” There was silent recognition between us that her grandson had autism, and the commotion had stirred up her emotions, and she continued her story while I listened. She said, “my grandson is autistic. We love him so, but it became more and more difficult to have him at home,” and she went into the various reasons people will tell you about why they placed their child in residential care. Daniel returned with Matty, and the woman said goodbye, but not without first saying, “when his world starts to shrink, you’ll know the time is right.” I never saw her again, but her words resonated with me, and I placed the information appropriately in one of my mental “note to self” files. Matty was about 5 years old on that day in Hannaford.

When Matty was almost seventeen, we made our decision as a family to place Matty in the safe and loving care of a residential school, Anderson Center for Autism, in Staatsburg, New York. As the years moved forward from that Hannaford moment, it did become increasingly difficult for Matty to go certain places with us…… his world was indeed shrinking. Matty wasn’t comfortable on vacation. He was not a small child who could be pacified the “standard way.” The last vacation Matty went on the South Carolina with us was anything but a vacation. He craved his routine at home. This I knew…… We all knew…….

When Matty has a break from school at Anderson I will have stocked up on his favorite foods and bath salts and researched something special to do. We have a “staycation.” This spring break, we will be visiting a couple of horse farms with therapeutic riding I have researched, as well as our usual hiking, mall-walking if it’s raining, and lots of cooking. We might try to swim at the gym again. Matty used to love to swim and would be in the pool for hours; not so much anymore. Matty is non-verbal so he can’t just tell me the reasons why he likes or doesn’t like things he once enjoyed. He will be home for two days generally, and then return to school for a couple of days, and then come back home for two, this is our most recent vacation rhythm. He has two homes. Both give him the sameness he craves. So after two days I can tell he would like to return to school. We are fortunate to live 30 minutes from Anderson. Matty requires 24/7 care and I have come to a place that after two days, I will need to sleep and recoup for the next visit.

Matty loves our cooking, full of rich flavors and interesting combinations. He starts to hover when the smells find their way through the house to him. Around four or five o’clock each day, I will begin to ask Matty if he would like his bath. When he ready, he will lead me to the monstrous soaker tub we purchased several years ago for him. This is a time I see Matty really relax in this deep aquatic space full of lavender and magnesium salts. I put on the meditative Pandora station, lower the lights, and sit with him. Matty is an epileptic so I don’t leave him in the tub without supervision for more than the 30 seconds it might take me to get the towel I may have forgotten to bring in. This “spa” time is magical for both of us. He relaxes and I get get to see him relax……. So simple, yet if you know Matty, it takes time for him to get to this space. I take this opportunity to shave his face and wash and condition his hair, always working on having him improve his own self help skills. After the bath, his dad cuts his fingernails, not something he enjoys but he knows it’s coming, it’s part of his routine.

Whether the night brings good sleep for Matty largely determines the schedule for the next day. If he has had an early start (sometimes 3 in the morning), we might have an early nap before we tackle the day’s activity.

The beauty of the staycation is that it’s fluid. We have some initial ideas about what we would like for Matty to experience with us as a family, but it’s his call. It’s his vacation.

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