Go take a hike, really

My son who has autism adores hiking. He’s not particularly athletic in a traditional sense but he repeatedly has said, “Peace through Nature,” even going so far as to paint this motto in Latin on a piece of art he completed in art class at school. For that reason, we have gotten to know several hikes very well in the Austin area. Hiking the Bull Creek Greenbelt is a favorite for our whole family. However, our son was not able to stay safe on this trail until he was past the age of 10 because there are several cliffside drops. If you have a child with autism that does not understand safety rules yet or the stop command, then this hike is not advisable. For us, we are at a place where we can safely hike this. With this caveat, let’s begin.

 

 

Let’s head out…

Near the intersection of Spicewood Springs Road and Loop 360 in Northwest Austin is the trailhead to “Inga’s Trail” at the Inga VanNynatten Memorial Trail & Bull Creek District Park. After parking in the gravel lot across from the trailhead, carefully cross Lakewood Road on foot to begin the trail. There is a map at the trailhead with the “Inga’s Trail” path winding into the woods to its right.

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Trailhead marker for the Inga Trail on the Bull Creek District Park.

Our family loves this trail because of its relatively flat terrain, the chance to see waterfalls and go swimming. However, I would not recommend this trail for anyone with children under 4, as we saw a family carrying their screaming toddler down the trail and they still had a ways to go before they were back to the calm of their car.

Come prepared…

The terrain is uneven and water shoes are recommended. I mean this is Nature, with a capital N so wear sunscreen, bug spray, and watch for poison ivy. We have hiked this particular trail in all seasons, but the very best of all is late Spring when the wildflowers are in full bloom and the water’s coldness is refreshing instead of chilling.

There is no water source on this primitive trail. We are in a city park, but there are no facilities along this trailhead. Make sure you pack water in. There are no bathrooms along the way.

Walking the trail…

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Water swirling over Central Texas limestone rock.

This trail is perfect to hike two days after a heavy rain (the day after is a mudfest) because of the seasonal waterfalls that sprout up, particularly on an offshoot of the main trail as soon as you enter.

Follow the sounds of water, watching where you’re going, and you will see foaming water making that sound that calms even the most anxious of souls. I just love that sound. My son with autism particularly loves it. But, BE CAREFUL. Do not let children run ahead of you. There are no rails, no way to keep from slipping on algae and there are steep drops. I would gauge how safety conscious your child with autism is before taking on the waterfall offshoot trails of Bull Creek. For us, as a teenager, our son knows not to get too close. His fear index has finally started registering. When he was under 10 we could not manage this. We have a younger child that is neurotypical, and she understands our commands to be careful and to hold our hands. Every parent knows their child the best, use your best judgment.

After meandering down and over the first waterway (oh, that’s cold, says my daughter), you will begin hiking on a rocky incline that will lead you above the creek and offer a few views on your right (again, not getting too close to the edge for that perfect picture, lest you lose your footing on a rock 30 feet above the road), and a steep hill on your left (as my son said, “It’s like a whole new kind of gravity,” when he looked up at the sheer vertical climb to a summit above our heads.)

After about 15 minutes of climbing up the rocky path (there is the occasional bench for resting), you will pop out into a “precious in spring/brutal in summer “open field where the distant hills rise up to look slightly like you’re in a different setting. Hopefully, if you’re hiking this in summer, you’ve brought a hat. The sun is pretty fierce during this portion of the walk.

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Wildflowers blanket the ground during late Spring in NW Austin’s Bull Creek Greenbelt.

Watch carefully, particularly in summer for poison ivy lunging at you from the wall of foliage you are hiking through at this point. Watch out for tree roots, and huge spider webs. It’s quite magical, but you know, watch where you’re going! One time I was hiking alone with my daughter and we came across the HUGEST spider web stretching ALL the way across the trail, with a huge spider sitting happily in the center, blocking the trail. There was no way under or over, so we had to detour off course, and walk through the creek itself in some fairly deep spots to join back up with the trailhead. I wasn’t about to disturb that spider.

At this point, you can hear the water roaring again, and the ground gets muddier as you are nearing the side trail off to the right, leading straight down to the water. You can see it as you walk. Or if it’s summer and overgrown, you can hear it. Follow the sound.

The Falls…

And after hiking for about 20-25 minutes or so, you’ve found the lower falls at Bull Creek Greenbelt. What’s great about this spot, is that you can swim, wade and play in this shallow rock ledge of a water expanse in almost every season. Deep winter, no. It’s much too cold. But, on warm winter days, we’ve hiked down here to see the change in grasses and trees during winter as well. In summer, we submerge fully in the water and walk back to the car wet. In springtime, it’s best for wading. Although falling in because of the slippery algae is a definite quick trip to splashtown. Hopefully you have a towel back in the car or one with you. Never a bad idea to carry a towel wherever you go (per Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.)

Now you’ve earned a rest…have a seat on the rock overhang, enjoy whatever food or small picnic you’ve packed in (and will pack out), lay on a towel, watch the dogs play. But, for sure watch your children! Again, you’re in nature, dude. There are snakes, etc. this is Texas. You will want to spend a bit of time here enjoying your hard-earned rest after your 20-plus minute hike, plus, something that’s always hard on my kids, you’ve got to hike back to the car if you’ve hiked in this far!

 

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The Falls at Bull Creek. Your reward for hiking for 20 minutes on Inga’s Trail.

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Summer is here and it’s time to explore

Summer is typically a time for vacations.

Although our budget this year doesn’t support outside of Texas travel, we are looking forward to taking long weekends to San Antonio, Galveston, and Dallas over this summer.

Nothing interesting enough for travel magazines, but a major victory for a child that was unable to leave our house just a decade ago. Our first trip ever was 10 years ago this summer so in my next blog I’m going to reflect on the changes and evolution of our son’s progress in that decade of taking trips, small and large.

 

 

Downtown Dallas Doesn’t Disappoint

My son is in love with anime, so when a major anime show was coming to Dallas, we knew we had to go. I was worried that downtown Dallas might be too loud or overwhelming for him. Boy, was I wrong. Downtown Dallas is pretty calm, particularly during the weekends when businesses are closed. For some, this might have seemed boring. For us, this was a welcome respite.

We booked a room at the Springhill Marriott (can’t really say I adored it, but it did the job) across the street from the Dallas Aquarium. As we arrived in Dallas on Saturday morning, the lines at the Aquarium were forever (no surprise) by Saturday afternoon. I would not recommend this outing at this peak time for someone with waiting issues, and that describes most people with autism.

My son had no interest in the lines so I took my typically developing daughter and it was still overwhelming and too crowded. So, I cannot give this a Travels With Autism thumbs-up. Perhaps the Aquarium has special days for people with autism, but a regular Saturday is just too crowded.

Our hotel staff (very helpful with recommendations) suggested we visit a gorgeous new science museum–the Perot Museum of Nature and Science— within walking distance of downtown or a short cab ride away.

Even though the Science Museum is very popular, the exhibit halls are spacious and you can find areas that are not too crowded if you want to just hang out in a less popular gallery and chill. That’s what my son and I did.  There were lots of exhibits that would appeal to people on the autism spectrum–birds, sports, science, outer space and all very interesting and well displayed. A big thumbs-up for the Perot Science Museum!

My son and I spent most of our time in the bird area, pretending to fly (very cool) and learning about bird sounds. Other galleries were more crowded but we just steered clear of those. I didn’t even need to get out his headphones for this museum. I really cannot say enough nice things about the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Dallas is lucky to have it!

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Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Image from DallasArtsDistrict.org

Also, our hotel staff recommended visiting a really interesting park in Dallas, the Klyde Warren Park, that was built on top of I-35 and opened a few years ago. This unique park features loads of interesting areas to explore for kids and adults. There are food trucks here on the weekends, a restaurant, a water feature for kids, a playground, and there is cultural programming and free performances. It’s another absolute gem in downtown Dallas. It was a welcome surprise for our trip.

For dining, downtown is a little challenging in the area that we were staying in. Luckily we had brought most of our own food as our son is on the gluten-free, dairy-free diet and this constraint makes grabbing food on the go challenging. From our hotel, we were within walking distance of a TGI Friday’s restaurant and there were a few other dining options in the West End area. The Perot Museum also had a really nice cafe and we ate one of our meals there.

I would highly recommend a weekend in Dallas, which honestly, surprises me to write, because you think of downtown areas as too overwhelming for people on the spectrum, but Dallas’ downtown has so many museums, that you can find a weekend’s worth of things to do. I would recommend that you take your own food for dietary needs, and stick to the museums and the parks instead of the Aquarium for a successful sensory trip.

If someone has a recommendation for a good, updated, downtown hotel/extended stay hotel, please write to us in the comments. I looked up hotels and didn’t find one with a pool and a kitchen in the downtown area. So, I’m still looking for just the right “Travels with Autism” downtown Dallas hotel. Happy Travels!

 

Museums meet the needs of more diverse disabilities

I’m excited by the recent additions of more and more programs offered by cultural institutions to provide services to differing types of disabilities. For years, ADA has meant wheelchair accessibility, and that’s very important, but also important is meeting the needs of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, those with visual impairments and other types of disabilities beyond providing a ramp into a building. Speaking from the perspective of a parent with a child with autism, I can tell you that my son benefits ENORMOUSLY from cultural institutions like libraries, museums, and concerts when he can manage the sensory issues. I’m happy to share that our local museum the Thinkery here in Austin has provided several days a year specifically geared to the needs of children with autism and other sensory issues. It’s a great way to enjoy things that typical families take for granted. We all want our kids to enjoy being kids. These community initiatives allow us as parents to help provide that. If you know of a good cultural program that benefits people with an intellectual or developmental disability in your city that you’d like to share, please feel free to add a comment and let us know about it.

San Antonio Way

As San Antonio is within an hour or so of our house, it is one of our favorite (and easiest) vacation destination. Each summer, if my son has “earned” it, through reaching his behavior goals (don’t tell him, but we arrange it to where he is always able to earn it!) we travel to a close-by hotel for a night away.

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La Cantera Resort, San Antonio, photo from Destinations Resorts

This summer, as with last summer, the travel fates smiled upon us and I was able to find a Groupon Coupon for a $149/night room mid-week at this gorgeous resort–La Cantera Resort, San Antonio. 

We swam, ate by the pool, took a beautiful nature hike on the hotel’s trails that wind around the golf course (NOTE: These trails are not ADA accessible.), and enjoyed a spa treatment. Yes, you read that correctly. My son requested a spa treatment “for a man” he said. So, we used the WoodHouse Day Spa services that are right on site. They were able to accommodate a child with special needs as long as I was present in the treatment room. My son chose a calming 30-minute hot oil scalp massage ($45). He was in heaven. It seems extravagant, but truly, it calmed him so much that it was worth it. Those of you with autistic kids know that calming their minds and bodies is a big part of the experience of parenting our special children.

We were able to secure a late check-out the next morning and then sadly said goodbye to our 24 hours of bliss at La Cantera. Hasta next summer La Cantera! 

Sleep Away Camp is a Dream Come True

I never dreamed my son could manage sleep away camp. His autism used to impact him so severely that he wouldn’t leave our house for days at a time if there was cloud cover. He hated gray skies. And now, he was a part of a camp experience (as an inclusion camper with a 1:1 counselor) where every other week, they went out of town. And this camp was not special needs camp with specially trained counselors and an itinerary with sensitivity to autism. This was for typical children and wouldn’t have the kind of daily structure that his brain craves for a successful experience. But one day recently he said, “I want to go on the camp overnights.” Dumbstruck I asked, “How will you handle this?” And in a very nonchalant way he said, “I’ll be fine.”

I’ll Be Fine.

Oh my.

For years we’ve managed his every new experience, through writing social stories (copyright Linda Gray), prepping him, preparing his caregivers, having lots of options if Plan A doesn’t work out, you name it.

And now, in early teenage years, he’s telling us, he’s fine.

And he was. We held our breathe, packed him up and let him go. For days he had to wander around San Antonio doing what the group was doing, managing the sounds, the sites and the smells of a large group of middle school kids. None of whom had autism. My son was the camp’s first overnight camper with a disability. He is breaking barriers, and more importantly, changing hearts and minds about what people with autism are interested in doing. Autism for him means not talking to others much, but he likes to be with others. That’s his brand of friendship–presence.

The week wasn’t completely glitch-free. On the last night, the counselors, not trained in autism tantrums, accidentally made the group late for a concert that my son was excited to go to. When they were late, he threw a pretty big fit on the bus, but recovered once they arrived at the concert venue. I think the counselors learned, “don’t be late!” as a primary autism imperative when traveling.

When he triumphantly returned home, I asked, “How did you do that????!!!”

And he said, “I just stayed flexible and survived the heat.”

 

Trail of Lights–Better late than never

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Well, I’m running about a month behind on this post, but didn’t want to let the year go by without saying that The Austin Trail of Lights has special needs accommodations and we found the event to be a really great experience for our son with autism and our typically developing toddler.

The event was a success because they had early entry (around 6:15 p.m.) for anyone saying they had a special need, or at least this is what the organization told me when I wrote them an email asking about early entry, or special entry. However, I didn’t take any chances, and went ahead and bought the “fast pass” parking called the ZiP pass and the ZiP pass entrance, which allows you to enter 45 minutes before the big crowds of people and at the same time as the special needs visitors. I highly recommend this ZiP pass if you can afford it. I was told in an email from Trail of Lights that anyone with a disability could enter at 6:15, but when we got there, none of the volunteers were familiar with this, so I’m glad that I bought the early entrance package for $60. (I think that’s how much it was, if it was a little more, it wasn’t much more.)

My son cannot handle large crowds, so I went expecting to just leave right away, but the early entry allowed us to enjoy this experience together and I was so thankful for it. If you have a child with special needs, you know that it’s sometimes hard to find activities that you can do as a family and I was so grateful for the magical experience we had together at the 49th annual Austin Trail of Lights in Zilker Park. We will make this an annual visit as long as their are special accommodations. Without it, I think it would prove too challenging to wait in long lines and be so crowded while looking at the colorful displays.

So, now you’ve got 10 months to plan your visit for the 50th anniversary Trail of Lights coming in December 2014.