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.

 

 

New Nonprofit for Special Needs Travel

One of the special needs travel discoveries I made during 2017 was the existence of a travel company and nonprofit in Central Texas focused on serving families that care for a special needs child.

I learned about this incredible resource at an Autism Treatment Forum meeting where the group heard from speaker, Karen S. Duncan, MS, about her nonprofit organization, AWADAE (Adventures with Autism, Down Syndrome and Epilepsy). Ms. Duncan is a certified travel counselor who created AWADAE to help special needs families have the chance to travel together as a family. She arranges trips that pair therapists with families along with any other wraparound resources that a family might need to make their trips run smoothly. Currently, Ms. Duncan is focused on cruises and tours for these adventures.

Recently, I got a chance to sit down with Ms. Duncan for an interview, and I will be sharing more about this important nonprofit in future blogs.

 

TSA Cares program helps disabled travelers

Of the many horror stories that I see on social media about traveling with a disability, the ones that usually scare me the most relate to getting kicked off of an airplane or having a terrible time at security. So, to assist passengers with disabilities or special healthcare concerns, the TSA has created a program called TSA Cares that allows you to call in 48 hours prior to check-in and request assistance getting through security.

I called TSA Cares yesterday (1-855-787-2227) at their Kentucky-based offices and spoke with an incredibly helpful young man about how I could get through the TSA security lines with my son with the least amount of worry. He told me that at any time, you can request “going to the front of the line” with a person with a disability. Make this request to the TSA supervisor at the airport you are using. Ask if there is a Persons With Disability (PWD) line that you can utilize. At some airports, they will direct you to the TSA fast pass lane. TSA did not require this, but I also always travel with my son’s doctor’s diagnosis letter with me along with passports and IDs. Since autism is an invisible disability, I like to have all of my paperwork handy so that there is no confusion about the need for accommodations.

And if you are inclined to complain that people with autism should have to wait in line like everyone else, that’s like holding a grudge that those with physical disabilities get the best parking spaces. P–u–leez. Give me a break.

It’s really really hard to travel with autism and every effort should be made to be inclusive and helpful to those traveling with challenges. We all want to experience life, and travel is a part of life.

My next phone call is to the Vancouver Airport to see what kinds of accommodations are available for autism as we make our way for the first time through customs and immigration. Wish us luck.

And Travel Well.

 

Holiday Travel–Do’s and Don’ts

When you’re traveling with autism, usually the holidays are not your best choice of travel dates. Today’s blog entry will be a good primer in what NOT to do when traveling with someone who has autism. As we left with little notice, we did not do our normal protocol of traveling–like researching food options at our destination and writing a social story for unexpected flight delays. We did pay attention to our son’s internal timetable though, and that’s the number one way to make trips a success.

For flights, I have always tried to book our air travel portion over weekdays and far from national holidays like Christmas. But, this past holiday season, it couldn’t be helped. Our son really wanted to visit his grandmother and requested this at the last moment. As our son rarely makes requests, we wanted to honor this.

We ended up booking the flight with only a week of notice, we got terribly expensive tickets, and packed at the last minute, not really getting him prepped or his food prepped properly for a trip out of state to a place where we were not familiar with the restaurant options.

The flights going to grandma’s were okay, but his main concern the entire trip was trying to get wifi. A new obsession for us to worry about is his need to get wifi access for his devices. In the past, we didn’t need to worry about this issue. So, this was a new stressor. I cannot say that we had a great plan, other than using our hotspot from our own phones to boost our son’s device. If you have a brilliant idea on this, please leave a comment!

For food, again we needed to have planned ahead better. Looking for gluten-free food when you’re traveling in the U.S. Deep South is not an easy feat. We found a Japanese/Thai fusion place that was not what I would call amazing food, but was edible and gluten-free, our only real concern. Again, we should have planned ahead better knowing the regional options for food.

However all is saved by staying in a hotel with a pool. Our son loves hanging out in hotels, so this is always a good thing on any vacation. For food at the hotel, he was able to find some gluten-free options but not any bread options as few hotels at their free breakfast bars have gluten-free bread. Again, since we traveled at the last minute, we did not do a good job of planning ahead. We should have packed a loaf of our own bread in our carry on.

He also only wanted to see his grandma for the day. He wasn’t there for a long trip. I’m not sure about other children with autism, but for our son, he is checking off a box mentally. Did he see you? If he saw you, then he has “visited” you. There is no sitting around for days chatting with him.

For our son to feel that the trip was successful, he wants to see you, spend a little bit of time answering your questions and then is ready for a restaurant and a museum or zoo! Something fun and visually appealing for him. Again, nothing that involves having to talk, but just looking at things together. That is a huge happiness for him.

And I think this is the most important point of traveling with someone with autism. What makes the trip a success TO THEM? Not to you, not to someone else, not to your relatives who will have expectations, but to the person with autism. Try to see the trip through their eyes. This will save you a lot of frustration.

Our son just needs to be doing something with someone, not sitting and talking for him to stay happy. He doesn’t have to be interacting like in a conversation. To him the shared experience IS the conversation.

When he’s ready to go, he’s ready to go. So, it’s back to the hotel. And then the next morning, he doesn’t want to see anyone, he’s just focused on getting on the airplane and heading home. He doesn’t maximize time with someone he loves, he just enjoys the time that makes sense to him to spend.

 

 

All I want for Christmas is a passport

Traveling with our son is pretty complicated. We have to write social stories, pack all of his food for his autism diet, and troubleshoot as much as we can with the condo we’re renting, to make sure that there will be no obvious problems for our son’s sensory issues.

We have gotten very used to doing lots of homework, preparation and mental jujitsu to manage our son’s anxiety when we leave our house. Each and every time is a challenge.

But, oh, so worth it.

Whenever our son has a new experience, he adds it to his creative world. And we are enriched from it. He speaks rarely, but when he does, it revolves around where we’ve been and where he wants to go.

When he was asked what he wanted for Christmas he answered with serious focus, “I want a passport.” Why? “So, I can go to faraway places.”

Oh, my wish is for the world to get flexible enough to handle our son’s autism and allow him to experience all that he wants in this world.

Santa did grant our son’s wish. Santa brought Jackson a passport application in his stocking. Now, we just have to figure out how to get him on an international flight.