Traveling with a neurodivergent child is a rewarding challenge. Los Angeles-based mother, writer and producer-turned-recruiter Talia Bluth shares her story.
Costa Rica had to happen. Firstly, it was June of 2021, and I needed out. My days were consumed by arguments with my 7-year-old son over home school and homework and work from home – everything was home, and everything was hard. Traveling together had always been our happy place, so we took off.
As it turned out Costa Rica also had to happen for a much more important reason. By the end of that summer we had a painful vacation memory and an autism diagnosis. Two years later we were successfully trekking through Asia. The journey between those points was the toughest I’ve ever taken.
The Costa Rica lesson
I made no plans for us other than to relax. With a divorce followed quickly by a pandemic, that was all I could handle. I chose a peaceful resort with an Instagram-worthy pool in a beautiful country. ¡Pura Vida! I wince now thinking how little I knew. Everything about the vacation I planned was perfect…for someone else. The hotel was calm and chill, my son needed play and movement. The unscheduled week was blissful monotony, my son needed novelty. I thought the trip would give my fried nerves a break but instead, it layered on more disappointment and misunderstanding between us.
He was dysregulated, I felt out of place, and neither of us was any happier than we had been at home. My son and travel partner had gone through a significant change in the couple of years since our last big trip. The problem wasn’t where we went. The problem was that I hadn’t kept up. I was convinced we’d never travel again.
Denial is a river in Egypt
I love travel because it broadens your perspective, and it is important that I share that with my son. But the journey after Costa Rica was entirely mine to take.
I had to modify my understanding of parenting and community and how we both fit into our environments. Having a name for his neurodevelopment provided a framework that I could build from to educate myself. It also gave me permission to stop explaining away his behavior with temporary excuses about sleep or moving or his parent’s divorce. We were fortunate to get help from specialists who continue to teach us to live in a world that doesn’t always make sense. I had to learn to become the mother I didn’t expect to be, and travel was nowhere on my mind.
A turning point at Arches
Like most kids, my son thinks an idea is great if it comes from anyone but me. Enter Mrs. Roberts, the humble heroine of our story. She is an amazing teacher who told my son about her trip to Utah while helping him write a report on Arches National Park. Suddenly my child – who had never initiated anything that took him out of his comfort zone – was asking me to travel. Thanks to Mrs. Roberts’ thoughtfulness, exactly one year after Costa Rica we tried again.
I chose a hotel more suited to his sensory needs, kept the trip short, and better managed my own expectations. I let him take the lead on the itinerary to keep him engaged. It was a practice run, it wasn’t perfect, but we passed. He still talks about the four days in Utah like we sailed around the world.
And then we ended up in Asia
Somewhere between Moab and Hanoi, I lost my job. I cherished that job and it broke my heart so I took my love and we ran away. I needed to find our happy place, and Utah was a sign we could find one that suited us.
Within a month I had booked 22 days through three countries: Japan, Vietnam and Cambodia. I’d been to Tokyo and knew my Pokémon-loving gamer son would be happy there. Vietnam was on my travel bucket list so I dedicated two full weeks to it. I made sure we covered as much ground as possible and used Hanoi, Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh as home bases to explore the northern, central and southern regions. Once I saw it was easy to travel around Southeast Asia I added a weekend in Siem Reap, Cambodia to our itinerary. (Possibly my favorite 48 hours of the trip!)
Before we left, friends unanimously praised me for the incredible experience ‘he’ll never forget’. The therapists we worked with, however, knew the truth: I was taking a huge risk.
Everything old is new again
On the surface, our plans looked no different than anyone else’s. Ambitious for sure but a fairly common Asia itinerary for many western travelers.
But every detail was meticulously considered with his needs in mind. Weeks before we left I printed out an easy-to-scan itinerary so he had time to ask questions and process logistics. He’d flown successfully many times but never this many (7!) in a single trip so direct flights were non-negotiable. I know his system gets maxed out more easily than others, and I didn’t want more time in an airport than necessary.
I decided Tokyo was the longest flight we could tolerate from where we live in LA, so that’s where we started and ended. My non-stop rule also guided the order we moved through the cities in Vietnam and Cambodia.
The biggest difference though was my ability to be more tolerant and nimble. I leaned in on the days he had capacity and eased up on the days he didn’t. We meandered into animal cafes in Tokyo, spun a basket boat under a full moon in Hoi An, Vietnam, and were serendipitously treated to The Giant Puppet Parade in Siem Reap. All of that was spontaneous in part because spontaneous is fun and in part because I chose to follow his flow.
I avoided group tours so that we didn’t have the pressure of conforming to someone else’s itinerary or expectations. It was more work for me but allowed the flexibility we both required.
What I learned
It seems obvious to say but the greatest lesson I’ve learned is you need to know your child well to travel well with them. For example, I knew there was a chance he would get dysregulated to an extreme that would prevent us from leaving the room so I booked hotel rooms with a balcony whenever possible. That way if we were staying inside for hours or even a day at a time (which we did) I had some extra space and a way to be connected to the outdoors. I knew I would go stir-crazy without them.
The trip was an exercise in my parental flexibility but never a compromise that excluded my needs entirely. I did not want to swing the pendulum so far that I returned home feeling like I had been left out. I think finding that balance is one of the keys to successful family travel. Before we left, I made a small list of things I wanted to do no matter what and welcomed everything beyond them as a bonus.
I had moments of sheer panic before we left. I confessed to my best friend that I was worried I was taking on too much and setting us up for failure. I questioned everything I was doing.
But you know what I realized? That’s parenting.
It’s scary and filled with unknowns and exhilarating whether we’re in our living rooms or a temple in Cambodia. And, it’s worth it. There were disappointments on our trip. There were meltdowns in the street. There were encounters (at airports mostly) with adults who didn’t understand his behavior. There were moments of everything you might expect traveling for three weeks with a child. But most important there was a boy who perfectly is who he is, and a mother happy to take the risk to show her son the world.