Followup: Why a vacation might not be relaxing


Categories: Personal Autism

It occurs to me that it’s really hard for non-autistic people to understand sometimes why something that sounds relaxing wouldn’t be, as in the example of the family taking their autistic child on a family vacation to a strange place.

Okay, first off. Change in and of itself is a bit stressful for me. I’m pretty high-functioning, but you change enough things fast enough, and I will start going into failure modes. Now, another level of high-functioning is that my failure modes are pretty copeful. But then, I’m nearly 40 and I’ve been practicing and learning and training my brain for a long time.

Secondly… The rationale provided was that they thought it would be nice for the kid to “feel the sun on his face”. I have had occasions on which I liked that experience, so this might not seem totally crazy, but hang on: Note that they frame it, not as “we asked him and he liked it”, but as “we thought he would like it”.

Look, I like the warm sun on my face. Do you see me going to Florida to get it? No! Because I do not like it as much as I like sleeping in my own bed. Because I do not like it nearly enough for it to be worth travelling.

There are times when I can enjoy travelling. There are times when I won’t. If I have to travel when I don’t enjoy it, it creates stress and inclines me towards failure modes.

Unfamiliar people? Stressful. And yes, grandparents are unfamiliar, if they’re far enough away that visiting with them implies travel. People I see every couple of weeks for a year or two are unfamiliar.

Unfamiliar house? Highly stressful. Everything smells wrong, everything is in the wrong places, the colors are wrong. If it’s far north or south of home, the light is wrong. If it’s far from home, the scenery and terrain and plants are wrong. It does not contain my cat. It does not contain my stuff.

So that is why this sounds like a stressful thing, and given that the kid obviously had low tolerance for stressors, a stupid thing.

And the thing is: This doesn’t mean that, with a more severely autistic kid, it could never be possible to travel. It means that if the kid is in a state such that he would freak out badly enough to need to be sedated for travel, there were almost certainly plenty of warning signs that this was not one of those times.

And people who ignore warning signs like that might ignore a lot of others.

Someone pointed me at a lovely blog piece, in which an autistic child fails to realize that you can purchase coffee from a coffee vending machine. Note: I make mistakes like this all the time. I am actually pretty good at context-switching compared to a lot of people, but… Yeah, sometimes I just miss it. (I spent years stirring large batches of pasta with a single fork, totally aware that I had seen people do it with two forks and that they appeared not to have to work as hard as I was working. I just never thought about trying to use both hands.)

The relevance is: I’m sure I’ve mentioned that, when I was a kid, my mom had to explain to me how to open doors. I kept pushing doors before turning the handle, so the pressure kept me from turning the handle. I would be incoherent with frustration at the door not opening, and I couldn’t think about it. So she told me how to do it; “pull, turn, push”. This worked. But some parents, confronted with a kid who “should” know better, just react with scorn and “don’t waste our time”. And guess what? Those kids end up a lot worse off.

Thing is, I understand that it might not be obvious why going on vacation wouldn’t be relaxing. But it doesn’t have to be obvious why. The question is whether you know, and could reasonably be expected to think about it. My answer is “of course you could”. If you have a special-needs kid, and you react by ignoring the needs or trying to minimally-accommodate while preserving the freedoms of your life, you’re gonna have worse problems than you would if you took the kid seriously.

FWIW, I’m on vacation this week, and I am having an amazing time of it. I’ve been programming, and sitting around my house, and staying up until all hours, and playing video games with my spouse. We sit in the living room, on our familiar comfy couch, and eat familiar foods that we like. And we’re happy.

Kids have this in common with pets, you know. If you try to train a cat to do tricks and go on walkies, you will not have a happy cat or a happy cat-owning experience.

Comments [archived]

From: Lissa
Date: 2012-03-02 11:02:22 -0600

“It occurs to me that it’s really hard for non-autistic people to understand sometimes why something that sounds relaxing wouldn’t be …”

Yeah – like my coworkers yesterday not understanding why I got mad. They sent us home a half hour early to do network maintenance. Without advance notice. I don’t care if it was was a paid half hour off work – I leave at 6, not 5:30.

Change is Evil.

From: sven
Date: 2012-03-05 19:40:12 -0600

> “It does not contain my cat.”

When reading that I thought: it’s sort of symmetric, because even if the cat’s were taken with on such a vacation,

not to mention what would they think about all that?

From: tom
Date: 2013-10-10 15:53:04 -0500

i know this was written ages ago, but cats actually can enjoy learning tricks and going on walks plenty fine. you just have to be more consistent with rewards when it comes to tricks, and allow them to choose where to go when on walks. this is still treating them differently than one would treat dogs, which was your point, i know, but still.