On the Road – Autism on the Seas

Early morning Monster on the Anthem of the Seas, Oct/Nov 2018As I’ve mentioned numerous times, our biggest problem traveling has been terror of how the Monster might respond to a trip anywhere.  Our vacations, typically, tend to either involve going with family so we have backup or going somewhere that we can ‘abort’ back home if there’s too serious of a disruption.  We’ve gone to the beach and small trips within driving range primarily, so we end up within a few hours radius of our house where we feel ‘safe’.  Flying somewhere’s been off our radar, despite having gone through Wings for Autism and his seemingly having responded okay to that.  A week on a cruise ship, though, where there are thin walls, no availability of adjusting the environment and especially no aborting back to home?  Out of the question, you lunatics.

About a year ago, my family and I had the benefit of enjoying a morning with some of Autism on the Seas’ staff on Grandeur of the Seas, the Royal Caribbean ship that’s travels from the Port of Baltimore.  The goal of the exercise, besides obviously getting a sales pitch for their services, was to see how the Monster would respond to being on a ship, and to figure out if we could imagine ourselves actually putting ourselves through that kind of an exercise.  I’m also a big believer that a test-drive often doesn’t give you a full, accurate impression of a company’s services, but I could put my thoughts on that aside when the wife and I actually found a few sailings that worked with our schedule and budget and… suddenly, I found our family preparing to go on vacation.

(I will start with my usual note.  I was not compensated in any manner for this review.  My family paid the normal price for Autism on the Seas’ services.)

To recap from the test drive: Autism on the Seas (AotS) is a company that advertises its services to make a cruise possible for families with Autism.  They bring volunteer staff along on specific cruises at a ratio that allows for additional hands where you need it. They arrange designated spaces at meals to lend assistance with eating, arrange respite on sea days and in the evenings, handle chaperoned excursions at ports, expedited embarkation and disembarkation … as I said in the review, it definitely is very compelling when you see it in print, even when you factor in that it is, by definition, more expensive than a regular cruise.

How does reality with our cruise on Anthem of the Seas match with the perceptions we got from our visit to the Grandeur?

Oh.  My.  God.

R boarding the Anthem of the Seas, October 2018So, first (as I mentioned last time), getting to the port was awful – we sat in traffic for over an hour on the access road to the port.  When we pulled up finally to the cruise terminal, the AotS folks were immediately visible in their orange and with their balloons.  They took the rest of the family and started them through the boarding process while I got the car squared away, and then I came in to join.  We were immediately ushered to a registration desk to get checked in and ushered straight onto the ship without any waiting or the like.  Honestly, the longest thing about getting ready to embark was their waiting for me when I had to run to use the facilities after being in the car that long…  Once onboard, there was reserved seating in the back of the cafe by the gluten-free food preparation area, with a view off the stern of the ship, so our now-ravenous children could be fed.  Then we migrated down a deck to a conference room for a private muster drill, in-advance registration for the kids’ club for both R and the Monster and a few other bits of registration stuff that had to be taken care of, including getting a kit that included t-shirts (for the group photo later in the cruise) and brightly-colored lanyards and cards to help cruise-ship staff identify that we were with AotS if we needed more help.

Meals on the ship were made very easy to handle.  We would have breakfast up in the cafe, back where we’d had lunch the first morning, and members of the team happily sat with the kids while we adults went to get ourselves food.  The same tables were reserved for lunch if we wanted to use them, and dinner was in the dining room – reserved as with everyone else – but with knowing that the AotS folks would circulate around to see if we needed a hand with our children, or even just running R now-and-again to the bathroom.  One evening, they even took the kids during dinner, so we could have some private time eating just by ourselves, unrushed without having to needle the kids about remembering to convey nutrition on a fork between the plate and their mouths. (But I digress.)

Monster and R in the North Star, Anthem of the Seas, October 2018On sea-days, breakfast was followed by supervised pool time, ninety minutes where we had extra sets of eyes and hands in the pool, with the AotS team wearing bright-orange mesh pinnies for visibility.  Throughout the cruise, though, the team made sure that we got to enjoy a great deal of what a ship the size of the Anthem has to offer – one morning, pool time was followed by AotS-only time on the bumper cars, while on another, we went in small groups to go try out Ripcord by iFly.  We were divided in three groups to get turns going up on their North Star observation tower as we were steaming into Port Canaveral, and had time on one of our sea-days to watch the kids scaling the rock wall.  My wife and R even got to try out the trapeze setup they have in the seaplex.  The beauty of it was that AotS arranged for time on all these activities where there was no pressure from other guests waiting to do the same things, which let our children with special needs actually enjoy the experience in a lower-stress environment.

Monster on CocoCay Beach Day, October 2018On port days in Nassau and CocoCay, AotS arranged for a chaperoned beach expedition in the morning, having arranged for reserved areas at the beach in each location and helping to make sure our children were having a fantastic time.  (AotS’ staff on the trip, as I’ve referred to elsewhere are all volunteers.  Part of the deal is they get personal time too in ports, in this case all day in Port Canaveral and half of each of the other port days.  Trust me, they earned it.)  The day on CocoCay, which included having to ride a tender over to the island, was made smoother with an escort to the tender to the island and help with boarding.  Having had to get back ourselves later in the afternoon, it was definitely easier going in the morning.

Respite was part of the package – on sea-days, we had an afternoon session as well, but there was an hour-and-a-half to two hours of respite each evening, long enough to be able to go grab a drink, see a show, enjoy Halloween… and the kids loved it.  (R actually refused to go to the kids’ club after the first day, and insisted on only going to respite with the Monster.  I will still apologize for how clingy and bossy R is, but will gently remind that we did offer that any of you folks could’ve smuggled him home if you’d liked…)

I was constantly blown away, for the record, by not just how attentive the AotS team was, but by how much they genuinely got attached to the kids and showed that they were having as great a time as the families they were accompanying.  All of them are professionals in their ‘real lives’ that have experience with special needs in one way or another, and I felt immediately at-ease with having them around the children.  I definitely do have issues with leaving my kids in anyone unfamiliar’s care, but honestly?  It didn’t take long at all to feel like they were friends and get myself to stop worrying.  (I’d like to think it was definitely two-way, if the way we got tugged over to join everyone at the ship-board game show on the last night was any indication.)  I felt like they went to great lengths to make sure they understood what each child needed and enjoyed, and how to make the cruise special for everyone, how to deal with each child’s individual foibles and play towards those strengths.

Now, one thing that is not in their brochures or on their site, which only after we were on the cruise jumped out at us – it makes a huge difference when you’re traveling with other families in the same situation as you.  In our case, we were one of ten families on this cruise with AotS, and all at once, you have a whole bunch of other adults around you who not only are not judging, but are there for you to talk with freely, commiserate with, laugh with, grab a drink with once the kiddos are in respite…  I think most of us parents in this situation don’t have the opportunity enough to just relax with other parents who have our struggles, and while it’s not necessarily a feature of the service or an intentional outcome, it’s a huge thing to be able to talk about our lives as they really are, without seeming like a Debbie-Downer, or without getting upset at how other parents’ kids are getting along.

I mentioned above the lanyards and other things for making sure the ship-board crew was also aware of our family’s situation.  On the day in Nassau, after we were on our own, the Monster had a meltdown on the pier.  It was difficult to get him to get back to the ship short of carrying him, and he wasn’t having any of getting his headphones off for the metal detector.  It was in the midst of trying to think of how to explain to the security officer that we had a situation that I remembered that I had the AotS sticker on my seapass (plus, on the orange lanyard) and showed it to him, and without another word or any trouble, he immediately waved the Monster through the detector.  Likewise, we had an expedited disembarkation process – our luggage was assigned a specific number and it was available in the customs area right at the start of disembarkation.  It was very helpful to know that they worked well with the shipboard staff to smooth out places in the process where families like ours have the most problems.

Room for improvement – the one thing that occurred to us that could be improved upon was actually part of registration.  When you’re with AotS, you do a lot of the pre-registration for things on the first afternoon, but one thing that’s missed are the waivers for the rock wall, iFly and the like.  That ended up taking a little bit of time later in the cruise, but could be included when we’re handling everything else.  (And honestly, that’s a very minor nitpick when you come down to it.)

So the big question – was it worth it.  Unreservedly yes, to the point that the wife and I are definitely going to look for another AotS cruise in the future.  It’s definitely more expensive than sailing by yourself, but the added sense of security and the ability to enjoy everything that the ship had to offer, at a pace the Monster could handle, was well worth the expense.  (To be fair, the added expense is also not that unbearable – it might be worth, as we did, looking for a ‘kids sail free’ booking to balance it out, but it didn’t make it unaffordable.)  I cannot recommend highly enough the services provided by this group, and we’ll definitely be looking to use them again.

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