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Ayalon family cruise sparks socialization and ongoing friendships for son, Ben

Frequent Autism on the Seas cruiser, Sharon Ayalon, gives us all the reasons why her family cruises with AotS and how each experience has resulted in therapeutic advancement in her son, Ben, who is on the autism spectrum. The Ayalon family took their third cruise with us this past January and they've booked their fourth special adventure for February 2020.

LISTEN to our interview with Sharon Ayalon


Aots: Tell us a little bit about your family?

Sharon: Well, there's me, of course, my husband, and I have a teenage daughter, Eden, she's 15, and my son Ben, he's 11. Ben is on the autism spectrum. During daily life, he's mid to lower-end of the spectrum, but for some reason, on a cruise, he becomes high functioning! It's amazing.

Aots: How does that manifest? Is he more verbal?

Sharon: He has a few words, but if you start talking to him about cruises, all of a sudden he starts talking more. He seems motivated to talk. First of all, he loves the staff. He loves the attention from the staff, and they really get him engaged with all the other kids, and activities. It's really a phenomenal experience for him to be able to socialize with other kids and just connect. At this point, we've already booked other cruises with the same families because our kids have gotten along and we've also bonded with the parents. We remain in touch all year long.

AotS: Was Autism On The Seas the first real vacation you were able to take with your family or had you done other things?

Sharon: We go to an autism retreat that's for Jewish families once a year. But we've never tried a cruise. We've never attempted anything like that until we discovered Autism On The Seas.

AotS: What was it about your exposure to Autism On The Seas that made you confident enough to try it?

Sharon: The first time we went, I was extremely nervous. I didn't think that we could do this at all. I'm like, we're going to regret this. What are we doing? But all of a sudden, when you see the staff, how wonderful they are with your child, and it's like, wait a minute, we can do this. And then, as another day goes by, you're like, wait a minute, we're having fun. And then you're like, what, it's over? Wait, I need another one. And that one's over, I need another one. It's habit-forming.

AotS: So, did you have time alone to reconnect with your husband and do stuff that you normally don't do?

Sharon: Well, back home we never get to go on dates. It's a rare, rare, occasion. All of a sudden on sea days, it's like we'd have two dates a day. It was phenomenal just to be able to sit back and relax together.

AotS: How about your daughter? Did she fit in well on the cruise?

Sharon: Well, my daughter is a teenager, so you put her on a cruise ship, and you won't see her again until you disembark, basically. All the typical teens hangout at the Teen Club and go to dinner by themselves. Every now and again, I'd run into her.

Actually, I think the big difference for Eden was that she felt that we were not so different. Our family didn't stand out on the AotS cruise. Many times, it's embarrassing when you're a different family, but when there are other families around that are similar to yours, it's like, okay, we're not the only ones. Then you feel a bit more comfortable. She wasn't so embarrassed.

AotS: Yes, we hear that a lot. So what about the various activities on the ship? How was that? How did Ben do?

Sharon: Well, first of all, the biggest thing is, my son will never sit in a restaurant, but on the cruise that all changed. He sat through over an hour every night at dinner. That is something, I mean, I don't know how they did it. It's magical. I didn't think my son would go into laser tag. I didn't think he'd sit and watch shows and all of the other activities he did with the staff. We were amazed and so delighted.

 AotS: You took your last cruise in January, right?

Sharon: That's correct, yes.

AotS: Tell us about that. Where did you go? Would you recommend that particular cruise? 

Sharon: Okay, we were with Royal Caribbean, because we had learned from a staff member on our first cruise that they are the most accommodating for our families. And I truly felt that with every cruise I've been on with Royal, that they really get our families, and they go out of their way to make us comfortable. The Independence was just newly renovated when we went, and it was beautiful. They had a lot of great activities for the kids, and it was a great ship. Equally important, there were enough activities when my teenager was bored, which was just as important to me as my son.

We went to Cozumel and Costa Maya. I love Mexico, and Cozumel, in particular. I highly recommend that all parents do the tequila tasting while the staff is with their kids in the water. Nevermind that it's 10:00 AM, it's Mexico, you're allowed to drink... And you get to do stuff that you would never do. I mean, where would I go to a tequila tasting at 10:00 AM, with my husband while my child's on the beach with staff? It's amazing. I never thought that was something we could do.


AotS: Did you do any excursions, special outings or anything like that?

Sharon: In Costa Maya, we took a taxi to one of the local beaches. My son just loves the water, so we rented a kayak there. It was included, actually, with entrance to the beach. I think it was like $20 for all four of us, and it included chairs, it included a kayak rental, and an umbrella. I mean, we just spent all day on the beach and kayaking. My husband took Ben out and he loved it. It was just a nice day on the beach in Costa Maya, because the port was really crowded.

I think the January-February timeframe is ideal to visit this destination because kids are back to school and everyone is back at work, so it's not overly crowded.

In Cozumel, we went on the group excursion. We took vans to the beach club. First of all the vans themselves were an attraction for our son, he was giggling on the whole ride there. And then once we got there, of course, my son loves the water and they have a nice pool area, which is great because some of the kids didn't want to go into the ocean. It was great because there's a nice restaurant there if people want something to eat. And most importantly, there's tequila tasting.



AotS: So, what about after the cruise? I know Ben reacts really positively when he's on the ship. Is there an afterglow? Does he hold onto any of those positive behaviors?

Sharon: He becomes way more verbal because he starts talking to all of his teachers and anyone he can about his cruises. He's a child who doesn't talk a lot, but then once you mention cruise, he'll start telling you about everything he ate, because food for him is just as important as the activities.

AotS: So Ben liked the food? He's not picky?

Sharon: He is picky, but there was a nice plate of olives waiting on the table every night for dinner. And he really loves unlimited ice cream, which I'm sure every child does.

AotS: So, if you were going to give advice to somebody that's getting ready to take this on as their next adventure and they're a special family like you, what would you tell them?

Sharon: Relax and enjoy it. It's going to become habit-forming. The staff is phenomenal. You're going to want to take all the staff home. They're just so amazing with our children. It will be the best experience of your life. Just enjoy, because you're going to get time with your significant other, time to feel like a normal family on vacation, which is a very rare opportunity for families like us.

AotS: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

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Autism on the Seas Guest Turns Vlogger after First Family Cruise

Jana, Joseph, Carson, and Chris Miller

Chris Miller lives in Katy, Texas, with his wife, Jana, and two sons, Joseph (12) and Carson (8). Chris tells AotS about his family’s first cruise with Autism on the Seas and how he became inspired to start Autism Anywhere, a Youtube channel that offers travel tips and advice to families with special needs children. Chris features first-hand experience by sharing his own family’s vacation adventures with their special needs son, Joseph.

According to Chris, Joseph’s autism is quite severe. He's mostly nonverbal, but has some echolalia, where he'll repeat things from TV shows, etc. Chris says, barring the occasional meltdown, Joseph's a great kid.

LISTEN to our podcast interview with Chris Miller, AotS cruiser and vlogger at AutismAnywhere.com



AotS:     Tell us about your new YouTube channel and soon to come website, Autism Anywhere. Is your mission to share your family's experiences so other special needs families can overcome their apprehensions about travel?

Chris Miller:        Exactly. We're big proponents of getting out with your child. We know lots of people who have kids on the spectrum and they have become virtual shut-ins. They never get out, they don't think they can go out to dinner, they don't think they can go anywhere. We believe, the more you get out, the more you take your kids out and let them experience things, the better they'll be able to cope with life. We just want to share the tips and tricks that we've figured out along the way and just share our experiences going to new places, such as the Autism on the Seas cruise.

AotS:     Okay. Tell us a little bit about how that all played out. How did you decide on an AotS cruise for your first time?

CM:        Well, first off, we live close to Galveston, which is the port we departed from. A couple of years ago, we participated in an Autism on the Seas ship tour, which is designed for families like us who have never cruised with their special needs child before. We were able to go on board, meet some of the volunteers that were available at that time. We just got a good feel for how things were handled, got to meet people, and realized, hey, this is something we can do!

So, we finally got together and thought, "Okay, let's just go ahead and do this." We booked the cruise, and when we did that, we started researching heavily into what we would need to bring, and so forth. One thing we always do before any trip is just start watching YouTube videos on everything. We're big fans of YouTube, obviously.

We made sure to watch it with both of our boys so they could see what the ship looks like. There are lots of virtual ship tours, so we searched specifically for Royal Caribbean’s Vision of the Seas, which was the ship we were sailing on. We just watched those videos repeatedly for a long while. Then, around that time, we decided, you know what, it would be nice to have videos of our experience on an Autism on the Seas cruise. So we thought, "Okay, let's just do it." We'd been toying with the idea of developing a vlog, and the cruise was the perfect opportunity to get us started.

AotS:     How was Joseph's experience? How did he interact with the staff?

CM:        Everything was excellent. The only issues were fairly typical with Joseph needing to adjust to sleeping in a new place. The first few nights he settled down and got to bed a little later than usual. But the staff was excellent. Fortunately, the way it's structured is, you meet the staff a couple of times before you drop off for respite,  so Joseph got to know a few of the volunteers at the sail-away party. They also do a private one-on-one meeting, so we were able to get to know each other and he was able to get comfortable. It was a very smooth experience all across the board.

AotS:     Did you take full advantage of the respite?

CM:        Every time it was available, we took good advantage of it. We know that it's a rare thing to come by in the autism community. There were lots of shows and activities on the ship. There are always at least 10 things to do on a cruise. In fact,  we did a wrap-up and we were discussing that maybe next time we do a cruise we might want to schedule some naps, because there's just so much stuff to do that you can just go, go, go, go.

AotS:     It’s great that you could enjoy being carefree for a little bit and reconnect with your wife and your younger typical son, Carson, yes?

CM:        Yes. Oh, Carson enjoyed respite, too. He went in with his brother to the respite times more often than not. There were a couple of instances where we took him to a show that Joseph wouldn't find interesting, but he loved it. He was actually asking, "Hey, when's respite?" and one of the occasions was at a beach. You can't beat that?!

AotS:     How did Joseph do with the scheduled private activities for AotS cruisers?

CM:        Joseph actually got up a few inches on the rock climbing wall, but they certainly didn't pressure him. He got the straps on and so forth, the protective gear, and he would just kind of walk up to the wall, look at it, and get his feet on the first one, and then back off and then look at it. That was a good experience, because since they had a dedicated time for just us families, he was able to do it at his pace. There weren’t people breathing down our necks like, "Come on, hurry up."

Oh, and swimming. He loves swimming, so that was great to have that available. We did that every sea day. They had a swimming time planned with staff. It was nice, because normally my wife or I have to be with him 24/7, and so the staff was able to swim around with him, as well. That took some of the pressure off. He loves swimming, so that was something he really enjoyed.

AotS:     Before we let you go, give us a few of your tips. If you were going to advise a fellow traveler and parent in your situation, how would you tell them to prepare?

CM:        I would say you know your kid better than anyone. One thing, when you're in the autism world, you become an expert on your own child. So make sure that you have the items that they need to calm down and such, because when we would have some downtime in the room, he would go to his iPad or we would bring dot to dot books, because he likes crafts and activities and coloring. There were times that we would bring some of his own items to the respite and drop those off with him, just in case he didn't like the activities there. That way, they had a backup if something was wrong. That helps.

We brought some items just to make the cruise room a little bit more like home, like certain things from the bathroom and certain stuffed animals and things like that, just to help ease the transition. That helped, too. Just be prepared, essentially. Make sure you have backup batteries for iPads!

The other thing we did in preparation for the cruise was to create something of a social story by using those Youtube videos. It certainly helped Joseph to see the ship, see what the rooms looked like, etc. I do recommend that people start as early as possible. I see people in the typical world do things, like surprise vacations, where it’s like, "Hey, we're going to Disney World!" For kids on the spectrum, that's not something you want to do. You want to, the second you know that you're going, start working the thought into everyday conversation.

AotS:     So, are you going to cruise with us again?

CM:        Yes, definitely. We're going on an AotS cruise to Key West and CocoCay next summer. 

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Camden, a pre-schooler with autism, makes new friends on his first Autism on the Seas cruise

Bennett Family Special Vacation

The Bennett family from West Palm, Florida, took their first Autism on the Seas cruise on Royal Caribbean this past June. Their pre-schooler, Camden, who has autism, sailed with the family to Nassau-Bahamas, and according to mom and dad, his socialization and interaction with staffers and other kids surpassed their expectations on a daily basis.

WATCH our interview with Mark Bennett

Autism on the Seas: Give us the highlights of your trip.

Mark Bennett: This was our first cruise, not only with Autism On The Seas, but also the first cruise for Camden. So this was sort of an experiment for everybody. We went on a five a day, four-night cruise, just to kind of keep it a little shorter to see how he would do. We opted for the one-on-one staff experience with a remarkable staffer, Patricia Brown -- She goes by PK. She contacted us ahead of time to introduce herself to Camden via FaceTime, so he wouldn't be surprised when we met on the ship. We prepped Camden by showing him lots of videos on the Royal Caribbean website. Essentially, what happened was the whole experience out-performed any expectations that we could have ever had. We arrived, and all the girls in orange were there at the pier. We boarded quickly and the Autism on the Seas staffers quickly went from strangers to best friends almost instantly. They're so welcoming, so amazing. I couldn't have asked for a better experience. All of the fears that we had were put to rest very quickly, and we're going to make this an annual experience.

AotS: That is so kind of you to say. I know that our viewers are really going to take a lot from that. Tell us a little bit about Camden, specifically. How does autism manifest in his behavior? What are some of the things that you were a little anxious about in terms of taking this trip?

MB: Camden was diagnosed at age three, and his autism primarily affects his social interaction with other people. That has gotten a lot better over the years with ABA therapy, but we wanted to expose him to other children on the spectrum, and not just his classmates in preschool.

One of our greatest fears was elopement. That's a pretty common issue with autistic children, and it was a big problem for our son. We've had at least one terrible incident where we lost him for a couple of minutes. So there is a fear of elopement and losing Camden.

The cruise ship itself generates fears of, obviously going over the rail. There's a lot of pools and Camden is drawn to water. So there's the fear of the water. All of those fears had been thoroughly thought through and discussed with AotS and PK. So it became very obvious that our fears could be put aside for the cruise because that's just how great you guys have been with him.


AotS:  Had you taken a vacation since Camden was born?

MB: Yes. Last year in April we went to Disneyworld. We were still living in Georgia at the time, and we drove down to Disney and spent a few days there. We had kind of a hit and miss experience there. Camden was more obsessed with riding the monorail and watching the automatic doors than he was any kind of ride or characters. It was hit or miss. I think for my wife, Thelma and I, it was not as relaxing as a vacation should be. I know I'm sort of the super helicopter parent, and so we were walking around big crowds at Epcot Center and you're afraid of him running away, you tend to not relax as much. That was sort of the issue there. I don't know how he would do now, but that's the advantage of Autism on the Seas. They allow the parents to really relax.

AotS: How did you and Thelma take advantage of the respite? 

MB: To honestly tell you, we didn't do a whole lot other than relaxing. We went around and enjoyed the ship, enjoyed the pools, had a drink. Honestly, we didn't know what to do with ourselves. It was a fairly new experience to be on a vacation and not worry about our son. We took part in the excursions, went to the beach. It was nice to be at the beach and not constantly have one of us watching him. PK was there to be involved. They all came with us on the excursions and were very, very involved. So, we were able to relax and get some sun and have a drink, enjoy the music and just do the simple things that people do on a vacation all the time.


AotS: You mentioned that one of the things, in particular, that sticks out in your mind about Camden is the socialization piece. Was there anything that moved you during the cruise? Did he do anything new or different that you were sort of surprised and delighted with, that he may not have done outside of that experience?

MB: You know, he was interacting with other families and other children a lot more than I anticipated. Camden does well around children that he knows, for example, in preschool. He tends to be a little shyer when it comes to kids he doesn't know, but there was sort of a bond that was created with the other kids. He continues to ask about them to this day. "How are they?" He sees a picture, he wants to know, "Oh, there's so-and-so." He was drawn to them, and they shared a lot of experiences, I thought. Beyond that, what surprised me? Not a whole lot. Camden always exceeds our expectations. I think that we know that we're the ones often that hold him back. He's our only one, so we tend to be very, very cautious, but Camden had a blast. He had an amazing time. He called it the Royal Caribbean Hotel, and he's ready to go back and keeps asking about it.

AotS: Mark, for folks who are still out there that want and need this break and just experience a relaxing, fun adventure, what would you say to them?

MB: I would say that it is an experience that you will ... you'll wonder why you didn't do it long ago. All of the anxiety and fears that you may have, like I said, Autism on the Seas have seen those issues, problems. They've already been through that. Every child is different, of course, but they're prepared. They're prepared to handle your fears, and you can always talk to them and you will learn quickly that those fears are exaggerated among the parents and not so much the child.

We realized very quickly that all of the things that we were worried about, we were worried about in our heads, and it was really not founded. I would encourage parents of autistic children, you deserve a vacation. Caring for autistic children is difficult. It is extra difficult compared to non-autistic children, and I think that wears on parents, and I think you need a break. 

This is the perfect way to get that break. I love to cruise, my wife loves to cruise, and to me, this is the perfect vacation. We're going to Alaska next year and we're going to make this an annual thing, because I can think of no better way to do it. This is how you relax as a parent of an autistic child.

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