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.