Many of you are curious about our Vacation Grant program for families with special needs. We had the pleasure of speaking with Michelle Collins who is an Autism on the Seas Foundation grant recipient. She tells us her story and how she and her teenage son, Riley, spent their special vacation in Grand Cayman and Mexico with AotS.
LISTEN to our Special Vacation podcast interview with Michelle Collins
Michelle resides in Norman, OK, with her sons, Kade (28) and Riley (15). Her younger son, Riley, was diagnosed with autism at an early age. According to Michelle, Riley is highly intelligent and outwardly typical in every respect, but he struggles with simple activities, like dressing, brushing his teeth, and socialization with typical peers.
AotS: You took your first cruise with us in 2017. How did that come about?
Michelle Collins: My sister actually found Autism On The Sea back in 2015 and sent me the link. I was looking at it and thinking about it and I finally applied for a grant in 2016, and I got accepted.
AotS: For folks who are not familiar with Autism On The Seas Foundation, it is Autism On The Seas nonprofit arm and through that organization we fund grants that assist folks who may be financially strapped or going through some economic challenges in their life, but they really need a vacation and can't quite afford a trip on their own. We're really happy to hear that you were able to take advantage of that. So, tell us a little bit more about how it worked.
Michelle: After you apply, when they have funds available, they'll send out a list of a couple of different cruises and cabins to pick from. They distribute the grant funds that they have and you match it with the amount you can afford. There are different cruise fare ranges. I picked one that I knew I could afford. It was very reasonable.
AotS: Where did you go?
Michelle: Riley and I cruised out of Tampa to Grand Cayman and Cozumel for five days. Autism on the Seas and my whole family helped us make this vacation dream come true. My oldest son, Kade, donated and my mom and dad donated. They bought one plane ticket and I bought one plane ticket and then my sister and my brother-in-law bought us a snorkeling excursion.
AotS: Tell us a little bit about Riley and his condition. What does he typically like to do and maybe some of the things that you were surprised that he did on the cruise?
Michelle: He is comfortable with things he's familiar with. He likes to swim. He likes to play mini golf, which was awesome because the ship had a mini golf course. They also had a rock climbing wall, which he climbed, and he's afraid of heights! He did it three times and each time he got a little bit higher, which was awesome, because he kept going back and he kept trying to go higher. So, that to me was wonderful.
AotS:: That's great. So, we were sharing a little bit before we actually started the formal interview and you were describing Riley and his day-to-day challenges. One of the things that you pointed out was, for all intents and purposes, if anybody were to see Riley, they'd think wow, here's a really smart, good looking, young man. He looks like a typical teenager, but where you face the challenge is, some of the things that you would expect would be really easy for him to do are the biggest challenges, right?
Michelle: Yes. Hygiene, dressing, communication, he does not communicate the way I would say a 15-year-old would. He still gets verbiage backward. He still says I'm hot when it's cold out. I'm cold when it's hot out. It's those little things that get frustrating.
AotS: Okay. So, some of the social interactions are challenging. When you decided to take this trip, were you a little bit worried about what he was going to do and how he was going to interact with the other kids on the ship? Was that something you were thinking about?
Michelle: It was. It really was, because I wasn't sure how he would do, but it wasn't really a big issue because AotS had so many things planned for us, like pool time. The first cruise that I took with Autism On The Sea, we had the staff with us. They have such great planning and such great staff that there's always something going on for us to do.
AotS: I imagine that the staff probably stepped in and maybe filled those gaps where you might have been worried about the socialization piece.
Michelle: They really did. He gets along great with other kids that have disabilities. It's the neurotypical kids that he usually doesn't get along great with at his age level. So, the younger ones he gets along pretty good with because they're on his level sometimes. But at his age level, not so much. So, with his peers, I wasn't that concerned. Knowing we were going to be with other like-minded people and then have other parents that knew what could happen, that might happen. It was a little bit easier to go because I knew that they've been there and they've probably done that.
AotS:: What would you say are the one or two things that really stand out in your mind that made that particular cruise with Autism On The Seas special and the right decision for you?
Michelle: The way Riley took to cruising. He loved it. I mean, I thought he would because he loves water. He grew up at the beach and he was my water baby, but he just loved being out on that ship. He loved just looking out at the ocean. He just liked walking the ship. We had to find where everything was and where all the exits were. That's his way of adjusting. And then he found the "putt-putt". I think we stayed at the mini golf for a good 30-40 minutes and that was fun. We found great things and he had a ball. He met some kids and then all the staff was amazing and he was just like, okay, these are my people. That's what he said to me, "These are my people." and I said, yes they are.
AotS: That's wonderful. So, if you were going to give advice to anybody who's thinking about this but hasn't booked it yet, what would you tell them?
Michelle: Do it. I did the cruise with staff, and we also did a snorkeling excursion in Grand Cayman. I ended up booking a one-on-one AotS staffer for the excursion and it was the best thing I ever did. We had rough currents that day and so it was kind of nice having Danielle. She ended up staying on the boat because Riley was having some problems with his mask. So, he kept getting on and off the boat and without her, that would've been me getting on and off that boat the whole time. She ended up just staying on the boat and helping him while I stayed in the water when he wanted to come back in.
AotS: I'm glad that you shared that because you had the best of both worlds. You didn't opt for one-on-one throughout the whole cruise, but you made a wise choice when you went on the excursion. It was a little bit hard to handle all of those things going on at once and enjoy yourself, so I think that was a good option for you.