Since our first European cruise last August, we've received enthusiastic requests from guests asking when we are going to Europe again. We are excited to host our second European cruise this July, which will depart Southampton, England, on July 11th for an 8-night adventure on Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas. The itinerary includes several ports of call in Spain, as well as Paris, France.
Accompanying us this year is our new volunteer staffer, Naomi Cartmell, a speech and language therapist based in the United Kingdom.
We interviewed Naomi about her first experience cruising with us this past February on a Caribbean cruise from Bayonne, NJ, as well as her plans to join "Team Orange" in assisting our guests while cruising around Europe this summer.
LISTEN to our podcast interview with Naomi Cartmell, UK-based AotS volunteer staffer
AotS: What made you decide to come all the way from the UK to Bayonne, New Jersey, to cruise with AotS as a staff member?
Naomi Cartmell: Well, I first heard about Autism on the Seas last year and I just couldn't wait to get started. I didn't want to wait until the July cruise through Europe. So I just decided to use up some of my annual leave and join as a staffer in February.
AotS: What was it that sparked your interest specifically?
Naomi Cartmell: Well, I absolutely love to travel in my own life and I have been on some cruises before, but also as a speech and language therapist I work with a lot of children with autism and other special needs. So just to combine those two things and to know what a big impact it could have on those families, I just thought it's something that I have to be a part of and I just couldn't wait to get started.
AotS: Did the experience fulfill your expectations?
Naomi Cartmell: Absolutely and more. I mean, obviously, I was a little bit nervous going into it. I didn't know who the other volunteers were going to be, what the families were going to be like. But it was an absolutely wonderful experience and I can't wait to do it all over again.
AotS: Did you bond with any kids in particular? How did it all work?
Naomi Cartmell: I was one of the general staff members, so that was really lucky because I got to spend time with and bond with all of the families on our trip. And definitely there were some kids that stood out. There was one little guy, Callum, who absolutely loved to practice his British accent. So that was great spending time with some of the families at dinner and yeah, just getting to know them really well, which you can definitely do when you're a staff member.
AotS: How are families in the UK taking downtime with their extended family and their child that may be on the spectrum?
Naomi Cartmell: I think that everywhere kind of in the UK and the US are becoming more aware of autism and aware of developmental difficulties and what they can do to support children. But I haven't heard of anything such as Autism on the Seas, which will support a family through a whole trip, a whole holiday. And that's why I'm really excited to get the word out to UK families that there is such a thing that exists and no matter the extent of the difficulties that your family might be having and that your child might have, we would support you through that and you can have an experience just the same as any other family.
AotS: What did you think about in terms of working in your professional life when you work with children that are on the spectrum versus being in a more relaxed kind of vacation environment working with the kids? Was there a difference in their attention? Was there a difference in their mood? Anything to note?
Naomi Cartmell: It was really just wonderful and I think it helps to kind of get to know the kids more because what I liked is that there was no pressure from the children to do anything that they didn't want to do, like during respite. But they could absolutely choose their activity and we would kind of go along with that.
Obviously working as a therapist, there's always some kind of goal in mind, "Oh, I'm doing an assessment and I've kind of got that at the back of my mind." But on the cruise, you could just absolutely relax and get to know the kids, do what they wanted to do and just have fun. I mean some of the activities that we did with the families were absolutely amazing. They have rollerskating and bumper cars and skydiving on a cruise ship. So the fact that there wasn't any therapy to do, we could just have fun with them, which I think is really important.
AotS: You said earlier before we started the interview that one of the things that you found very valuable was to get close to the parents. Tell me a little bit more about what you meant by that.
Naomi Cartmell: Well, I think just keeping in mind that the trip is for the whole family, isn't it? And the point of having these professional staffers is so that the parents can feel relaxed and feel secure, that their charges are in good hands and that they can enjoy their holiday. I think that as well as supporting the kids to feel safe and have a good time, making the whole trip fantastic, is to support the parents so that they can have a good time as well.
AotS: I've talked to many families and staffers and one former staffer stands out in my mind: Dr. Rachel Potter was a teacher and she specialized in special education. She said her experience with families was so enlightening that she ended up taking her student teachers on cruises with AotS to sensitize them to the parents and how their lives are affected day to day. Did you come away with similar feelings?
Naomi Cartmell: Yeah. I think it was definitely similar for me. Kind of tuning into the fact that actually doing day to day activities with a child with significant special needs is hard. Just being a parent of a child with special needs is hard. Having this opportunity to enjoy a relaxing holiday is so important. Something that typical families take for granted.
AotS: So, for your next cruise, is there anything that you plan on doing more of or anything that you want to do differently?
Naomi Cartmell: I'd definitely still go into it with an open mind because obviously I only have one experience and I think every group dynamic will be quite different, especially since this is a European cruise. I think I will be planning more activities. This past cruise, I had a couple of games in my bag and some of the kids really enjoyed playing them. So I think I'll definitely plan a few surprises for respite and that sort of thing.
AotS: Is there anything else that I didn't ask you that maybe we should know or you'd like to tell us about your experience? Or maybe some advice for parents who are thinking about this but haven't done it yet?
Naomi Cartmell: Yeah, I think that from my experience as a staff member, I would really encourage families to go for it. I know that it's probably something that you have to plan in advance and obviously save up for a while, but from the experiences that I've heard about from families, some of which were on their third, fourth, etc., cruise, it is worth it. And some people say they would never travel any other way. I would really like to see Autism On The Seas expand a bit more to the UK and have more choice of European cruises in the future, so that there's plenty of options for British families, as well.