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Guest interview: "Autism on the Seas first European cruise was Amazing!"

Durkin Family on an excursion to the leaning tower of Pisa, Italy.


On August 4, 2019, history was made when Autism on the Seas departed from the port of Barcelona, Spain on its first staffed cruise to Europe with special needs families. The 8-day adventure featured ports of call in Marseille, France, La Sperzia, Rome, and Naples, Italy, and Mallorca, Spain.

This past week, we reached out to Nina Durkin, one of the guests who cruised with us to Europe. Nina was traveling with her husband, daughter, Amanda (12), and son, J.T. (15), who is on the autism spectrum. This is their story.




LISTEN to our podcast interview with Nina Durkin

AotS: You have been cruising with AotS for a while now, right? What made you decide to take the family abroad?

Nina Durkin: Yes. This was our fifth cruise. We started cruising with Autism on the Seas back in 2016. My husband and I went across the pond to Italy almost 17 years ago and saw this as an opportunity to bring both of our kids to a place where we've been before. My daughter, who is neurotypical, is a huge history buff.

AotS: Yes, tell us about that. I understand, contrary to what people might assume, that you actually had Amanda in mind when you booked this cruise with us.

Nina Durkin: Yes. Again, she's a huge history buff and loves the Roman Empire, loves ancient ruins and this was an opportunity for us to take her to Europe and know that we have help with our son so she could actually enjoy the trip.

AotS: This was also your first time opting for one-on-one staffing, right?

Nina Durkin: Correct. We did opt for a one-on-one. The nature of this cruise was not the typical Autism on the Seas cruise where you have a couple of sea days. This was very port intensive. It docked every single day except for one, on a seven night cruise.

So it wasn't the most relaxing cruise, but personally, I don't view a Mediterranean cruise as one where you relax. You want to go and get a taste of what each port can bring. So you can maybe go back someday.

AotS: So how did JT react to all of this?

Nina Durkin: Surprisingly wonderful. So our biggest concern was some of these long day excursions. The ports are not necessarily the closest to the cities. For example, Florence was just under a two-hour drive from the port. If you want to see everything, it's anywhere from a nine to 11 hour day.

The kids, the adults, everyone's out of their comfort zone. Even though people speak English, it can be broken. The laws are different in every country and it can be a little stressful. J.T. was a champ. He took it in stride. He seemed to enjoy himself. We walked a lot, which was a huge concern of mine. I think we actually clocked about eight miles in Rome just walking around. It was hot and he surprised everyone. At the end of the cruise, on our sea day, there's always a little party and then awards are given out and J.T. got the excursion award because he did amazing on all of these long excursions.

I do think his favorite was making pizza in Sorrento and we did a catamaran excursion in Mallorca, Spain, which had some snorkeling and swimming in the Mediterranean sea. Those were probably his favorites.

AotS: When you take him to places that he has not been before, does he normally get nervous or shut down or anything like that?

Nina Durkin: He tends to get very anxious, especially in crowded places with unfamiliar things around him. The fact that he had familiar people with him did help a lot, but he has been known to have some unexpected behaviors in public that can be concerning. When you're in a foreign country you worry about a lot of things. People looking and staring if he decides to scream out of nowhere. And that's a big reason why we chose to have a one-on-one for this trip. The long excursions. If anyone needed a break, including our one-on-one, at least we could shuffle among the three adults. That helped them out too.

AotS: How did the staff do with JT?

Nina Durkin: Oh, Renee is amazing. We actually met Renee on her first Autism on the Seas cruise back in 2016 and we did not have a one-on-one. She and JT just hit it off. There was some magical connection. So when we knew we wanted to do Europe, we did ask for a one-on-one and then said, Hey, is it possible we can get Renee? So they already knew each other. They already knew their little idiosyncrasies. The only difference is now JT is taller than Renee. She is so fantastic with him and she's wonderful with my daughter. So yeah, when he was getting tired of Renee, my husband or myself would step in and Renee would spend time with my daughter.

AotS: What about you and your husband? Did you do anything together alone? Did you take advantage of the respite?

Nina Durkin: We did take advantage of some of the respite. Again, this was a slightly different cruise. Visiting a new port every single day on these long nine and 10-hour excursions, you are completely exhausted by the end of the day. You're getting back to the ship at six o'clock at night, you're grabbing dinner. My kids were tired and we were tired. So we didn't necessarily take advantage of respite in the conference room, but we did take advantage of a little bit of respite in our room.

Renee would come to our room to do some of the respite. So my husband and I could, if anything, grab a cup of coffee at night by ourselves, which was nice, but we were all tired. On a regular Autism on the Seas cruise, you don't have nine-hour, 10-hour, excursions day after day. You have a beach excursion with the staff for half a day. Yeah. So that's what makes it so much different. It's not bad, it's just a different kind of cruise.

AotS: The expectation is many of the guests have not been to some or all of these countries before and they want to soak it all in.

Nina Durkin: Correct. And because it was Autism on the Seas first European cruise, I think there were some unknowns for them as well. They had to schedule the ship activities that they usually schedule like time for the zip line, time for ice skating, time for flow rider. My kids love that flow rider, so I made sure I booked a small group lesson for them in case we couldn't do flow rider with the group because they love it so much. It turned out we were able to do flow rider with the group and we did flow rider with a small group lesson, too.

The Royal Caribbean staff is amazing with our kids. if it weren't for them, this Autism on the Seas and the volunteer staff, wouldn't work. So it's really a huge group effort.

AotS: It is a good partnership. Did you make friends with any of the other families? 

Nina Durkin: Well, one family we had cruised with before, which was wonderful. It's always nice to see families that you've seen before. We were all going in different directions on excursions, but there was one family we met very early on in the cruise. We were on a catamaran excursion to Mallorca and we noticed a family that had twin girls walk into the auditorium waiting to take the excursion. Immediately I knew they were in the group, because they were wearing the good old orange lanyards. We had Renee, our one on one with us, and I said, "Hey, let's at least take a look over there. The girls seem to be having a little bit of a hard time. Maybe we can all help out."

One of their daughters took a liking to my son, which is fine, but she tended to grab and tug at him, which bothered him at first until we explained that that's how she talks, that's how she says she likes you. And then I will tell you, I have a picture of them on the last day of the cruise holding hands. It was amazing. It was the sweetest thing and I have to be honest, that probably made our cruise. We love meeting other families. We all get it. It's also nice because even the people on the cruise, they see all these orange shirts, they see all these families with the lanyards. They ask us questions and for whatever reason on the cruise ship, it just seems to be a little bit more accepted than in everyday life.

AotS: What was your favorite port? And why?

Nina Durkin: That's a tough one. Okay. So I've been to Italy before and I am personally in love with Florence. I also really loved Barcelona. We had the opportunity to stay in Barcelona a little bit before the cruise and a little bit after. And I really enjoyed it.

AotS: What do you recommend for parents like yourself who have put off taking that amazing vacation because they have a child that has disabilities and they're just scared? What do you tell them?

Nina Durkin: So there's a couple of things. The first is, I would not consider our family a cruising family. Before we found Autism on the Seas, we preferred to fly somewhere, go on vacation and fly home and not be on a ship the whole time. Today, I will tell you right now, we will not travel without staffing from Autism on the Seas because it's the only way we feel we get any kind of vacation. Where we can relax. My husband and I can reconnect and we can take a break, a true break.

AotS: And reconnect with your daughter too.

Nina Durkin: Absolutely. Reconnect with our daughter and make her feel special at the same time. What I would tell a new family is take absolute advantage of the parent connect service that Autism on the Seas offers. On their website, you can ask to be connected with parents who have cruised before and ask your questions and get them answered. The parents will be honest. They'll tell you the good, the bad, the ugly and get all those fears out of the way. Nine times out of 10, I feel that's the only way to travel.

I'm very spoiled. In fact, we're so spoiled, we have another cruise booked next summer with a one-on-one and we are crossing our fingers for an Alaska cruise in 2021.


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Gearing up for Cruise number 4 -- Kim Ansley talks about her family's experiences and why they keep coming back to Autism on the Seas

The Ansley family on a Royal Caribbean cruise to St. Maarten

"Take a chance because once you get to that port and see those orange t-shirts, you'll know it's going to be okay. You're making friends at first, but then you have family. That's all there is to it. Somebody on that cruise is going to connect with you. They're going to get you. They've been there, they've done that, and it's all going to be okay. Everything's going to work out. You're going to see an improvement in your child. You're going to have a new addiction."

Kim Ansley and her family are veteran Autism on the Seas cruisers. Since 2015, they've sailed with us three times and they are getting ready to leave on their fourth cruise in just a few weeks. Not only that, they've also booked a fifth cruise this December as a 10th birthday surprise for their son, Jakob.

We chatted with Kim about her family's experience with Autism on the Seas and how Kaleb, her older son with special needs, found the adventure.

Listen to our interview with Kim Ansley

Autism on the Seas: Today we're talking to a really good friend of ours. Her name is Kim Ansley and she's from Brazoria County, Texas. Tell us a little bit about your family. I know you have two sons. Kaleb is 14 and Jakob is going to be 10 this year, right?

Kim Ansley: Kaleb is a typical 14-year-old boy, attitude included, except he's on the autism spectrum and doesn't speak, but he uses his iPad to communicate. His obsessions are swimming and ice cream. My son, Jakob, is a neurotypical kid and he likes to say that his older brother's job is to irritate him, but they love each other very much.

AotS: How did you first encounter Autism in the Season? What made you take your first cruise back in 2015?

I actually received a grant from an organization called Diamond Wishes and once I got the grant, we set sail in about two months. It was the scariest two months of my life. The day of the cruise I cried from my house to Galveston, which is 45 minutes away, because nobody would understand that I would be lost in my room. I was afraid Kaleb wouldn't want to participate and I would starve to death. But I learned as soon as we pulled in and saw all those orange balloons that it was all going to be OK 

AotS: Was there anything really surprising that Kaleb did or participated in?

Kaleb connected with the ice cream machine (laughing). He loved it. During pool time, I'd see him with the staff and he'd make them follow the leader. I noticed he had their hands up turning around in circles with their eyes closed, and then he went off to the ice cream machine. Luckily, the staff knew and they were already following him. But he amazed me.On our first cruise, one of the staff members was a speech therapist. Knowing that Kaleb was non-verbal, she gave us some invaluable advice that I preach to others in my shoes to this day. She said when you're working with Kaleb's speech, you need to repeat something to him three times: First, whisper in his ear; second, say it where he can see it, and third, cup his hand over your mouth, so he can feel it. After we got off that cruise, Kaleb started verbalizing more sounds - It worked! That's one of many unexpected gifts we received from our Autism on the Seas vacation.

AotS: Did you opt for the one on one staff assistance?

For our first two cruises, we didn't, but we decided to try it on our most recent cruise and it was amazing! It was like having a sister with me the whole time. We really connected; we talked and we got along. It was the extra-extra support that I needed because she was there for me and my husband, but also there for my kids and basically Kaleb to make sure he got everything he needed and wanted.

AotS: You spent some time walking around Nassau with Kaleb and another family. Did he have any meltdowns?

Kim Ansley: He was good, which surprised us. He was willing to branch out. It's just, I don't know. The staff has a way to get him to, whether it be touch, a different food or a different feeling that he normally doesn't touch, but the staff just has a way to encourage him to do more.

AotS: Anything else you'd like to add for folks who may not have sailed with us yet?>

Kim Ansley:  There's plenty I would like to tell them. Take a chance because once you get to that port and see those orange t-shirts, you'll know it's going to be okay. You're making friends at first, but then you have family. That's all there is to it. Somebody on that cruise is going to connect with you. They're going to get you. They've been there, they've done that, and it's all going to be okay. Everything's going to work out. You're going to see an improvement in your child. You're going to have a new addiction. 

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Autism on the Seas Foundation Grant Recipient Shares Cruise Experience with Son, Riley

Michelle & Riley Collins from Norman, OK


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.

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Meet Eileen Rivero -- Autism on the Seas Professional Volunteer

How and when did you get involved with Autism on the Seas (AotS)?

I first learned about Autism on the Seas nearly three years ago when some friends and co-workers shared their experiences as professional volunteers. Due to an auto accident, I was unable to truly get involved until October of last year (2017).

How are your educational and career goals supported by what you do for AotS and vice versa?

From an educational standpoint, I am currently working towards my Master's degree in Public Health with a specialty in advocating for people with mental and physical disabilities. I also currently work in the field of behavior therapy as a registered behavior technician (RBT). The majority of children that I work with are on the autism spectrum. I believe in the services that AotS provides and their advocacy on behalf of families with special needs and their right to enjoy a vacation just like typical families.

Describe your role and experience as an AOTS staffer?

My role with AotS is a voluntary position with a primary focus on providing guest families on the cruise the best possible experience with their special needs child. I want the families that I assist to create incredibly memorable moments that they can take back with them.

Why do you do this?

I volunteer with AotS for many reasons. I believe in the services that AotS provides and, as I mentioned, I support their advocacy on behalf of families with special needs children and loved ones who deserve to enjoy a family vacation. On top of that, I love what I do. I love working with the kids and families. Seeing the new experiences they enjoy is very rewarding. The other gratifying reason is being able to show the parents all the wonderful things their kiddos are capable of doing. We tend to get kids to do things that the parents never thought possible, like climbing a rock wall, surfing on the FlowRider or floating in the air on the iFly.

Can you share some examples of connections you've made with families on board AotS cruises that have made a lasting impression?

One of the sweetest families I have ever met is the Fishers. They were one of the families I worked with on my first cruise this past February. They were very wholesome and participated in any and all events. They also made good friends with other families, which is extremely rewarding for me to see. It's extra special when families like this come together and share a common bond. It's not unusual for lasting friendships to begin on an AotS cruise.

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Meet Rupa Nadkar -- Autism on the Seas Professional Volunteer

Rupa Nadkar, Behavior Analyst and AOTS Professional Volunteer

Our guests consistently tell us that our professional volunteers are amazing, and we wholeheartedly agree! They are our secret sauce. Talented, educated, committed, caring, bright, eager, compassionate, patient...the list of adjectives that describe these young professionals goes on and on. In this post, we'd like to introduce you to Rupa Nadkar. She's been part of "Team Orange" for just over a year now and we think she's terrific, and so do the families she has touched on their special vacations.

How are your educational and career goals supported by what you do for Autism on the Seas and vice versa?

I am a Behavior Analyst at Devereux PA CIDDS working with clients ages 6-21 with primary diagnoses of Autism. As I plan to expand my education by pursuing my Masters in Education, AOTS has supported my experience in the field. AOTS also supports my career by providing knowledge on a different aspect of families' lives. Many times, as educational professionals, we only see how having a child with Autism effects a family educationally. Working with AOTS has brought to life families' lives outside of just schooling.

Describe your experience as an AotS Staff Volunteer?

My experience as an AOTS staff volunteer has been life-changing. I have been able to combine my greatest passions in life: travel and working with children. AOTS brings spontaneity, love, and happiness into my life. I have met amazing families and staff members across the country that I will stay friends with for a lifetime.

Why do you do this?

I joined the program because I genuinely enjoy each experience that I've had with AOTS. It is fulfilling and enjoyable at the same time. Each experience is different and I feel as though I grow as a person with each new family cruise encounter.

Can you share some examples of connections you've made with families aboard AOTS cruises that have made a lasting impression?

When I am assigned to a family that options for 1:1 dedicated staff support, the connection really goes deep. I am able to spend the entire cruise with their special needs child and the whole family, which makes me feel like I'm on a real family vacation and part of the guests' personal experiences. Having that intimate access to a loving family dynamic is moving. I still stay in touch with those families via social media and texting.

What are some of the most interesting, unexpected or amazing results/experiences that you have witnessed among AOTS guest families and special needs children?

On a recent cruise, one of the special needs guests used a wheelchair due to challenges with gait. We were able to support and encourage the individual to do things that the family never thought possible. This included activities, such as roller skating and ascending the rock wall. To see children with special needs whose expectations related to participating in onboard activities are low, then rise to the challenge and enjoy a new world of experiences and possibilities is particularly heartwarming.

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What's it like to take your first family vacation in 10 years? AWESOME!

Meyers Family Vacation with Autism on the Seas

When typical families plan a vacation, their dreams transport them to picturesque destinations filled with excitement and new cultures, islands of adventure, serene tropical resorts, and cruises that offer something for everyone. In contrast, families with a child on the autism spectrum or other cognitive impairment, often don't dare to entertain their vacation dreams because they cannot overcome their fear of stress, meltdowns, embarrassment, and a host of other concerns. That's how Tiffany Meyers felt. Tiffany has a typical 17-year old son, Noah and a 10-year-old son, Aidan, who has autism and a number of stated phobias. Nevertheless, she was determined to take her family on their first vacation since Aidan was born. She found Autism on the Seas and booked the trip as a Christmas present for her sons. They sailed with us on a seven-night Royal Caribbean cruise to Nassau/Bahamas. Here's her story. 

Autism on the Seas: Tell us a little bit about your cruise. Where did you go?

Tiffany Meyers: We traveled from New Jersey and we went to Port Canaveral, Florida, first. From there we went to CocoCay, which is Royal Caribbean's private island and then we cruised over to Nassau. 

AotS: You were feeling very anxious up until the day of embarkation. How did the initial
onboarding process go?

TM: So, when I found out in December that we were going to be able to take this trip, I was so excited. I thought the wait was going to be forever. Fast forward to June and the packing starts. I'm thinking this is wonderful, we're going on vacation. It wasn't until I got out of my friend's car, who brought us to the port, and I handed my luggage over to one of the gentlemen there, I looked up and I saw the ship... I can't even explain the emotions. It was this overwhelming fear. I looked up at the ship thinking, what did I do? I've gotten my family into this situation. What kind of mom am I? I cannot believe I'm doing this to them. I'm thinking, once we're on that ship, we can't get off. I was terrified, and I'm really trying to just contain my emotions and put on a happy face, but it was very, very, very hard. Once we proceeded to the front of the building, the first thing we saw were these bright orange balloons and a young lady standing there with her orange shirt. I knew who she was, and she knew who we were, and she came right over. And no kidding, within five minutes of meeting her, I was crying. 

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