Autism Trips: Riding the Colorado River

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It's that time of year again, when the family is itching to find out what to do with summer vacation.  Most parents want to have a fun time with the kids, keep them occupied while they relax and enjoy time away from work.  But for those with a child on the Autism Spectrum, this can seem like a daunting task.

In the past I have talked about going to places that seem counter-intuitive, like Disneyland.  The noise, the crowds, and the long waits generally don't create a great atmosphere for children on the spectrum, but Disneyland is leading the way in empowering parents with short wait times and minimal negative stimulation.  But, as fun as Disneyland can be, are theme parks really your only option?

I have a friend over at Colorado River & Trail Expeditions, with whom I have had this conversation.  Walker Mackay said that they have, in the past, offered trips for families that have children on the spectrum, and they have had a blast.  There are a number of advantages to riding a river, as well as a number of concerns.  Your advantages are:

  1. Outdoor Stimulation:  Most of the country through which river rafting takes you tends to be quiet and secluded.  This means the issues of large groups, loud noises, etc. is limited to the river itself which can be very soothing.
  2. Family Enjoyment:  Everyone can enjoy the trip, and not feel like they are being excluded from the trip.  Yes, it can sound like a selfish reason for being upset, but it's a very real concern when dealing with children (and teenagers).  For a trip like this, everyone is pitching in, enjoying the ride, and they can all have an adventure.
  3. Ideal Placement:  Not everyone needs to be on the edge of the raft when they ride down the river.  In a trip that I took on the Snake up on Jackson Hole, there were a couple of people who were well protected in the center of the boat, while the rest of us paddled on the sides.  This would be an ideal place for a child with Autism.
  4. Prepared Guides:  If you book the trip and TELL THE GUIDE that your child has Autism, they can be prepared for that contingency.  Not all groups are prepared for this kind of thing, so you would want to check with your tour planner.  Or you can book with my friend Walker.  ^_^
But it's not all roses on the river.  It can be very dangerous, as just about any adventure that kids enjoy tend to be.  How do you prepare for the trip?  Here are some of the potential concerns, and some things you can do to relieve any anxiety:
  1. Falling In:  Some rafting trips hit some pretty active rapids, and falling in is a real concern.  The best way to protect a child with Autism from falling in (or anyone, for that matter) is to place them in the center of the raft.  But also the time of year is a factor.  The rapids tend to be most active during the spring run-off, such as in April or May.  If you schedule your trip later in the year, such as August, the rapids are more tame.  And, as with everyone on the raft, you are required to place life-jackets on everyone.
  2. Getting Lost:  When you are in the woods, it may be a concern that someone will get lost while traveling, hiking, or while everyone else is making camp.  But this problem is pretty much the same wherever you go, and the answer is the same: make sure at least one person is fully in charge of and watching your child with Autism at all times.  If you can't do it, look someone in the eye and tell them they are in charge.  Make sure they respond.  That can go a long way.
  3. Impatient Guide:  I've never had this happen, but it is possible that a guide will get impatient, generally from lack of knowledge or awareness of what to expect from the Spectrum.  Make sure you talk it over with your guide well in advance of the trip, and while on the trip.  Let them know what is likely to set off your child into a meltdown, what needs to be done to relieve the tension, or how they react when excited, worried, etc.  Often a little bit of knowledge can go a long way.
Hopefully this helps outline some of the options you have while planning a vacation.  While I can't vouch for all river rafting companies, many like Colorado River & Trail Expeditions that run through canyons like the Grand Canyon, or canyons on the Green River in Utah, are aware of the needs that the Spectrum provide, and are dedicated to giving you the best possible experience.  And just because your child is on the Spectrum doesn't mean they can't enjoy a great adventure on a rafting trip.