|Charles, Jon, Eddie, and Chris - our AotS staff for this cruise|
We had known about Autism on the Seas for years. They are a travel agency that specializes in cruise vacations for special needs children. While we've considered them, we are also fiercely independent and like to do our own thing. We know our son and have successfully travelled with him many times. We even took a cruise with him.
On some past vacations, we've had help with him. Sometimes, the help was wonderful. Other times, it fell short. So we really didn't have high hopes for this cruise and were quite prepared to share in taking care of Stephen ourselves throughout the week. Those low expectations were blown away by the services and help that Autism on the Seas provided. We had plenty of respite, although it was more that Steve got a break from us rather than the other way around.
At first, this trip was a disaster! Stephen has something weird wrong with him. On three occasions now, during flights, he has gotten "stiff" for a half-minute (like a tonic seizure of some type), followed by being extremely sleepy. He also poops during these episodes.
This time, it was worse. Not only did he fall into a deep sleep, but he was clammy, moaning, and had a copious amount of diarrhea. Worse, my clean-up materials were gate checked through to our final destination, so I had nothing to clean him up with during our short stop-over in Charlotte. The boy was covered from his navel to his ankles. Using damp paper towels and toilet paper, I did my best to clean him. My wife, bless her soul, was able to find a laundromat the next day that opened at six to wash our soiled clothes. What we figure is that he has some type of altitude sickness caused by flying because he was jumping for joy in the Cleveland airport prior to our flight and was back to what passes for normal by the time we got to our hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Still, the whole trip down we were thinking that we'd have to cancel this trip and invoke our trip insurance.
Not only was he fine a couple hours after we landed, he was fine all week. And, while he was sleepy on the plane ride back he didn't have any of the same symptoms (although both my wife and I were nervous as hell the whole time).
Beyond that everything - and I mean everything - was great.
Let me start with the end. In the Fort Lauderdale airport Max, another child with special needs that was on this trip, came up to Stephen and gave him a big hug goodbye. That was wonderful. Okay, now I'll go on. I just had to get that in there.
Monday, December 26 - Embarkation Day
The weather was outstanding. Via the AotS group, we had a seating section to ourselves and early boarding. We were met by Jon as soon as we got to the port terminal. He lead us past the entry line to a waiting agent to check us in and get us seated. That was - I feel like I'm going to overuse this phrase - great for us. Stephen does not like waiting in lines. He likes to go, go, go. When he gets cranky we all get cranky and we end up snipping at one another.
That made a wonderful first impression on us.
In that instant, Jon was my favorite person in the world. He helped. For a parent of a special needs child, it's hard to underestimate the power of "come with me."
Soon, we were on board and had our run of the ship. Royal Caribbean did a great job turning the staterooms around and we were able to get to our cabin a little after one o'clock. Another dumb thing about Steve. He pees the bed at home about half the time. So when we travel we bring disposable bed pads and dress him in Pull-Ups at night (and when travelling). He never pees the bed in hotels or on the ship. We have no idea why this is, but it held true on this trip as well. Even though he couldn't get down from his bunk without our help and thus didn't get out of bed at night.
At Sail Away, we had a small deck overlooking to pools to ourselves. That was great for us. Stephen wasn't in a dancing mood but he soaked up the attention. He loves the attention of others. With us, he's constantly being corrected as we strive to teach him proper etiquette (often in vain, but we try). Being able to be himself without disturbing others is something he loved. Although we felt that being on vacation was not a license to act a fool at all times - as soon as we saw him acting a bit big for his britches, we pulled him back a notch. We gave him as much run as we would at a Miracle League party.
At dinner, we had our own section of the dining room. Like I mentioned before, we kinda like to stay to ourselves and are quite capable to dining with our son. So our preference was for a table for four. That wasn't what we were assigned, but we were able to switch with another family so we could sit alone as a family unit. That may seem anti-social (and perhaps it is) but we liked that better. Stephen would reach for the AotS staff when they came by. I kinda wish we were completely separated at dinner time to avoid that. He did that because he loved the AotS staff.
A couple times at breakfast we purposely sat outside our reserved section so we could feel more "normal" and less segregated from the rest of the cruisers. Although having a private area where we didn't have to jockey for seating during breakfast and lunch was great.
Muster drill was a bit of a hash. We got a wristband for Stephen, but I didn't really know where our muster station was. The three of us later found our muster station so we'd know where to head in an emergency.
Tuesday, December 27 - Sea Day
The day started with a flowrider session with the staff. These private sessions were great, although Hope didn't get a chance to try the ride since it got shut down just as her turn was coming up. Oh well. That was followed by a couple hours of pool time with the staff. Again, that was great!
The afternoon respite allowed us to watch the ice show, which was very well done. Respite also allowed us to enjoy the evening dance show.
We really liked the respite at show times. Unfortunately, that means that the AotS staff doesn't get to enjoy the shows on board.
Wednesday, December 28 - Labadee, Haiti
This was our opportunity to enjoy a beach day with staff support. It was a bit of a tough start, since our intended beach was too rough for swimming. Once we relocated and set up further along, things went well. We enjoyed the sun and the sand and the beach barbeque. Sarah initially stayed onboard because she wanted some alone time and the sun was giving her a headache. I got her to join us when I pointed out that we had a quiet, shaded area near a beach.
Ice skating with the AotS staff was fun, too. Hope and I could barely stay upright, but Sarah did well. Stephen skated a little, too, with help. I don't ask that Stephen succeed at everything he tries - it's simply important that he gives it a go.
We again had respite to allow us to enjoy the evening show, as well as a Ladies Night Out with the staff. A few well-placed tips made the drinking a bit more affordable.
Thursday, December 29 - Falmouth, Jamaica
After breakfast the AotS staff got a break, which was good. They were really working hard for us. I don't care for trinket shopping, and we skipped the private family portrait session. We did enjoy the evening respite, even though we didn't have anything planned for that time slot. It allowed my wife and I to enjoy a couple drinks and some silly parlor games with the other passengers. A couple hours of regular cruise time.
Friday, December 30 - Sea Day
This was our last hurrah, and we made it count. A private rock wall session, reserved lunch at Johnny Rockets, a group party at the Labyrinth night club, and respite during the performance of Grease were all enjoyed by us. I enjoyed Dad's Night Out. At first it was well-attended, but as the night wore on and the other dads found better things to do, I enjoyed it more. Even though I had an early morning to look forward to, I stayed out past one o'clock with a couple dads, Chris, and Eddie.