When we first started traveling, we discovered one of the best ways to make any travel destination more memorable for our kids was to partake in its local wildlife or sea life excursions.
Ten years later, appreciating the sensory and educational value of such tours, we’re still on the lookout for new experiences. So, we thought it would be helpful to share a list of the autism-friendly (or not) encounters we’ve compiled over the years.
Kissing Stingrays in Georgetown, Grand Cayman
We hesitated before booking this tour as we knew that our son would be nervous swimming in the open sea even though it was a shallow sandbar area.
To complicate things he had heard about Steve Irwin’s death from a stingray the previous month and was petrified of going near one.
And we were right.
He started off being incredibly apprehensive both about the water and the stingrays!
It took over ten minutes of convincing to get him into the water.
However, it was our fantastic guide leading him by the hand to the stingrays that persuaded him to hold and ‘kiss’ one.
Autism travel tip: The experience can go south if your child is afraid of swimming in the open sea or fearful of stepping on the stingrays.
Chased by Deer in Nara Park, Japan
As you walk through the picturesque park, the deer come up to you and bow their head down begging for treats.
However, there are some who might even get more personal and start chewing on your belongings.
Our son was startled when a snack package was pulled out of his pants pocket and ate so fast we were unable to retrieve it. But he did warm up to the unique experience soon enough- after all, who can stay mad at a herd of adorable attention-seeking deer?
Autism travel tip: Nara is an excellent place to acclimate your child to animals.
Make sure you bring hand sanitizer along, and your kid doesn’t get too close to the deer as they carry ticks.
Participating in the sheepdog training show at Aberfoyle, Scotland
When we booked our private tour guide, we specifically asked to visit the Scottish sheep show at Aberfoyle as the description on their web page sounded like fun!
What we didn’t know was that as part of the show, the announcer selected volunteers to play different parts in the actual demonstration.
When our son raised his hand, the announcer was kind enough to choose him for the easiest role -of the dog trainer’s assistant.
He ended up having a blast and stayed dry unlike some of the less lucky visitor volunteers who got to play the part of the ‘ dogs’, running on all fours across the field chasing the sheep in the fresh mud.
Autism travel tip: The show is a winner for kids with autism since it does not require any participation (unless you volunteer to do so.) If your kid is smell sensitive, then you might decide against it since the area does smell of manure.
Swimming with dolphins on the Big Island, Hawaii
We’ve experienced the dolphin encounter several times, but I will never forget our first time.
We were all lined up in the Waikoloa Hilton lagoon ready to greet the dolphins when our older son became apprehensive about swimming in what he perceived as deep water.
In fact, he was minutes away from a major panic attack.
Quick thinking made me realize he would calm down if I got him to believe he was holding on to something safe; so I suggested he hold on to the life vest he was wearing all the while continuing to paddle with his feet.
He soon forgot his extreme fear of the water and ended up thoroughly enjoying his day.
Autism travel tip: Don’t book unless your kid can swim in 7 feet of water.These encounters are quite pricey so you might want to book the shorter cheaper option when booking for the first time.
Becoming part of the sea lion show in Mexico’s Eco Park of Chankanaab
We booked the encounter months ahead thinking it would fill up quickly since we were visiting the Mexican eco-park of Chankanaab during the Easter holiday. However, once we arrived and asked about our encounter, the staff seemed confused about the hours and suggested since we wait for the next planned event.
We explained we were on a brief cruise tour that did not allow us additional time and asked to be reimbursed.
At that point, the manager interceded and arranged a private encounter just for our family.
The experience would have been perfect had any of the staff members remembered to chord off the entrance to the attraction pool for the 30 minutes we were there. Instead, with the gate open and sea lions in the pool, bystanders assumed it was all part of the show and filled the small stadium to watch us play with the sea lions.
Autism Travel tip: This might be a winner with many kids since some of this encounter is on land and requires very minimal swimming if at all.
Feeding baby kangaroos in Bonorong Park, Tasmania
Our children experienced petting kangaroos in the Sydney and Melbourne zoos, but exploring Hobart’s Bonorong proved unique.
Visitors to this park walk around and interact freely with the different animals in an almost natural habitat.
The day we visited we got to hand feed the kangaroos and were treated to a glimpse of a mom and its Joey’s foot sticking out of the pocket.
But what my kids remember best were the two kangaroos that got into a fight and were busy kicking each other so hard that both our children concluded they must have been brothers.
Autism travel tip: Make sure you arrive early in the morning to avoid the heat if your kid is heat intolerant.
Bison watching in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Clearly, Bisons are not cute, cuddly animals you can pet. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to view the herds in Yellowstone National Park. In summer, travelers are treated to very up close and personal encounters with the wild herds as they traverse grassy plains and the narrow paved roads, many times stopping car traffic.
Even though area eateries offered bison meat on their menus, our kids repeatedly refused to taste any after seeing the younger herd members trailing after their moms.
Autism travel tip: If your child is fearful of big animals; he or she can stay in the car and still get a good view of the bison.
Spotting crocodiles in the Everglades National Park, Florida
This encounter almost did not happen.
The day we toured the Everglades we were met with a major downpour.
It was slightly drizzling when we boarded the open tour boat but became dreadful moments later.
Needless to say, that was not a great start to the trip.
However, magic did happen.
The rain stopped, and our son with autism, though soaked to the bone, had fun trying to spot the Gators among the bushes and muddy bodies of water.
To this day, we still reminisce how one of our fellow travelers was close to moving what looked like a dead branch when it suddenly opened its eyes and looked straight at him.
Autism travel tip: Make sure you pack ponchos if you decide to go since it rains quite often.
Petting polydactyl cats in the Hemingway House in Key West, Florida
Visiting Papa Hemingway‘s house in Key West was a great way to introduce our sons to an American literary giant.
We toured the home filled with European antiques and hunting souvenirs and saw the in-ground pool he jokingly said had claimed his last penny.
However, the real show stealers were the sixty plus polydactyl cats that roamed the premises.
Legend has it these are direct descendants of a sea captain’s tomcat adopted by Hemingway back in the 30’s.
The cats roam everywhere from the backyard patio areas to the kitchen, bedroom closets, and even bathrooms.
I’m happy to report none managed to escape (they try to keep the cats indoors) while our son insisted on counting their paws.
Autism travel tip: As mentioned the place is covered with cat fur from the sixty some felines living there so visiting the house might prove a challenge if your kid has allergies.
Riding camels on Lanzarote in the Canary Islands
Voted by our kids as THE most exciting encounter; riding camels in Lanzarote Canary Islands was quite the adventure.
Set against a Mars- like planet backdrop with kaleidoscope colored sand dunes visitors get to mount on a camel’s side seated inside a basket and ride the dunes for thirty some minutes.
In our case, each parent sat with a teen son to balance the wobbly basket though they had to balance mine with additional sandbags.
But if riding in a swaying basket on flat ground isn’t exciting enough, visitors should be prepared for a theme park like thrill moments when the camels descend the hills, tied to each other leaving the possibility of one stumbling and dragging the others downhill to those with fearful imaginations.
Autism travel tip: The experience is recommended for older kids since no restraints like seatbelts are supplied.