As some of you may know our readers are always invited to contact us to ask for advice, tips or any other help planning their trips. The service is free and is available through private email on our contact us section on tour navigation bar or via our FB page. In this case, Lisa’s question about taking her son with autism on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela was first posted on our FB page and as we thought other readers might benefit we decided to turn it into a post.
Do you have any thoughts on taking one’s adult autistic offspring on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela? I am considering doing just that, although would take it a lot slower than most people, and have more rest days. I would spend about two years physically and mentally preparing my son to go. As my son is also intellectually disabled, an epileptic, as well as a coeliac, am I crazy to even consider it? Any feedback would be gratefully received.
Thanks so much for your question.The Camino is quite different than some of my other destinations as it is really ‘off the beaten track’, so to speak, and unique in its place in the travel industry. It is, of course, a magnificent part of the world; with some routes and their monuments in both Spain and France even earning UNESCO World Heritage status. Known as a predominantly Catholic pilgrimage route for centuries and called Saint James Path or The Way of Saint James; it used to be known as a means for spiritual growth or soul-searching for a few dozen pilgrims each year.
Nowadays it has become far more popular with a few hundred thousand travelers making the journey annually and not only for spiritual reasons. A lot of people like the idea of peace and quiet and the tranquillity of the path that the Camino offers as an alternative holiday or getaway. Some hikers use it as a personal conquest and for some, it is not unheard of to walk the Camino to find a spouse.
In years gone by pilgrims did the journey on their own, but now there are even organized tours that make arrangements for singles, couples, and groups. In recent years, there have been some extra-special accounts of people making the trek in wheelchairs with the help of their family or friends. The ultimate aim of the journey is to be able to receive a certificate of accomplishment (Compostela) to say that the pilgrim has completed at least 100 kilometers by foot; the only thing that is required for this is to walk, eat and sleep.
Good hiking boots are vital and then one has to decide on food and lodging. Some people complete the walk with the bare minimum; camping out in the open and really roughing it. For those who don’t like sleeping under the stars, other options are little hostels called refugios that are economical and give one the opportunity to contribute to the community’s economy. The route passes through small villages and towns, and there are cathedrals and chapels along the way that appeal to religious and non-religious alike. The architecture and views are spectacular and along the whole route, care has been taken to show hospitality to pilgrims with trails marked out specifically and foot fountains to soothe aching feet. As an added bonus, these days, all the refugios offer free WiFi, really appealing to the modern pilgrim.
Regarding special needs and autism, it absolutely can be done and has been done.
A woman with autism from the United States completed the route in 2013 which was a fantastic achievement.
It is, of course, imperative to plan, like you said. Every single need and possible concern should be discussed and taken into account.
For most people with autism, a schedule is vital for them. In an unusual way, walking the Camino provides a routine in itself. Even though you wake up in a different place every morning, the pattern of the day is the same, and there is an end goal. Your son would not need to feel pressured; walking pace and resting times are flexible.
How comfortable is your son with sleeping in a different bed than his own? Part of your preparation can be to expose him to sleeping in different motels. If he is sensitive to light, make sure that he has a sleep mask as each refugio will have different arrangements regarding blinds or curtains.
If your son is noise-sensitive, then earplugs or headphones will be very beneficial.
If your son is sensitive to heat, then choose to travel in the cooler months.
Most hikers start out really early in the morning also to avoid the heat of the day. I suggest you break-in new shoes a few weeks before to avoid getting blisters.
You mentioned that he has celiac disease so you would need to make allowance for carrying extra weight in gluten-free substitute foods and snacks in your backpack. There are stores and stalls for purchasing food along the way, but there is no guarantee that it will be suitable for your son’s digestive system. The meals at the refugios are simple, and if you are in a town or village, there is the possibility of eating at a tavern or restaurant.
If your son is on medication for epilepsy, for example, you will need to take an ample supply and also a means to keep it dry and at a suitable temperature no matter where you will be staying on the route.
If you choose to go with a specialized tour, they do provide you with water, food and first aid as well as the option of a ride to the closest medical center if necessary. It should go without saying that travel insurance is a priority.
If your son enjoys the outdoors, gets a sense of accomplishment from completing goals and embraces the challenge of doing something new, then walking the Camino might be just the thing for him.
Please let me know if you are going to do it. We at Autistic Globetrotting would love to hear about your experience.