Sam Burns is a senior at Lely High School in Naples, Florida.
Last summer, she attended MIT’s Launch program entrepreneurship program and designed a travel program tailored to the needs of families affected by autism.
Her wish is to revolutionize the way families affected with autism see the world, and the way the world sees them. She believes people with autism deserve to explore and discover new opportunities and would like her program to be able to fulfill the needs of families who currently do not travel because of autism.
What is your personal connection to autism?
My brother, Peter, is 19 years old and has autism.
He enjoys his daily routine, yet he is always eager to go on to the next event or adventure. Peter is sandwiched between my older sister Katie, who is 21 and myself- and while he sometimes has rough days, I admire his ability to tolerate his two noisy, dramatic, and crazy teenage sisters.
In 2007, my family moved from northeastern Pennsylvania to Naples, Florida, after having traveled there often to visit our grandparents. We were amazed by how good everyone felt, especially Peter, from sensory walks in the sand and the therapeutic feel of the waves. We decided, why wait for the next trip to be happy?
Traveling opened our eyes to finding a place that we all love to call home.
Why do you think travel is beneficial for families with autism?
When Peter discovers a new interest or skill, it has pivotal effects on our lives.
Sometimes it can be as small as learning how to load and play DVDs by himself; other times, it can be as powerful as learning how to paddleboard. With these significant discoveries comes the stress and anxiety of venturing out of our comfort zones. To see if we can do something new, we first have to try.
I love traveling because it enables our families to see ourselves in a new context. We can escape the familiar boundaries we see every day.
For example, Peter does not like dogs, and will immediately start planning his escape if he sees one walking down the sidewalk with its owner.
We were so used to seeing this, that we assumed Peter just did not like animals. It wasn’t until we brought Peter to the zoo that we found that he loves staring into the majestic face of a lion and challenging him to a roar-off.
Traveling outside of our comfort zones enables us to challenge our assumptions and make exciting discoveries about ourselves.
What accommodations do you ask for when you travel?
For our family, traveling is about exploration.
When we reach every destination, we are on our feet, seeing how far we can walk and what we will find on our path.
Because Peter is active, air travel was a challenge for many years.
He would rock back and forth and sometimes hum out loud to compensate for the sedentary nature of taking a flight. And of course, we would get comments after the trip from the person sitting in front of Peter, asking us to “control” him on the plane- but we didn’t stop flying, we just adjusted.
We fly on airlines that let us pick our seats, and I always sit in front of Peter on the plane. I never mind him bouncing off the back of the chair- it is sort of like having one of those massage seats from La-Z-Boy.
Traveling with the gluten-free, dairy-free diet can be a challenge as well.
Before traveling, we always research to find accommodating restaurants that would be fun for the whole family.
The “Burger and Fries with no Bun” is a staple, and so if we can find a laid-back atmosphere, we can recharge and refuel.
In what ways has travel helped your brother?
For Peter, our major breakthroughs came through experiences away from home.
My family grew up in northeastern Pennsylvania. With little to no sidewalks and the hilly terrain, we never thought Peter would ever be able to ride a bike.
However, one day we were visiting our grandparents in Naples, Florida, and we stumbled into a bike shop. Perusing through the racks, my sister and I were fascinated by the blue tandem bicycle, having never seen one in real life before. Peter could never ride a bike because he would not steer or brake- but neither of these skills is used from the back seat of the tandem.
We decided to give it a try: my dad jumped in front, and Peter got set up in the back. My mom, sister and I each grabbed a bike, and we all set off on the first family bike ride we never imagined we would ever have.
Peter loved the bike, and from that one afternoon, we uncovered Peter’s passion.
Later that year, we decided to move to Naples, and Peter now bikes with my dad every weekend. They have become icons of our town as they pedal over ten-mile treks, checking out the alligators and eagles along the way.
Your best vacation memory is
One of the greatest vacations my family has ever taken was hiking the Cliff Walk in Newport, Rhode Island.
Walking along a thin trail of crashing waves and magnificent Victorian mansions, you feel as if you are in a different universe.
Disney World similarly presents visitors with a way to jump out of current reality, but there is a very distinct difference between going somewhere magical and going somewhere that is both extraordinary and real.
In Boston, we walked the trail and then meandered through the sites in town, finally accumulating about 10 miles of on-foot exploration that day. We had no idea how much we had traveled until we were sitting at the table that night, looking at the map over dinner.
When we were able to take ourselves out of the context of our daily lives, we were able to exceed our expectations. That is truly exhilarating.
Worse vacation story
While my family loves the spontaneity of adventure, there is always a risk in trying something new. We learned to do our research before trying new attractions.
When my sister turned nine years old, we traveled to New York City. She was ecstatic to be able to hold up her “Today I’m nine and feeling beautiful” sign in the crowds of the Today show.
Our family had a blast in the city, but we did not think to research the New York Sky Ride attraction at The Empire State Building before we decided to go on.
Peter walked into the theater expecting to watch a Disney movie- but he was not expecting the seats to move and simulate a haywire plane ride. The ride threw Peter off guard, to say the least. But one bad experience can often lead to challenges down the line when powerful associations are made. So, it took our family years to get Peter to trust sitting in a movie theater without having extreme anxiety.
We learned from that experience to research different attractions and consider the possible consequences of negative connections that could be drawn.
But similarly, powerful active connections can be made when we introduce Peter to new experiences in a strategic manner.
(Note: There is now a video clip on the Sky Ride’s website providing a preview of the experience for families who may want to try the virtual tour of NYC).
What does your travel bucket list look like?
Our family has yet to travel abroad together.
My one bucket list adventure that I would love to share with my family is visiting Germany. I want to visit our family and enjoy hiking in the Alps.
My dad would love to play golf in Scotland with Peter as his caddy.
My sister would like to take Peter to London to see Harry Potter’s world.
My mom wants to recreate her childhood cross country trip and take the family from Maine to California, stopping for adventures along the way.
How could Unbounded Travel help travelers with autism?
Travel has become a source of empowerment for my family, but for many other families, this is not the case.
I have friends with autism who were asked to leave the hotel pool for being too noisy and received harsh looks for acting out in public. So many families are afraid to vacation because of the anxiety of traveling with autism.
This summer, I joined a team at MIT’s Launch Entrepreneurship program to create a traveling service that would tailor to the needs of families affected by autism.
Our business, Unbounded Travel, is developing a program that would provide behavioral and recreational support services for these families to alleviate the stress of new environments while enhancing the benefits of new opportunities.
Parents deserve a chance to travel, and people with autism deserve to be introduced to empowering and exciting experiences outside of their home environments. We want to create a program that would allow families to try paddle boarding in Florida, hiking on the Appalachian Trail, or experiencing theater in New York.
Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Unbounded Travel will provide the services to overcome the difficulties that prevent families from experiencing those pivotal, empowering moments of travel.
Travel is not about diversions. It is about growth. Families deserve to return from a vacation recharged and motivated to expand upon these new interests discovered, not weary from traveling stress.
We plan to begin in a few select locations, where we provide our services for 5-10 families. We will provide behavioral support to help individuals with autism transition to new settings.
We will also have activities throughout the day designed and run by recreational therapists. In these activities we want to provide opportunities for people with autism to try something new, we want to expose them to new interests.
For example, a family from New York may discover that their son has a passion for kayaking when they come to our program in Sarasota, FL. Or perhaps through performances and activities in our Nashville location, a family may discover their daughter’s love for music.
By partnering with a national hotel company, we will be able to grow our program throughout time, increasingly adding more programs throughout the year, more locations to explore, and more families to join our movement. Our ultimate goal is to use travel as a way to catalyze integration, inspiration, and growth for families affected by autism.