The Great Outdoors

Family camping provides memorable opportunities when autism is a factor

Planning a vacation can be challenging for families with a child on the autism spectrum. Instead of the usual hotel-based family getaway, how about a trip to the great outdoors next time? There are a variety of reasons why camping can be a great option for families who have a loved one with autism. Your trip can be customized based on your family’s desired levels of activity and stimulation—from challenging hiking trails to sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories and making s’mores, there’s something for everyone.

There are many options when deciding on where to camp—with over 10,000 campgrounds in North America, finding a location that fits your needs won’t be too difficult. Camping can be fun on any budget, and it’s been my experience that the majority of campers are family-oriented people who appreciate the simple things in life. My family began camping several years ago, and we’ve found it to be a rewarding alternative to more traditional vacations. The ability to tailor the travel agenda gives us a lot of freedom to meet the needs of our son on the spectrum while making some wonderful family memories in the process.

You’ll Love It When A Plan Comes Together…

Camping does require a bit more forethought than does the typical family vacation. Prime campsites at popular state and national parks are usually available one year in advance, and often fill very early, especially for weekend and holiday dates. Plan a trip for several weekdays and you will find it much easier to reserve a site. Private campgrounds and national chains such as Jellystone and KOA tend to have campsites available on shorter notice, except on popular holiday weekends such as Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day.

If you’re staying in a tent, be sure to first practice setting up your equipment in your back yard before your trip to be sure everything works and all the parts are included. And as much as I love the great outdoors and communing with nature, I draw the line when it comes to sleeping on the cold, hard (and perhaps, ant infested) ground. I highly recommend purchasing inflatable air mattresses, which are available at most Target and Walmart Stores (as an added bonus, they can double as guest beds the next time your in-laws visit).

Planning and packing meals for the trip can be an arduous task to process, but if you’re the parent of a child with autism this will likely be old hat for you. Prepare as much as you can ahead of time—sandwiches and meals like chili can be made in advance (be sure to use critter-proof containers for storage). Be sure to bring enough coolers (ice is generally available at most campgrounds, including state parks). It’s also a good idea to do a little research to determine where the nearest grocery store is located.

Camping in an RV (see RV World below) with a cooktop or microwave provides greater options for meal preparation especially if you don’t savor the idea of living on grilled meats and roasted weenies on a stick for the duration of your trip (campsites usually include a fire ring and grill.)

Even if you’re renting an RV or a cabin at a resort-style campground, you will have to bring your own bedding, towels, and toiletries, as well as plates, utensils, cups, and garbage bags. Other must-haves include flashlights, insect repellent, sunscreen, batteries, ziplock bags and rain ponchos. Making a list ahead of time and doing a practice run in the back yard can spare you much stress and grief.

Final Destination

Opting to camp as a family provides a plethora of travel possibilities. Virtually every county in the US has some type of camping facility, from the Grand Canyon to the Great Lakes to the Smokey Mountains. Some of our favorite camping locations include:

Jellystone Park

Eureka, Missouri (St. Louis area)

Literally across the road from Six Flags, this campground includes a swimming pool, video game center, volleyball, shuffleboard, and much more. Besides spending a day or two at Six Flags, our vacation included a trip to the St. Louis Arch, Grant’s Farm, and the Wabash Frisco and Pacific Railroad Association.

Check it out

Swiss Valley

Dubuque, Iowa

Set in a scenic, deep valley that resembles the Swiss Alps, this county-run facility features a creek, picnic areas, playground and sports field. The first time we camped at Swiss Valley we met a wonderful group of campers, including a family with a son on the spectrum. We kept in touch for years and camped with them on several occasions.

When camping at Swiss Valley, we enjoy spending time at nearby Eagle Point Park. Situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River and boasting views of three states (Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin), the park’s facilities include the Riverfront Pavilion, Shiras Memorial Pavilion, Log Cabin Pavilion, Terrace Room, Veranda Rooms, Indian Room, and the Bridge Complex. Other amenities include the Wading Pool, Rock Garden and Fish Pond, tennis courts and horseshoe courts.

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P.J. Hoffmaster State Park

Muskegon, Michigan

Most people I know don’t have bathrooms as nice as the ones at this park, which include modern, private tiled showers. Along with gorgeous beaches, sand dunes, ten miles of hiking trails and close proximity to the town of Muskegon and the Michigan Adventure Amusement Park, you can’t beat this place for a few days of R & R.

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Jellystone Park

Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin

This campground was made for families, with its own in-house waterpark (what else would you expect in the Dells?), movies, hayrides, mini golf, free Wi-Fi and more. Cabins are also available. Besides the world-famous water parks, some great places to check out while in the Dells are the Wisconsin Deer Park and Lost Canyon.

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Cayo Costa

Boca Grande, Florida

Not for the novice camper, this State Park is actually a gorgeous tropical island accessible only by charter boat, private boat, or ferry. Cayo Costa lies just north of Captiva and Sanibel Islands, on the Gulf of Mexico. The island’s nine miles of soft, white sand beach are among the finest in the world for shelling. Cayo Costa offers a variety of wild life, including dolphins, manatee, snakes, gators, and wild hogs! Vehicles are not permitted on the island, but there is a tram to help transport your gear to your site and also some bicycles available for rent. Camping is in primitive cabins or tents. We spent just one night on the island, and plan to return in the future. If you’ve ever wanted to escape to a deserted tropical island for a few days, this is the place for you.

Check it out

Life-Long Memories…

If you’re looking to meet nice, friendly, family-oriented people who tend to not sweat the small stuff, camping may be the right vacation for you. Less restrictive than a hotel room, you have trails to explore, campfires to enjoy, and the peace and calm of the great outdoors without breaking the bank. Our kids always make new friends on camping trips, often staying in touch via email or social media long after the trip ends.

After learning the ropes your first few times out, it won’t be a matter of whether you will go camping again, but rather where your next family adventure will be. You’ll be creating life-long memories in an environment where everyone is welcome and accepted, while making new friends (perhaps even families with kids on the spectrum)… and that is the best part of camping.

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