Written for Firefly Friends https://www.fireflyfriends.com/uk/blog/it-will-be-fun/
“It will be fun” I said. A campervan trip in the middle of winter! 5 of us (and a dog) taking a road trip to the upper North Island in New Zealand. It has a reputation of being the Winterless North (I am here to tell you that is not exactly true).
Even though everybody thought we were a bit crazy, I thought it would be an adventure! It was a good opportunity to push Isla (9) who has autism, out of her comfort zone. I had visions of doing some of the nice walks and outdoor activities New Zealand has to offer, as well as creating some lovely family memories.
So our plan was to set off from our home in Auckland to venture up to the East Coast of the North Island, crossing over to the West Coast then via Mangawhai Heads on the way home. We thought 5 nights would be enough time to see everything we wanted to and had our fingers crossed for good weather.
Our motley crew consisted of our 15 year old daughter and her easy going friend Brooklyn. Luckily she knows our family well enough to be in confined quarters for 5 days and not be traumatised by the experience! Then there was Isla and her ADNZ Assistance Dog Bo, driver/dad/cook/waste emptier Gareth and me, the tidier, bed maker and nagger.
Isla had been really excited about the campervan. She kept telling us it was because she had never been in one before and she couldn’t wait to see what it looked like. We spent some time virtually exploring our Maui Campervan online, looking at the configuration of the van so she knew where she would sleep, have her breakfast and play with her toys and games.
When the campervan pulled into the driveway there was much excitement. Isla was keen to check out the van in all its glory and start packing it up with individual toys and games. I eventually would find these spread out in every overhead locker compartment. The spacious van displayed on the website was looking much smaller in real life for the 5 of us, plus the hairy one, but out we went in the pouring rain with a positive mind.
Over the next 5 days we were all tested and to be honest there were a few tense moments. This was mainly due to teenager/mother angst but Isla took it all in her stride.
Being away in the off season meant that everywhere where we went was quiet and we were often only at a campground with one or two other (just as crazy) families. This provided many awesome opportunities for Isla to stretch herself, practice independence and learn new things. The rain eased off and we got some fine weather which made all the difference and allowed us to do most of our planned activities.
The 5 things we learnt from this road trip with an autistic child are as follows:-
You can have a lot of fun with a torch and gumboots
Walking to the toilet block from the van in the pitch black would have been an impossible feat without the help of these two items. Isla hates getting her feet wet and her gumboots are easy to take on and off and let her jump in puddles, walk through the mud and even splash in the sea while keeping her feet dry! Isla loved navigating the way to and from the van lighting the path with the torch as we went. When we were close enough in one campsite she even walked back on her own. We didn’t push the showering each day as it is hard to get her in the shower at the best of times! We didn’t want to put her off as was quite chilly in the shower blocks at night. We managed a shower one day when it was warm and she enjoyed the experience.
Wow she can talk and talk
Isla has a very enquiring mind and needs a lot of stimulation to feel on an even keel. On the first day of the trip Isla announced she was going to have a break from the iPad. It was so lovely having her live in the moment, making observations about our trip but boy she can ask a lot of questions!!! Now don’t get me wrong I will never get sick of hearing my girl’s voice! I’m so grateful she can now talk as for a long while there I thought she never would, but after an eventful question filled activity I was grateful for the iPad for some downtime.
Open spaces and nature are so soothing
When Isla is walking on the beach or in any open space she is regulated, happy and relaxed. Although sometimes it is hard to get her to to these places, when she is there she really enjoys it. Walking for long distances is still challenging but she has come so far with the help of her assistance dog Bo. She is tethered to him and he helps her stay on course. Sometimes when walking through a particularly narrow track she will walk independently and has gained so much confidence. You can really tell the difference when she enters a stimulating environment with lots of people around. The change in her is obvious to see. She tires easily, tenses and has a hard time with it all.
Even a small train trip proved too much for her with all the stimulation around and she shut down. Her patient dog, Bo really helped her regulate herself. She found it soothing to sprinkle stones on him and feel the bony structures and tendons of his legs. He is fine with it and if uncomfortable will make it clear and attempt to move. For those that know Bo when he is off duty, running around like a looney in the park, you would never think he would be capable of this tolerant behaviour. When that jacket goes on he goes to work it is quite incredible to see the transformation. He is trained to work and he really enjoys it.
There are many learning opportunities to be had
With the help of the Clicker word processing software (https://www.cricksoft.com/uk/clicker) Isla uses at school to help her write she put together her own book of each adventure she had been on. She was keen to chose a photo and write sentences about her day. When she got back to school she had great pride in sharing this with her class.
Even a trip to the beach provided a learning opportunity, drawing and writing in the sand. She won’t draw or write at home all that often. I discovered a picture she had drawn of her and her friend Sammy with the word LOVE.
It doesn’t take much to keep her happy
Isla is most secure when she has her family, her toys and her assistance dog (he was pretty happy too as allowed up on all the beds!!!!). She felt secure in the van and the mess and chaos didn’t worry her and she doesn’t need a lot to entertain her.
We are always pleasantly surprised when travelling with Isla. As long as you don’t try to do too much in one day and you explain the plan, she is able to cope with everything just fine.
In a deserted playground in Mangawhai Isla’s big sister initiated a game of Playground Gladiator. You had to create a routine and then everyone had to follow your lead and be timed to see who would get the best time. Isla loved being involved in this with us all and we made allowances for her so she wouldn’t come last. Isla’s says this is her favourite part of the trip
She loved doing the nature walk around the idyllic campground on the Kauri Coast and braving the Flying Fox.
She walked a section of the Opua-Paihia walk navigating some steep terrain and falling on her bottom a few times and managing to get up and brush herself off.
At the impressive Waitangi Treaty Grounds Isla wasn’t interested in the audio tour but was happy to explore the grounds and beach with Bo and I while we waited for the others. She liked walking through the bush there and feeling the different types of bark on the native trees. We ended the day with a cultural show that she managed to sit through in the front row without flinching.
She enjoyed the Dolphin Boat Trip in Paihia. Even though she didn’t see any dolphins she handled it like a trooper.
We all enjoyed an early morning walk along the beautiful Opononi Beach. Isla enjoyed wading in the water in her gumboots and throwing a stick to Bo.
All in all our trip was a success. It was hard work at times, just like any other camping trip but very rewarding. We are are so fortunate in New Zealand to still have these camping grounds in amazing locations that anyone can access. Isla’s assistance dog was welcome at all the campgrounds as long as he was in his coat and on leash for most of them.