Vacationing as a Special Needs Family: When You Stop and Look Up at the Stars
John Felageller
August 10, 2020

In July of 2020, I participated in an interview through the Not Alone Parents Facebook site on vacationing as a special needs family. During that interview I spoke to one vacation idea that most people, at least in my experience, cringe at when it’s brought up, and it is camping. Now, you may equally be cringing as you’re reading this, and the first thing I would tell you is, I agree, because I cringed as well when my wife first brought it up as a very real possibility last spring. Yes, there are plenty of families, even without special needs children, who just shake their heads when we mention what we do and why we somehow enjoy doing it. But as I myself learned, there are many, many benefits to choosing this type of a vacation option if you have special needs children. First, it’s affordable, which is not entirely true in the beginning since you spend a fair amount of money investing on equipment and gear to start, however beyond that the costs to rent a site are minimal. Second, it’s extremely fun, as it is always an adventure anytime you get to eat, sleep and play outside…all day long. Yet when you consider the number of both public and private campgrounds across the country in every corner of the country with tons of activities of all kinds to offer, then why wouldn’t someone at least think about trying it? Well, try it we did, and despite a few hiccups, we decided to do it a few times more, and each time it held unique and special experiences that our family took with us, and so I’d like to share some of those with you here.

When we started investigating our options for how we’d like to travel and where we’d like to stay, we decided that since we had no idea what we were really getting ourselves into, we would go somewhere relatively close, but also someplace that had enough to entertain our son in case just being outside sleeping in a tent wasn’t enough. After researching our options at both public and private campgrounds, we decided that a private campground chain would suit our needs better, and so we settled on a KOA campground located in northern Illinois, about an hour north of Chicago. Since this was our first experience camping, this turned out to be a good location for us, as it was away from suburban hustle and bustle, but close enough to a small town and basic gas station/fast food amenities if needed, as well as being located right next to a wild west theme park, which could be a very needed distraction if necessary. Unfortunately, being newbies, there were some drawbacks that we could not have anticipated until we actually got there. For starters, it was very close to a county road with a fair amount of traffic, and power lined that also ran through a part of the campground as well. The sites were also very close together, which when you have a special needs child is a major red flag since if your child decides to not sleep, or just be very noisy while he’s trying to go to sleep, would make us not very welcome neighbors. None of this is really apparent when looked at from the online map, things may seem close but they are decidedly much closer in real life. It was also an extremely hot weekend in June we chose to go, again, not something we could have expected the few months earlier when we booked, but we had quickly realized just how sweaty and uncomfortable we were becoming. Our son quite clearly demonstrated how uncomfortable he had quickly become, when not even a couple hours after arriving, he came back from the log cabin themed playground and jumped into the backseat of the car, signaling “I’m ready for home” as he jostled into his booster.

We managed to explain to him that we would actually be staying the night, and luckily there was enough to do there, and the temperature went down enough, to the point that he happily climbed into the tent along with the dog and went to sleep. While he knocked out and slept quite soundly next to my wife, I awoke the next morning realizing how uncomfortably I had slept, being covered in sweat as the morning sun had already heated up the tent, and the air mattress we put our sleeping bags on top of had gradually lost air, and so various points of my body were now covered in aches. There were also a fair amount of children’s voices chattering away happily at the front of the tent, all of them drawn like a magnet apparently to our dog, asking questions about her and everyone pushing and shoving to get their turn to pet. I gradually emerged from inside the tent after getting dressed, my wife’s smiling face offering me a variety of cold breakfast items we had packed, including the bottled coffee. By the time we packed up the site and got back into the car, I was breathing a great sigh of relief…we survived, but most importantly, our son survived, and while we could tell he was exhausted, he was chipper and happy, and we knew that despite the heat and sweat, he enjoyed it.  We would take what we learned from this trip, the need for a bigger or more spread out campsite, something more rural, and definitely cooler weather if possible, and apply it to our next camping voyages.

So this year we have taken two trips, both to public campgrounds in Wisconsin, and these were our first forays into using public instead of private campgrounds, and we entered these with some excitement and also trepidation. We very much looked forward to the beautiful sceneries were going to get to walk in and through, however we did have a very real fear of the status of a very needed critical piece of our everyday lives: the bathroom. While being a teacher of young elementary students for years, I know that kids in general can be very picky about the bathrooms offered to them either at school or on field trips. In our son’s case, the bathroom can be a real deal breaker, first because of his autism we know he prefers certain bathroom environments, but we were also coming off a bad experience when we were hiking in a state park last summer and we forced to use a very dirty bathroom house on the grounds of the park that I thought he would never use, and after he had used I thought he would never use one like it again. We were relieved when after we got to our first campground site, which was very near to a bathroom/shower house, they were much cleaner and in better shape, or so I thought. After a nice long trip along a lakefront boardwalk that wound its way up, down and around the dunes just north of our campground, we came back to our tent and got our son ready for a cool shower. As my wife took him into one of the individual shower rooms and I stood outside checking my phone messages, I quickly heard a shriek and my name being yelled. I burst into the stall to ask what happened, and in the dim light of the small room, she cowered at one end and pointed towards the floor of the shower to ask me what “it” was, when I realized it was a large glob of hair sitting by the drain. My wife hurriedly ask me to pull him out of the shower insisting he was done and that we wouldn’t be using the showers there anymore. 

Although the bathroom situation was not totally resolved, we nonetheless enjoyed the trip overall and got excited for our next and final one for the season, at beautiful Devils Lake State Park, tucked in between Madison and Wisconsin Dells, it boasts to be on par with Yellowstone in its popularity among hikers and campers. This was also the longest trip we would be taking, being an almost four hour ride including several bathroom stops. After at least that long of a drive and several stops for both bathrooms and burgers, we made it to the park, right as dusk began to set over the landscape.  Having depended on our normally trusty GPS to make it this far, we nonetheless got to the point of countless unnamed roads, and found ourselves driving into the wrong end of the park. We managed to get directions from several nice young men with no shirts on, and eventually made it to the right end of the park and our campsite. With less than an hour of actual daylight left, we hurriedly put up our campsite, and I took our son on a short walk on the trail loop around our patch of campsites. By the time it got dark, we had made it into the tent, changed into our pajamas and began to settle in for the night. Knowing our son, there is no such thing as that “one final bathroom trip”, so after tossing and turning for a long while, we all decided to take the “second final bathroom trip”, now walking in pure darkness with a flashlight, the sounds of voices echoing by a campfire the only other noticeable noise. Here we were, still hot and sweaty from all of the day’s and night’s activity, tired, and wanting so much for the softness of of our collective air mattress and sleeping bags, when I remembered something. I suddenly remembered to do something that had once, a long time ago, been programmed into me, an act that I probably hadn’t done since I was a teenager. You see, I had an uncle and aunt who owned a vacation home and wooded acres in Wisconsin, not too far from where we were camping, and who’s home we spent many a summer vacationing at. Every time we stayed there we had a ritual, which was to go outside at night and gaze at the night sky, trying to pick out every star of significance and their partner constellation. It was at that moment, that I looked up.

It was just as I remembered it as a child. The stars didn’t go anywhere, they hadn’t changed, they weren’t any less big and bright. Something however, was different this time. This time I was walking with my own family, for the first time walking under the night sky, free of light pollution and every other distraction. I signaled to my wife to look up, take a look at the stars. She did and sighed with huge amazement, but then in an instance she looked back and redirected me to look at our son…”Honey look, he’s looking up at the stars!” I looked down at him walking next to me, literally with his head cocked all the way back while still shuffling his feet forward. I was now present at one of the most emotional milestones a parent can have, having a front row seat at the discovery by my child of the night sky. It wasn’t just an old memory for me anymore, it was new, it was present, it was here. It was my child being a child, where the sky held all of the wonders of creation. I thought to myself, is that how Papa Abraham once marveled at the stars when God said his descendants would outnumber even them? Is it as profound of an experience as the star which called three men of royalty across hundreds of miles to a lowly manger and the promise of the greatest king? Or is it just the miracle of a child, my child, his special needs cast to the side for that one moment, that reminds me how connected he is to the God who put all of them there in the first place?

For the record, I hated the idea of camping when my wife first brought it up. I’m a city kid, someone who’s used to coming inside from the outside when you’re done playing, with comfortable chairs, hot food and clean bathrooms there waiting. I didn’t enjoy being too hot when I slept, or too cold, or too ouchy when I woke up. But I also knew there was no way that my child could have had the experience he did any other way. If for no other reason, it was all worth it because of that. For one moment my child wasn’t special needs, autistic, disabled. He was just one more star burning bright in the sky, a part of the incredible masterpiece that God intended for him all along.