A Neurodiverse Family Finds Compromises On the Road | Organization for Autism Research

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On a plane and road trip into Maryland, our family stopped in Annapolis, the state capital, and I wondered aloud where would be a good place to eat lunch. Noticeably excited, Ian, our eighteen-year-old autistic son, said, “I know.”

So Ian pulled out from his luggage in the trunk a well-worn copy of the comfort food and travel guide Roadfood by Jane and Michael Stern. He proudly turned the page and showed us a New York-style deli just a few blocks from where we parked our rental car. The food, at Chick and Ruth’s, was delicious.

At the time, Ian was a smart autistic teenager who loved to eat — and read travel books. A lifelong enthusiastic eater, Ian was born and raised in Connecticut. At times, he struggled with certain subjects in school. In fact, his reading skills were honed by studying travel books, especially AAA Tour Books handed down from his grandfather and by his parents. And by reading Roadfood.

“I think Roadfood is a great book for finding new and different restaurants to eat at,” Ian said, reflecting on this experience so many years later. “In this case, I knew that Chick and Ruth’s existed because I read about it in the mid-Atlantic section under ‘Maryland.’”

Traveling with Ian has broadened and enriched our family’s vacations because he brings a unique perspective: that traveling is a shared, neurodiverse experience. When he travels, Ian feels more “fully alive” and more connected to his environment. In our case, we face our own set of joys and challenges.

One such joy is that, with Ian, we have a linear thinker who loves figuring out how to go from Point A to Point B. He is our built-in navigator, even with the advent of GPS and Google Maps, which he can follow avidly.

And his love of eating compels him to scour travel books to search for restaurants where we can eat. The only challenge is finding a restaurant we can all agree on. Ian, like Roadfood entries, prefers American “meat and two sides” restaurants that fill his stomach. His parents like more variety, especially restaurants that expand our cultural and culinary horizons. Much to our delight, Ian after a while caught on to our tastes. Thai food in Connecticut? No problem. A Peruvian restaurant in Fort Lauderdale? Let’s try it! “Besides just Roadfood entries,” Ian said, “I also now like to eat at a variety of other restaurants that include an array of other diverse cuisines.”

Travel has also given us opportunities to teach Ian about the social expectations of restaurant dining. Since we like to eat out a lot, we taught Ian some restaurant manners when he was young. Ian likes restaurants with menus the size of a thesaurus, so we taught him to quickly hone in on his order so as not to keep the waitstaff waiting too long. From Ian’s early age, we worked on his common courtesies, making sure he said “please” and “thank you” to the waitstaff. And to slow down his rapid-fire speech delivery when ordering. Ian has learned appropriate table manners, too. (Quite frankly, since my table manners are a cut or two above a Neanderthal’s, that was my wife Sharon’s department.)

Ian’s special interest in travel guides has enriched our vacations many times over the years. When we lived in Connecticut, we spent Christmas with good friends who lived 20 minutes away from us. Then one day they moved to Maine. Suddenly, they were five hours away. The solution? Spend a few days around Christmas in Maine.

On the drive north, we of course had to make a lunch stop. And the place where we ate was another Roadfood location that Ian picked, the Maine Diner in Wells. It became a must-stop on every winter trip to see our friends. “The Maine Diner has a great homey and old fashioned atmosphere,” Ian says. “The food is awesome and includes various staples on a vast menu of American and seafood cuisine.”

As a neurodiverse family, we find that travel unifies us as a common denominator we all love. Ian shines during our travel adventures because he has learned that he can adapt to new situations. When we travel, he gets to engage in something he loves – and share it with the rest of us, too. And he uses his reading and eating skills, especially with or without Roadfood, to make travel fun for everybody.

Arthur Henick and his adult son Ian smile at the camera. In the background is a body of water and a dark blue sky.Arthur R. Henick has practiced journalism, and has been a public relations professional, for 40 years. His son Ian, an autistic person now 34, graduated from a two-year community college in Connecticut and works at an assisted living facility in Florida.

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