Photo: Marmolejos/Shutterstock

How Autism Changed My Travel

by Priyanka Kher Mar 18, 2012
I used to be a carefree, unorganized traveler. This was freedom that I took for granted.

FOUR YEARS INTO OUR MARRIAGE, my husband Baroon and I decided to start a family. Tanvi was born on the 26th of January, 2008, in Christchurch, New Zealand. She had big brown eyes, and thick black hair. She was perfect. So was our plan for our life.

Right through my pregnancy I had heard advice from everyone.

“You’ll have to slow down now.”

“It’s different once you have a child.”

“You don’t know what you’re in for.”

I debated and I refuted, for a while. Finally, I gave up and ignored it. How bad could it get? I mean, people who have children do travel, right? Six months, and we would be on the go again.

Our first trip with Tanvi came when she was five months old. After three hours of a winding mountain drive, we arrived at Mount Hutt ski centre. I was happy during the chairlift ride to the top of the mountain. Nothing had changed. In the past, friends had often joked about the fact that our kid(s) would be born nomads. The seeds were being sown early. I liked that.

We moved back home to India when Tanvi was one.

Soon after that, the signs began to emerge. Tanvi had no eye contact and did not respond to her name. She had no recognition of her environment, was hyperactive, and had trouble sleeping at night. At eighteen months, there was no language, just babbles and garbles. I put my plans of going back to work on hold.

Two months before Tanvi’s second birthday, we took a trip to Kolkata. During the flight, she was extremely loud and hyper. She kicked the seat in front of her for the entire three hours. Nothing I said or did helped in any way. Completely out of control, Tanvi had no idea. She did not understand. Neither did I.

With my back towards Baroon, I cried myself to sleep that night. Four days later, we flew back home. It was worse this time.

At two years and two months, Tanvi was diagnosed as being autistic. On our way to the doctor’s clinic that morning, I knew what was coming, but I wasn’t prepared. With each word I heard, my heart sank a bit further, until it hit rock bottom. The car ride back home was silent. Baroon drove with his right hand, his left holding mine.

Thereafter, life was a series of therapy sessions: speech, occupational, behavioral. Everything else (naturally) took a backseat. I read a lot. Why did this happen? Did I go wrong somewhere? Will she ever talk? There were no clear answers.

At some point through it all, I drowned the questions too. I was angry.

My life was coming undone and I did not want to acknowledge it. Maybe I acknowledged it too much.

We stayed put for a year.

Around Tanvi’s third birthday, both my parents as well as Baroon’s urged that we take a trip. I thought I’d been putting up a brave front. The gentle nudging and the concerned expressions proved otherwise.

First came the excuses: I wasn’t ready, Tanvi would miss therapy, it was too cold. Then came the silence. Finally, I relented. I knew that by staying at home, I’d been running away for too long.

I packed my bags two days in advance, spent one whole day loading my phone with Tanvi’s favorite songs — music calmed her down. Everything in my in-flight bag was placed in the order I would need it — extra set of clothing for her, diaper, packets of her favorite cookies. I was as prepared as I could be. The night before we were to travel, panic started to set in — I couldn’t sleep.

We made it to Mumbai with the help of music and cookies. A week later, we made it back.

Thoughts raced through my head during the drive home. The trip had gone well. In the given circumstances, Tanvi had adjusted nicely. She took to the new surroundings easily and was generally happy all along. I had been cautious throughout, holding back, but each passing day had added a tiny bit to my confidence.

Friends had made comments about what a pleasure she’d been on an eight-hour drive we took. It was a start.

That night, I gave Tanvi a hug and went to sleep with a smile.

Another year has passed since then.

We are living in America now. We moved here in the summer of 2011. Some things have stayed the same. The therapies are still around: speech, occupational, behavioral. Tanvi is talking in three-word sentences now. She is attending school.

The two of us went to Calgary in October last year. Baroon couldn’t come because of work. I packed two days in advance. I loaded the iPad with Tanvi’s favorite music. We stayed with family.

Travel, the way that I had known and loved it, was lost now. That, however, didn’t have to be the end of it. This realization opened new doors.

The night before we were to fly, I was so excited I couldn’t sleep.

Last week, I met a lady at the café where I wait while Tanvi attends therapy. We got to talking and I told her why I was there. We talked some more.

“You’re doing well. Take care,” she patted my hand before she left.

I watched as she walked out the door. Then, with a half-smile, I reached out for the menu and ordered another coffee.

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