Family Traveler Spotlight: Lisa of Traveling on the Spectrum

Family Traveler Spotlight is the section of our publication where we profile families who love taking their children along on their travel adventures. In this edition, we meet Lisa Winner of Traveling on the Spectrum. She shares with us her favorite Hawaii hotel, her worst experience flying with kids, and her best travel tips for parents with children who have special needs.

Interested in having your family featured in Family Traveler Spotlight? Email us at editorial@topflightfamily.com

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Donovan admiring the penguins at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, California. Photo: Lisa Winner

Tell us about your family.
My husband, Ian, and I are in our late 30s and early 40s. (Hint: One of us still has a 3 in our age, and the other does not.) My daughter Hannah is 10 1/2, going on 16 1/2, and my son Donovan is 6. He pretty much acts like a typical 6 year old, with a few exceptions. He’s on the autism spectrum (henceforth ASD), so he has some different abilities, such as naming every shark ever in existence by its full technical name, and turning down french fries that are round vs. french fries that are sticks, because round french fries are “gross.”

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Hannah and Ian admiring the view at the Grand Canyon. Photo: Lisa Winner

Where do you live when you’re not traveling?
We live in beautiful Northern California, in the urban city of Oakland (or the city across the bay from San Francisco, as it’s internationally known). Some fun facts about Oakland: It is the most ethnically diverse city in the United States, and over 125 different languages are spoken here. Fenton’s Creamery, featured at the end of the animated movie Up, is in Oakland and about 5 minutes from my house. And Walt Disney created Disneyland after being inspired by Oakland’s very own Fairyland, a children’s theme park that is still in existence today (but please don’t visit expecting Disneyland quality attractions because you will be SORELY disappointed).

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Hannah posing as a princess at Fairyland, in Oakland, CA. Photo: Lisa Winner

What type of work do you and your partner do?
We have corporate jobs that pay us well enough to participate in the activity we enjoy most: traveling. (And attending sporting events. Go Warriors!)

Tell us about Traveling on the Spectrum.
My goal is to discuss our travel adventures with our autistic son, not only to create autism awareness (#thisiswhatautismlookslike is one of my favorite hashtags), but to also (hopefully) inspire other families with children on the spectrum to get out there and see the world. To not feel limited, simply because they have a child with special needs. Travel with young children is nerve wracking. Travel with young (or older) special needs children is at another level, but it can be done. And if I inspire one family to take a chance and book that trip to (insert fabulous international destination here; Branson, MO for example), then I would have done my job.

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Donovan admiring one of the whale sharks at the GA Aquarium in Atlanta. Photo: Lisa Winner

Why do you believe in traveling the world with your children?
We only have one life. Make the most of it. Teach your children that life outside of their everyday bubble exists. Show them that diversity and culture are a beautiful thing, especially when that culture doesn’t resemble your own. Teach them to be citizens of the world, to appreciate their own lives, because there are SO MANY out there with far less. And for my ASD son who has other challenges, show him that just because he is different, doesn’t mean that he is less than. That his life doesn’t having to stop simply because he processes things differently. And by golly, when he’s ten, if he’s still obsessed with Great White sharks, I will get him Scuba certified, and I will take him cage diving with Great Whites, even if I’m terrified to the point of passing out. He’ll enjoy it, and that’s what matters most.

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A beautiful cove near Hapuna Beach Prince hotel in Hawaii. Photo: Lisa Winner

Luxury means different things to different people. How do you define luxury when it comes to traveling with your family?
Luxury for me means truly being with my family. Not just being in their presence, but being engaged with them to the point where I’ve forgotten all of the nonsense of the “real world,” and I’m immersed in what is happening in the present moment. I’ll admit this doesn’t happen as often as I would like, but when it does, it is luxurious. This level of breeziness happens for different people in different environments, but for me it generally involves sunshine, a beautiful beach, and a cocktail in my hand. There’s a pool by the beautiful beach that the kids find enjoyment in for hours, and snorkeling that happens right around the corner… generally. (I may or may not be describing the Hapuna Beach Prince in Hawaii).

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Hannah and Donovan splashing around at Laguna Beach, California. Photo: Lisa Winner

What’s the best travel experience your family has ever had?
I’m going to recount one of the worst travel experiences I’ve had, because it was memorable, and now that I can laugh about it, it’s one of the best. My son and I were traveling to the east coast to visit my family. Around the Midwest we hit some moderate turbulence (as per usual when crossing the United States). The seat belt sign came on, and the flight attendants took their seats. At that same moment, my son announced that he needed to use the facilities. Or in kid speak, he stated “I have to pee”. I tried to calmly explain to him that he couldn’t get up because of turbulence. “Feel the bumps?” I said, “that means we can’t get up”. My sweet charming ASD son took that to mean the plane was going to crash, and started screaming, “But I have to pee! Make the bumps stop! We’re all going to die!” In a couple of paragraphs down I’m going to say something along the lines of “Remember, this too shall pass.” Well in this instance, I was nowhere near that level of Zen, and began to panic. I finally decided to send him to the bathroom—by himself—because, well, I don’t like the bumps either. So I said “Ok, but I’m not coming with you, you have to be a big boy and go Potty by yourself”. He looked at me like, fine, whatever woman, unbuckled his seat belt and walked back to the restroom like he was a business traveler who did this on the regular. Good news was by the time he got back to his seat, the turbulence had let up. The seat belt sign turned off as he was sitting down… perfect timing.

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The beach and pool view from the lobby of the Hapuna Beach Prince. No pictures will ever do this view justice. Photo: Lisa Winner

What’s your favorite family-friendly luxury hotel?
The Hapuna Beach Prince in Hawaii. (Read reviews on TripAdvisor | Book here) It’s located on the Big Island, on the Kohala Coast. We’ve visited twice, and will visit again *fingers crossed* hopefully sometime in the next year. They have a hotel and condo option, and we’ve stayed in both accommodations. The condos are fantastic, because you have your own space with a full kitchen, and a lanai with views of the ocean. However, they’re on the other side of the road from the hotel and you must drive down to get to the beach. The hotel is wonderful because everything you need is right there, no driving required, but you’re in a hotel room, as opposed to a condo. I would say the condos are perfect for families traveling with smaller children who would appreciate having access to a kitchen and separate bedrooms, and the hotel is perfect for couples or families with older children who would prefer not to look at a kitchen while on vacation.

What three items do you never travel without?
iPad and charger for my son, headphones for my son, and Valium for me. (Just kidding on the Valium… not really).

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Ian and Donovan having a father/son moment on our first visit to Hawaii three years ago. Photo: Lisa Winner

What’s your favorite online travel resource?
Google Flights. It is hands down the best flight planner out there. My favorite feature is putting in a departure airport and date, then looking at the world map, and having prices to every major destination appear. For the traveler who may not have a specific destination in mind, but has an idea of what they’re looking for (i.e. tropical) but wants to stick within certain budget, it is the perfect tool. Plus I’ve been able to string together different flight packages and save hundreds of dollars, vs if I’d just booked round trip from my city. Saving money = winning.

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We jokingly call this photo the “Stars, They’re just like us” photo. Having young children keeps you on your toes, especially special needs children. I can only imagine what my son was doing in this moment to cause a reaction like this from both myself and my daughter. Thankfully, I don’t remember 🙂 Photo: Lisa Winner

What’s the worst mistake you see other parents making when traveling?
This is a hard question for me, because I feel like I make them constantly. If there is one thing I’ve learned, and what I try to remind myself while traveling, is that the travel day is only ONE day. Out of the week or months that you are gone, regardless of how horrific the day is going, remember that this too shall pass, and when you look back on your memories, the bad travel day will not be apart of them. Don’t sweat the small stuff—if the passenger in front of you is irritated because your kid is being, well, a child, offer to buy them a drink, and move on. You’ll both get off the plane at your destination and go on with your lives, the annoyance slowly fading in the rear view mirror behind you. Now if someone can remind me of these words when we embark on our first trans-pacific flight with the kids here in a few weeks, that’d be great!

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Donovan climbing the The 16th Avenue Tiled Steps in San Francisco. Photo: Lisa Winner

What’s on your travel bucket list?
I would like to visit every continent before my time on this earth ends. But if we’re talking specifics, these are the destinations that we’ve been discussing as a family lately:

  • Australia and Fiji: We are heading there imminently! 7 weeks, 2 days, 21 hours… give or take.
  • Japan: My husband is desperate to go, and now thanks to all of the bloggers I’ve discovered, I see that travel with children to Japan is feasible and enjoyable, so I’m on board.
  • South Africa, Tanzania and Zanzibar. And Madagascar for good measure.
  • Maldives, though my husband and I differ on this one… guess that means I should go by myself!
  • Galapagos (I have a thing for giant iguanas)
  • Greece: My husband for the antiquities, me for the islands
  • Hawaii, again, because who can ever have too much Hawaii?

Be sure to follow Lisa Winner on Instagram at Traveling on the Spectrum.

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