When Special Needs Parenting Is Like a Trailer Hitch

Last summer I wrote a blog post and did a Facebook Live video for Not Alone discussing our family’s recent foray into the world of camping. When I shared our reasons for trying this particular kind of vacation, I explained how challenging traveling with our autistic son Christopher had become. Some environments, like the water park resort he loved so much, had become too challenging for us; he would refuse to sleep at night, meaning that his parents would get no sleep and had no energy for the next day. We had to come up with something a little more easy going and flexible. So my wife decided that camping might be a good choice: it allowed our son to make noise and stay up as late as he wanted without worrying too much about keeping the neighbors awake. 

Camping started out okay, but then we realized how challenging it was to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night when the bathroom house was too far away or too dirty to use. We finally agreed that camping on the ground was too rustic, so we decided to get a camping trailer, specifically a nice shiny Airstream trailer, with all the comforts of home, to take with us on the road.

This decision has all been very exciting for our family, and there is nothing like the experience of watching our son smile, giggle and jump up and down when he watches videos of the trailer and people traveling all over the country. He even spelled out on his Ipad communication app “Gopher,” as in “go far” for our new tow vehicle, and “Baby Shark”—like the popular kids song—to name the Airstream. Capitalizing on his interest, my wife ordered a variety of items to use in the trailer such as towels and throw pillows personalized with the name “Baby Shark.” 

The level of excitement grew exponentially this past week when my wife asked, “Would you like to go to Canada next week?” She was asking if I could travel to an RV dealer in Ontario that many suggested we use, so we could get our vehicle properly hitched. The question initially scared me, as I was not mentally prepared drive to another country. I had just finished my teaching year and would need an emergency passport to make the crossing. But I had to do this, because only one of us could go. The other would have to stay home with our son, and there was no way I was letting my wife drive by herself.

Up until this point, owning an Airstream was a fun family conversation. We rented a trailer previously, and attended an RV training school in Indiana with our rental. I didn’t expect that our decision to purchase a trailer would come so quickly, but that’s just how things fell into place. So  a few days later, I found myself taking the 600 mile drive from northern Illinois to London, Ontario, to get a top of the line sway control trailer hitch installed. 

The entire drive there I had several things swirling through my head, mainly that I couldn’t believe I was actually making this trip on short notice. More importantly I realized I had no idea how to do any of this: I had no experience towing anything, I’d never owned a trailer and never learned how to properly maintain one. With the best intentions, I was nonetheless flying blind.

John Felageller his wife and their Airstream.jpg

With the amount of free time I had for the couple of days I was in Ontario, I did a lot of reflecting on why we chose to get the trailer so our son could travel more easily, and what it meant for me to admit how much I didn’t know. It seemed to me that the experience of learning how to hitch and tow a trailer was a lot like my journey as a special needs parent, and in reality it was the perfect analogy for our lives. So here are some takeaways from my time in relative isolation north of the border, and I hope that some of these may ring true for you as well:

This was not the vacation I planned for.
Whenever I thought about places I would want to go with my family, the typical large tourist destinations came to mind. But it became clear that our son would have difficulty in large, crowded, noisy places; we had legitimate concerns for his safety; he probably could not—still has not—gone on a plane ride. So we changed our perspective on what was possible and, more importantly, what worked for our son and family. I had to surrender my previous expectation of what this part of our life would look like, but ultimately know that I could still have an expectation of fun and joy with my family. Just like our regular life as special needs parents, we may have had a different expectation for who or what our son could be, but regardless of his condition, we never stopped being a family, loving our son and finding joy together.

I had to admit I had no idea what I was doing.
I’d love to say that I am a “man’s man,” knowing all about cars and trucks, trailers and all forms of mechanical things, with tons of knowledge passed on by my father who coached me the entire time. The reality is that I grew up a city kid who was never really into how things worked, let alone fixing them, and even though I always loved being outside I never learned much about how to live outside, camping-style. Going to the RV center and having the technician walk me through the process of how to assemble and disassemble the parts of the hitch was quite honestly very confusing; maybe that was why I recorded a twenty-minute video of his instruction. As humbling an experience as it was, it was not unlike my early days as a special needs parent. I may have studied to be a typical parent, but even with all of my years of elementary school teaching, nothing could have prepared me for this. The only thing for me to do was to become really humble, admit I didn’t know what I didn’t know and ask for a lot of help. But I also knew that I wanted to learn how to do the job well, so I listened, took notes in my head, on paper or video when I could, and trusted that the more hands-on experience I had, the better that I would become.

I have anxiety over what others may think.
There is no one in my community who owns a trailer or does trailer camping, except for our former neighbors who moved away. The idea of parking an RV in the driveway—even part time—makes me wonder about the opinions it will produce. At the same time, being a real newbie to this whole world, I am equally concerned with being around people much more experienced at camping, and what they may think or say if I can’t park the darn thing right. I am out of place where I live and also out of place with people who make these kinds of trips regularly, so do I fit in anywhere? Then again, how many times have I felt that exact way as a special needs parent, or been concerned because that is the experience my autistic child will have in the world? I still face the reality that my child is different than many of the others on the block, at the playground, at church and many other places. Do I define my child’s value or worth based on how different he is? No, of course not, so I cannot let the opinions of the world affect my everyday reality with my son, or the things that we all enjoy together. Suffice to say, we are the only special needs family that we know who is doing this camping thing at the same level!

I have hope that this will all work out.
The positive outlook on my face still conceals my grave fear that something unexpected or very challenging may happen and make this all blow up in my face. I worry that after trying this for a month or two, we may realize it’s just not for us, that we can’t do it and it’s better to just go try something different. I have hope and faith that I will learn what to do to manage the trailer and do it well, but that also requires trusting myself and believing that if this is God’s will for my family, it will happen. But I don’t know that for sure, just like when I became the parent of a special needs child, I honestly didn’t know if this will all work out or not. But I do know that I am not alone, I have my wife who loves and supports me, many friends who support me, and lots of teachers, therapists and professionals ready to jump in and help. Most importantly, I have my deep Christian faith that lifts me up and strengthens me in my most difficult hours, and so with that I move forward with the confidence that I can be a good parent, and the competent owner of a trailer.

Everything we are doing is for our son’s happiness.
I began this piece with a flashback to our earlier experiences doing tent camping, which I never would have done if traditional vacations with our son were generally possible. The journey into the rental and eventual purchase of our trailer was only motivated by the fact that since we have a special needs child, some things are more complicated when you sleep outside. Having a trailer makes some of those issues much more manageable, if not eliminate them completely, and we believe that this will make it possible to do something our son really loves. It was not my first choice as a vacation plan, but my son’s happiness is, and so in reality this was a no-brainer, as nothing compares to the smile on his face when he’s doing what he enjoys. Like every day that my wife and I parent him, we do it all for his ultimate joy, success and happiness, and have no regrets about the lengths to which we go to provide that for him. I can force myself out of my comfort zone, push myself to learn new things, ask for help when I need it, lean into my wife for support, and pray to my great God in heaven that my son can be the happiest boy he can be.

I don’t know how much of this you can personally relate to, as the world of RV camping, trailers, and hitches may not be your thing, just as it wasn’t mine, until I got called to something new and different. I hope as our family begins this new adventure that you will keep us in your thoughts and prayers as we hit the road this summer. I pray you will also be safe and happy this summer, wherever your journey takes you. My hope also, is that you remember that only you can define your family’s experience of happiness, and that you will find that one joyful thing you can hitch your child’s dreams to.

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