Chicken Nuggets, Comfy Prisons, and the Family Road Trip

dec 2010 041

The summer my sons were nine, ten, and twelve, my husband Fred got the Griswold Family Vacation bug—you know, like in those old National Lampoon movies with Chevy Chase. He wanted us to go on a classic, calamitous, old-fashioned, family road-trip. All five of us in our old minivan, hitting the open road of adventure, Yellowstone to Washington, D.C.

“It’ll be great!” he said, waving brochures around. “And educational, too!”

Me, I wasn’t convinced.

In fact, I was nervous as heck, highly anxious about how a trip would affect my autistic middle son. He was such a homebody! He needed his routines so much! A picky eater, he subsisted mainly on chicken nuggets, applesauce, and frozen peas served in separate dishes, and I felt like the whole fragile fabrication of my peaceful existence depended upon providing these routines. How was I going to provide them on the road?
And my boy had major freak-out meltdowns if his big blue blanket so much as touched the floor. On the road, how was I going to wash his blanket? How would he handle a thousand miles of rolling change and disruption to his routine? And he also had sensory processing disorder—everything felt too loud, too tight, too hard, too bright.

“He can’t handle it,” I fretted.

“YOU can’t handle it,” my husband said. “It’ll be fine. All you have to do is get in and go.”


A hundred miles into the trip, there was already carsickness, puking, and tears. All coming from me. As for the boys, they had pillow fights, kicking fights, and endless ridiculous squabbles. “Don’t make me reach back there, you maniacs!” my husband would say, fishing for a part of someone to grab in his vice-like grip, and they would shriek with laughter, scrambling their legs away.
The big blue blanket touched the floor. There were unacceptable, gag-worthy food items that led to public tantrums. I fought with my husband. It rained. The boys refused to write in the perfectly lovely journals I’d bought! Imagine! And I had a minor nervous breakdown one afternoon, sobbing on a bench outside a nice restaurant we’d basically gotten kicked out of.

Parts of this trip were hell.

Other parts were not.

The boys saw bison in Yellowstone, bald eagles on the Mississippi. They rode horseback in Jackson Hole, peered down cracks in the earth in the Badlands. They developed a rating system for the grossness of public bathrooms. We had arm-wrestling contests that left us laughing. I spent some nice quiet moments in the motel with my middle son, when the sensory stuff got too much. The boys learned to read maps, and struck their own pacts for backseat peace.

Ultimately, it worked out, more or less. Towards the end, while grabbing dinner somewhere, my middle son made an interesting observation. “You know what?” he announced. “I figure I can pretty much survive anything, now—as long as I can order the chicken nuggets.”

We laughed, because it was a pretty unique life philosophy. “Dude, you should write a travel guide,” my oldest said. “Of every place where you ate chicken nuggets on this trip.”
A travel guide! I tucked away that idea in my brain, just in case I ever got brave, and tried to write about some of this myself.

Autism. Anxiety. Life. Family. Fear. Chicken nuggets.

It took me ten years until I felt ready to start. Before I understood what I had to say. I knew I wanted to write about discovering your resilience—a neuro-diverse travel log, of sorts, on “how to survive pretty much anything,” as my son put it. At first, I called it Chicken Nuggets Across America. Eventually, the story grew, took flight, and became The Someday Birds.

My middle son, now a young man, wrote me this, when I told him I was stressing (in typical mom fashion) about writing this article:

“Every trial-by-fire stressful road-trip moment, Mom, every bout of anxiety – it pushes you further towards knowing who you are, and who others are. It’s a force that does more than just “temper” you or make you more resilient. It does other stuff that you can probably write about profoundly enough if you tried. I don’t know, whatever.”

That boy.

The thing is, there are other boys. And girls. Other young people out there, right now, who are like him—I feel it! Kids who may prefer their soothing routines. Who haven’t confronted their fears, who don’t yet know what they’re capable of, whether because of neurological differences, or personality differences. I wanted to write, still want to write, about needing to push past personal fear. About the joy of learning you can become more at ease. Life is hard, but there are amazing people, kind people. And there is the joy of self-acceptance.

In the end, our family road trip did what I dreaded it would, back when I was full of worry, and my husband was all National Lampoon gung-ho. It busted open the comfy prison we’d both chosen to live inside, both my son, and I. It pushed us past our fears.

That’s what stories can do, too. Stories, like road-trips, are travel opportunities. They take us on mental journeys that shake us out of our routines, out of those comfy prisons. They show us new ways of experiencing this wide, weird, wonderful world.

All we have to do is get in and go.

(This post originally appeared on the HarperCollins Facebook site HERE.)

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




Sign Up For My Newsletter!

* indicates required