04/28/2014 04:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

My Family's Adventures With Autism

"The whole family is going on an adventure, Nina!" I say as we pack Isaiah, Joey, and Nina into the car. We were now on Day 5 of our April vacation, and my husband and I were attacking our hastily planned schedule with gusto.

"We're going on an adventure!" Nina said in the backseat of the car. I could hear the excitement in her voice as she continued to repeat the same phrase over and over again on our 45-minute drive to LEGOLAND. "We're going on an adventure! We're going on an adventure!" Nina sang happily.

As the oldest child at seven, we told Isaiah about the trip to LEGOLAND. We had visited LEGOLAND last year, but the twins didn't remember much of that experience. Now, at 4-years-old, we hoped they would be pleasantly surprised once we arrived and were surrounded by LEGO cities, figurines, and building toys as far as the eye could see.

My husband and I were taking a risk going to LEGOLAND without reserving tickets during a school vacation week. But we were feeling pretty daring this particular morning so we decided to try our luck. We had a relaxing morning playing with the kids and everyone was on their best behavior, so we felt this positive vibe was a good sign that would carry us throughout our adventure-filled day.

The big SOLD OUT sign in front of LEGOLAND didn't send us into a panic. Although upset, Isaiah quickly realized that if he was on good behavior, he would get a LEGO toy to bring home. Joey didn't know where we were going anyway and when a child walked by with an ice cream cone, he immediately started talking about food. But Nina, our formerly chatty daughter was silent as we stood in front of the SOLD OUT sign. So we decided to get some lunch at a restaurant next door that looked promising. But once we were comfortably seated in our booth, the realization suddenly began to dawn on Nina that our so-called "adventure" was a bust. Nina finally spoke up.

"This is NOT an adventure!" Nina wailed. "This is a RESTAURANT!"

Nina was right. This wasn't some great play area filled with LEGO toys and objects; obstacle courses and slides built to resemble her favorite LEGO action figures and sets. It was just a restaurant, albeit a kid-friendly one, with coloring paper, crayons, and fun kiddie cups.

But for my family, this restaurant detour was an adventure waiting to happen. Nina could have a meltdown at any moment and close her eyes in fear at the sound of someone sneezing, a chorus of people singing "Happy Birthday" or more recently, the catchy melodious tune of an ice cream truck idling down the street. Ever since Nina was diagnosed with PDD-NOS in 2012, on any given outing, my family's day can quickly turn into an adventure of survival and whit. Mama and Dada are constantly trying to figure out how to handle difficult situations in a manner that puts both Nina and her siblings at ease.

Granted, her twin brother and her older brother's temperament can be just as unpredictable when a wrench is thrown into our planned activities. But unlike Nina, Joey and Isaiah are much easier to calm down, reason with, and successfully bring from a 5 tantrum down to a 1.

So after Nina's outburst, we cautiously waited. At this point, anything could have happened. Nina could have had tried to buck out of her seat in our booth screaming, "I want to go home!" She could have started crying hysterically about a broken crayon, the wrong color crayon, or even started in with her nonsensical talking, "You're not the boy Joey, I'm the boy! I want my socks to go on a timeout!"

But like her siblings, and any other child on the spectrum or not, Nina is always full of surprises. Instead of reacting the way we were accustomed to seeing her act when she doesn't get her way, or when a transition that she is used to is abruptly altered, Nina flipped the script on us and adjusted beautifully to our new change in plans.

I wrote in a previous article about my wish to be my autistic daughter so I could know what she is thinking and feeling in the moments before and during her meltdowns. But if that were possible, it would take all of the fun out of parenting and learning how to figure out the answers to the unpleasant and unpredictable situations in my children's lives.

For whatever reason, Nina was on good behavior now. She ate a hot dog, apple slices, and some cheese for lunch. We practiced writing letters with crayons, played a few rounds of the alphabet animal guessing game, and my husband pulled out all the stops to entertain the kids and a few patrons with his Donald Duck voice impersonation skills.

After lunch, everyone picked out a toy at the LEGOLAND store and we made a hasty exit. All three children fell asleep on the car ride home and when we pulled up in front of our house, my husband and I gave each other a high five. We had escaped a potentially disastrous situation, and survived yet another adventure.

It has been quite a ride these past two years for my family since Nina received her diagnosis. She lost a front tooth on the corner of our bedroom trunk in a fit about putting on her pajamas; she got a pixie haircut after she refused to stop pulling out her hair; and she got stitches on her chin after another tantrum in the bathtub over a toy. But through all of this, Nina has been fortunate enough to have caring therapists who have helped her develop her speech, use her "big girl words" when she is upset, and recognize when she needs to take a walk for some quiet time. Most important, the love and support Nina has received from her brothers and extended family has helped her blossom into the spirited, independent, and strong-willed daughter that we adore.

My family's adventures with autism are far from over. I know there are going to be many more situations that will be frustrating and confusing. I'm looking forward to these adventures with some anxiety and trepidation, but also with a lot of hope and excitement.