Walk into the Columbus, Georgia, home of Team Malone on a weekday. Watch out for the shoes scattered around the mudroom like popcorn spilled from a bag. The sign on one wall is more of a proud declaration than a warning: “Welcome to our messy, crazy, beautiful life.”
“That’s who we are,” says Miss Gina, the mother figure who also refers to herself as Team Malone’s ringleader. The team consists of five boys (six if you include the father, Big Mike). The oldest son, 19-year-old Little Mike, is a student at Stanford. The other four are quadruplets: Chase, Dylan, Sean, and William. They’re 15 years old and keep the mudroom living up to its name. Each has his own interest and individual gift. They have one more thing in common aside from their last name: they’re on the autism spectrum.
“Physically they’re fine,” Big Mike says. “They just happen to have mental challenges.”
He affectionately calls them “the guys.” Adults and Little Mike have spent the past 15 years keeping them safe and helping them negotiate life. Chase and William need detailed structure, or they might fall apart. Dylan can be oppositional. Sean has echolalia. Big Mike explains: “If you ask him, ‘What’s your name?’ he repeats it back: ‘What’s your name?’”
This is everyday life for parents and caretakers of those with autism.
“It’s like trying to figure out the combination to a lock,” Big Mike says, “You keep at it in hopes of experiencing a breakthrough. And it takes help.”
But help isn’t easy to find. Parents certainly don’t expect to find it on an island, an ocean away from home. This is why Big Mike and Miss Gina still sound as if they’re in a state of amazement, several weeks after traveling to Beaches Turks & Caicos. There, they found a happy squad of IBCCES-certified Beaches Buddies to match up with the guys, the Caribbean’s first autism-friendly kids camp, and moment-to-moment proof of why Beaches Resorts, with three locations in Turks & Caicos and Jamaica, is the first resort company in the world to earn designations as an Advanced Certified Autism Center (ACAC).
The Beaches team, it turns out, were not simply “helpers.” They were experts at everything Team Malone had struggled to find for 15 years. They became trusted friends. And now, at home, the messiness of life … doesn’t seem so messy. Team Malone is more relaxed than ever. They’ve even become closer.
“I keep thinking, ‘Lord, please take us back to Beaches,’” Miss Gina says.
Their minds do go back daily. To the ocean from your dreams. To the freedom. And to the moment when someone tapped Big Mike on the elbow so he could hear one son, who had never in 15 years spoken a recognizable word, said this: “Dad.”
“It sounds too good to be true,” Big Mike says. “People ask, ‘How did this happen?’ I say, ‘Sit down. Let me tell you the story.’”
First, Big Mike says, you need to understand what it’s like for Team Malone to travel — or not travel. “People like us might travel locally on occasion, but it isn’t always a positive experience.”
Those past experiences made Big Mike reluctant when a possible trip to Beaches Turks & Caicos was first mentioned. He hadn’t yet found about Beaches’ Sensory Guides, the one-of-a-kind online resource that would allow guests to rate on a scale of 1-10 any sensory sensitivities to stimuli like noise, touch, taste, smell, and sight, in all areas of the resort. He hadn’t talked with a Beaches’ Culinary Concierge to plan specific meals — gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, low-sugar — if necessary. He didn’t know about Julia, the Sesame Street character who’s so relatable because she’s also on the spectrum and does arts and crafts with children when not walking around at Beaches Resorts.
At first, Big Mike said to Miss Gina, “Remember how traveling has gone in the past?”
They had visited family in the Hamptons a few times. “The family is great,” Big Mike says, “but we could always sense anxiety toward the guys. It’s hard to know how to handle their challenges.”
Two years ago, they tried a short getaway to the beaches of the Carolinas. William wandered off soon after they arrived. “He was gone for forty-five minutes,” Big Mike says. “It made the entire trip uncomfortable.”
Still, Miss Gina had a different feeling about the training of the Beaches team. Why else would they insist that Team Malone would be just fine, without a hint of hesitation? When Big Mike said, “This is not one or two small children on the spectrum; these are four strong teenage boys who get lost and don’t communicate easily,” a Beaches representative reminded him they’d been hosting families just like his longer than anyone in the world.
Big Mike wondered if they’d be able to find handlers to travel with them — people hired to give Big Mike and Miss Gina extra help.
“You won’t need to bring handlers,” the Beaches team assured. “We’ve got this. We want you to come.”
They want us to come. Big Mike hadn’t heard those words very often. His own anxiety began to gently wash away. Miss Gina heard everything she needed to hear: a certain tone in those voices from Beaches Turks and Caicos.
“They sounded … genuine,” she says.
When Team Malone boarded an American Airlines flight out of Atlanta, Big Mike and Miss Gina braced themselves for a test or two, or four. The Beaches and American reps made sure their seats were together. They would not be subjected to impatient passengers or stern flight attendants. In fact, American Airlines also has a program designed to help special needs flyers, from arrival at the airport through to the plane’s landing.
“It made the flight easier than I expected,” Big Mike says. After descending toward the white sands and turquoise waters of Turks and Caicos, the guys stepped off the plane and into the smiles of the Beaches staff.
“It’s great to see you, William. Hello Chase! Let’s get you some snacks, Dylan and Sean.” The bond began. They hadn’t even left the airport and yet Big Mike began to see evidence of the training of the Beaches staff, who have received Level II certification in autism and have completed more than 40 credit hours on autism sensitivity and awareness, centered on communication, motor skills, social skills, environment awareness, emotional awareness, early childhood identification, transition to adulthood, and more.
Little Mike saw it, too. To minimize downtime, American made sure his flight from California arrived within 15 minutes of everyone else’s. He’d been apprehensive about the trip until he noticed the pure joy and the calm all around him.
“He was like me,” says Big Mike, “wondering if the other shoe would drop.”
On a soft, sandy island like Turks and Caicos, there is no other shoe to drop. As Team Malone pulled up to the Beaches lobby, they felt as if they’d arrived on Fantasy Island. Everyone was so welcoming. Everyone was so happy. Everyone was so … real.
The guys were thirsty. Before Big Mike could make a move, several Beaches teammates said, “Come with us, guys. Let us show you what we have.”
Big Mike followed them to the drink stand to see how long the good vibe would continue. Lemonade? Yes. Fresh tropical punch? Absolutely.
“They wanted to mix up concoctions,” Big Mike says, “and I’d start to say the word they’ve heard their entire lives: ‘No, no. That doesn’t go together.’ The staff would calmly say, ‘It’s OK. Trust us.’”
The guys were learning the Beaches language. Words like “can’t” and “don’t” are virtually nonexistent. Even the word “no” had a different sound to it.
“When the staff did say ‘no,’ their beautiful accents and calm demeanor made it sound like a wonderful invitation rather than a negative response,” says Miss Gina.
It meant as much to Big Mike as it did to the guys. At home, he’ll watch through the windows to make sure they make it back to the mudroom. He needed a day at Beaches to stop being a helicopter parent. He needed to stop being the parent in the bushes.
“For parents in this kind of situation, it’s like riding a wave with a boogie board,” he says. “You get on top and it's the coolest thing, but you’re wondering, ‘When am I going to hit something? When is this ride going to stop?’ It didn’t stop on this trip.”
He and Miss Gina would go to Dino’s, Barefoot by the Sea, or one of the 21 restaurants on property, partly to eat and partly to check on the guys.
“Oh, they were here 20 minutes ago,” the hostess would say. They’d stop by The Jerk Shack. “Dylan? Sean? Yes, of course. They came by at their usual time, on their way to the beach.”
The entire staff, with their advanced certified autism training, did not blink. They never stopped smiling. They used their personalities and training to allow Big Mike and Gina to retreat to the peace of a cabana, though Big Mike couldn’t resist the urge to get up to see if the guys were OK at the waterpark. And there they were, up on the highest slide, enjoying a new view and splashing around at the water pad.
“This staff has everything under control,” Miss Gina would say. “Let them go.”
By letting go of the guys, they were also letting go of themselves. By midweek they were discreetly looking around the ice cream truck and the mac-and-cheese truck near the waterpark. Not to see if the guys were there, but to make sure they weren’t there. Then they’d wade into the water, climb the slides, and play. Just the two of them.
“Let's go get our big kid on,” Miss Gina says.
Then they went back to the cabana as adults and ordered glasses of champagne.
“Actually,” Miss Gina said, “you can leave the bottle, please.”
The freedom also took hold of Little Mike in a way he didn’t anticipate. For the first couple days, he toggled between finishing a paper for school on the patio of Team Malone’s villa and keeping an eye on his brothers. At some point, it became clear to him the Beaches staff had everything under control. He could hang out at the pools with other college-age guests. One afternoon, he and Miss Gina went for a walk on the beach.
“They hadn’t spent much time together because he went to college shortly after his mother passed away,” Big Mike says. “Something happened on that walk. He finally relaxed his mind and realized, ‘OK, she’s the real deal.’”
“The relaxing environment at Beaches makes milestones possible,” Miss Gina says, “and we had a lot of them.”
William, who had been averse to wearing anything on his head, put on a Turks and Caicos hat and kept it there. And then one day, the Beaches team invited Team Malone to a festival.
“Are you sure?” Big Mike asked. “All seven of us? That doesn’t happen at home.”
“Of course. You are family. Come with us.”
They all went to the festival as a unified team, to enjoy Caribbean music, local foods, and each other in a way they hadn’t done before arriving in Turks and Caicos. In the middle of it all, Big Mike felt a Beaches teammate tugging on his arm. He turned and saw William looking back at him, with his mouth moving.
“I’ve never heard him say anything that I can recognize,” Big Mike says. “Never.”
The Beaches teammate told him to lean in and listen. So, Big Mike fixed his fatherly eyes and ears on his son as a single word spilled into the island air.
A week of yesses had unlocked another milestone, a forever moment. “The bar is set high in terms of where we go next or how we travel.”
“They backed up what they said they would do,” Big Mike says of the Beaches team before slightly correcting himself. “Actually … they did more. They changed us.”
He and Miss Gina look out their kitchen window with distant thoughts and new perspectives. This is not the end of Team Malone’s crazy, messy, beautiful story. It's only the beginning.