We all love to travel. In fact, Americans spent a grand total of $644.9 billion dollars on leisure travel in 2014. Taking trips, whether slipping away for a weekend or enjoying a weeklong family getaway, is a great way to escape the stress of everyday life, and break off from the routines that sometimes bog us down.
But for many families, including those who have one or more children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), the thought of vacationing may evoke more feelings of anxiety than eager anticipation. But there is no need to fear: There are many ways to make your travel plans accommodating to your child’s autism, and therefore more manageable (and less stressful) for you.
It is now estimated that one in 68 children are born with autism. And because it has become more prevalent in the last decade, there are more resources than ever to help you enjoy a fun-filled family vacation. This guide will help take you where you want to go by offering helpful advice on choosing the perfect hideaway, essential items to pack, and strategies for helping to ensure that your entire family stays happy and healthy throughout your epic trip.
Choosing the Right Destination for Your Family
Deciding where to go is the first step in having a memorable (in the good way!) trip with your loved ones. The following resources offer insight on how to narrow down the best location for your vacation.
Start off simply. If your child has never been on a trip before, taking a 16-hour flight to Europe is probably not the best way to establish a new family tradition. When deciding where to go, consider the distance you are traveling, and keep it on the low side to begin with, if possible. This way, your travel time will be reduced, which will be instrumental in getting your child accustomed to a plane trip or extended car ride. It also simplifies things should you need to cut your trip short.
Incorporate your child’s interests into your trip. A family vacation shouldn’t revolve around one person – but it shouldn’t exclude anyone due to disability, either. Parents Magazine suggests including your ASD child in the conversation about where your adventure should take place, if possible, and considering a trip that revolves around nature, like one to the beach or mountains. Nature-based vacations tend to be flexible and are not usually required to adhere to a strict schedule, which can make them ideal for autistic children whose tendencies make it tricky to stick to a rigid plan. You can also try compromising with your young one if they are reluctant to try a new activity: “First, we’re going to take a trip to the fishing dock so your daddy and I can look at the boats. Then, we’re going to take a tour of a nearby lighthouse, because we know how much you love them!”
Don’t rule out the idea of a theme park. If your child’s ASD doesn’t include issues with sensory overload, a theme park may be a fun way for your family to spend time away. In fact, many parks offer accommodations to families who have children with disabilities, most of which include autism. Some of these perks include stroller access and front-of-line privileges. As this article from Time Magazine points out, these parks also tend to be accepting of emotional outbursts some children with autism experience. If your little one is sensitive to sensory overload but your family still wishes to visit a theme park, try bringing along earplugs to cut out extra noise, keeping your days short so they’re not overwhelming, and visiting during non-peak seasons when parks tend to be less crowded.
Flex your creative muscle. It’s nearly impossible to plan a trip that meets everyone’s standards for a dream vacation, especially if you have a particularly picky child. But integrating some clever activities and games into traditional outings can turn them into fun adventures for all. For example, creating a scavenger hunt for your kids can turn a trip to a historical site into an adventure, while still granting you your cultural fix.
Helpful Items to Pack
Having the right gear can make all the difference between your child feeling comfortable and happy rather than anxious and insecure. Here are some ideas to help ensure your entire vacation goes smoothly.
Travel with documentation of your child’s diagnosis. Obtaining a letter from your pediatrician stating that your child has autism, and ideally, some of the symptoms they may exhibit, will be extremely helpful in receiving accommodations that may make your trip and planned activities easier. If your child is on any medication, you will also want to be sure to bring extra, just in case your trip is extended due to unforeseen circumstances like extreme weather. The Transportation Security Administration provides helpful information on their website about how to travel with medication safely.
Pack some treats for the trip. This is especially important if your child has special dietary needs, a regular snack break that coincides with your travel time, or your car or plane ride is more than a couple of hours long. Keeping your child sated and hydrated can be a quick way for soothing any discomfort or anxiety your child may feel. Try also packing some gum or chewy candy if you’re flying to help relieve pressure by “popping” your child’s ears. Also be on the lookout for signs of pain: If your child has difficulty communicating, they may not be able to let you know their ears are hurting.
Distractions are your friend, whether you’re traveling by plane, train or automobile. Bringing along some activities for your child to do will keep them occupied during a long trip, and will keep you from having to provide a constant source of entertainment. Bring the same kinds of materials your child enjoys keeping busy with during solo time at home or during shorter road trips, such as coloring or story books, electronic games, or portable movie players. If you have a smartphone or tablet, this list of downloadable apps from Milestones Autism Resources has some great suggestions on keeping kids amused on the go. Also keep in mind that if your child is sensitive to noise even during a short car ride, it will be helpful to bring a pair of noise-cancelling headphones.
Bring familiar items that will help create a sense of home while you’re away. Many children with autism feel frightened by change, and may feel panicked by a stark hotel room that doesn’t look a thing like their recognizable, secure bedroom. You can help them feel comfortable by bringing objects they associate with home, such as a nightlight, picture frame or even a comforter, if it’s convenient to pack. And of course, remember to bring any items your little one may wish to carry around for comfort, such as a stuffed animal, favorite toy or blanket.
Travel Tips for a Smooth Voyage
Sometimes, the hardest part of going somewhere is, well, getting there. When you’re traveling with a child who has autism, there are actually many measures you can take to make the process as hassle-free as possible. The following resources offer advice for making the most of your travel time, whatever your preferred mode of transportation.
Create a fun social story for your kiddo – and reference it throughout your trip. A social story will help your child understand what to expect during your trip, especially if you include information about some of the specific activities you’ll be doing while you’re there. Including photos of your child or images of a favorite character (such as Barbie, the Care Bears, or a superhero) will make it extra fun for the two of you to read together. Aim to begin looking at your social story at least a few weeks before your trip, and keep it in tow on your travels.
Call your airline ahead of time and let them know you will be traveling with an autistic youngster. Some airlines and even airports have staff members who can provide assistance to your family before and during your flight. Additionally, you may be entitled to priority seating ahead of other passengers, so you won’t feel rushed to settle into your seats in the middle of a line of people.
Make sure your child is wearing identification. Should your young one wander off during your travels, you’ll want to ensure they are wearing an ID bracelet, necklace tags, or even a handwritten card pinned to their clothing with a way to contact you immediately. You’ll also want to keep a recent photo handy of your child at all times in case you become separated.
Plan out some breaks. Even if you’re taking what you consider to be a short trip, your loved one still may need to take some regular breaks. Look for signs that your child may be anxious, such as agitated speech or body language, and take time outs as needed. Try switching out activities that may have lost their appeal with new ones, such as swapping out a coloring book for a puzzle, and make regular pit stops if you’re traveling by car.
Tips for Coping with Stressful Situations While You’re Away
Despite all of the advanced, careful planning you do, no family – especially one with children – is immune to encountering stressful situations during an expedition. The good news is that there are many steps you can take to prepare for and get through hectic scenarios. The following articles will help you develop your own coping strategy.
Practice makes perfect. It’s as unfair to expect a child to know how to behave in a brand new, and possibly even intimidating, environment as it is to expect you as a parent to figure out how to perfectly handle a meltdown under these circumstances. That’s why practicing for these situations with your family can help conquer the unknown by establishing a sense of routine familiarity. If your child has never visited a hotel before, consider spending a night in a local hotel before your big trip. Have a little fun by creating an airport atmosphere at home, and practicing what it will be like to go through the check in, security and boarding processes. You can also check with your local airport to see if they participate in programs like Wings for Autism, an organization that lets families with autistic children take an airport “test run” to help kids gain a sense of what to expect after arriving at the airport for travel.
Consider carrying informational cards on your child’s autism that can be passed out to those who may not understand your child’s behavior. Having cards that identify your child as autistic can save you some stress, especially if handed out to service workers like restaurant servers or hotel staff before or even during a meltdown or other episode. This way, you won’t have to have an uncomfortable conversation with a stranger, but you’ll still be providing an explanation as to your child’s unique needs.
Stick to your home routine as closely as possible. Having a daily schedule to adhere to can be an extremely effective way to manage autism symptoms. Although the very purpose of a vacation is often to escape the monotony of our day-to-day lives, and you will obviously be shaking things up by adding some new activities for your family to try during your trip, try not to throw the whole routine out the window. This will make for an easier getaway by helping your child make a smooth transition once you reach your destination and when you return home. If nothing else, aim for similar waking hours, meal times, and bedtime traditions, such as reading a beloved book before it’s time for lights out.
Take a little time for just you. Your dream vacation may very well include a romantic evening with just you and your significant other, a couple’s outing with a local tour group – or maybe even just a solo afternoon napping in your hotel room! Whatever your bliss, make time to do it. Many hotels, cruises and all-inclusive resorts offer childcare services for the sole purpose of allowing you to take a little time away. After all, it’s your vacation, too – you shouldn’t feel guilty over wanting to take some time to relax.
ASD presents challenges to the everyday lives of families, and vacations are no exception. But taking time away to relax and bond as a family is an important ritual, and your family’s special circumstances shouldn’t hold you back from creating new memories and traditions. With some careful planning, a few essentials, and a spirit of adventure, you and your family can safely and joyfully journey to wondrous places together year after year.