By definition, vacations are a break from the predictability of our work, school and home routine. But for children on the autism spectrum who thrive on structure, the idea of venturing outside their familiar framework can be overwhelming. While traveling with kids on the autism spectrum presents challenges for parents, the overall benefits are worth a few bumps along the way.
Traveling with children on the autism spectrum is absolutely possible, and it doesn’t have to be difficult. Using pre-alerts, role playing and planning ahead can make it a positive experience, not only for the special needs child, but for the entire family. As travel-loving mom to a child on the autism spectrum, here are my tips for making the most of your travels.
Choose a destination with your child's interest and limits in mind
Before settling on a destination, consider which activities your child enjoys and what kinds of settings reduce anxious reactions. Some children on the autism spectrum prefer a bustling city with museums and galleries to explore, while others might be more comfortable communing with nature, beach-combing by the sea, or while camping in the woods. Try to match your destination to your child’s personality, and include him or her in the planning process. Adapt excursions to meet interests, attention span, and sensory processing capabilities as much as possible, making it easy for your child to succeed while away.
Prepare for travel with role playing and visual supports
Vacations come with transitions, which means changing from one situation to another. Children with autism can find this especially difficult. Role playing weeks before the trip gives a child on the spectrum time to process what he or she might expect while on vacation.
A tailored picture schedule can also be an invaluable visual support. Showing your child what will happen and when can relieve stress and reduce anxiety. What’s more, your child will have a chance to process what’s ahead without being bombarded all at once. Try making a picture schedule that’s sequential to cover various legs of your trip (if various stops are involved), and/or a chronological version that tackles day-to-day itineraries. This way, it can also do double-duty as a pre-alert device. Include pictures of the airport, hotel, activities, emoticons and even short captions to help narrate.
Anticipate your child’s needs
Since vacations are not part of the usual routine, children on the spectrum can get easily overstimulated in the face of spontaneous adventure. This in turn, can trigger anxiety attacks or meltdowns. Look at every angle of the trip from your child’s perspective so you can pinpoint potential triggers, and factor in as many breaks and downtime as needed to avoid them. Consider pre-boarding your flight, or, if it’s better for your child, waiting until the last call. Pre-alert your child in anticipation of long security lines, and always call airlines, hotels and restaurants in advance to check for delays and cancellations, or to arrange for special requests and accommodations.
Pack the right gear
Even different tastes, sights and sounds can be overwhelming from a sensory standpoint, so make sure your child has access to his or her preferred coping mechanisms. Useful travel gear to consider bringing along includes: noise-cancelling headphones, a smart tablet, fidgets, sunglasses, a weighted blanket and other soothers.
Keeping a neurotypical child safe while traveling is a lot like keeping a typical child safe, but with a few added precautions for those who have difficulty communicating or who are nonverbal. Medical bracelets or necklaces (shoelaces or zipper pulls for those children who can’t tolerate them because of sensory issues) are an easy way to share your child’s diagnosis in case of an emergency; as are labels with your child’s name, parent name and contact information stuck to the back of his or her shirt.
Make a dedicated packing list with the soothers mentioned above to keep children distracted yet calm, in addition to additional items your child relies on throughout his or her day. Think preferred snacks, books, DVDs, art supplies, assistive communication tools and favorite loveys. Be sure to include your child in the list-making process, too. Because while all kids are attached to their favorite things, children on the autism spectrum see them as a physical extension of themselves. Forget to bring them along and the entire trip might end before it starts.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 1 in 68 American children have autism. While there is a spectrum of characteristics that comes with the neurological disorder (varying degrees of intellectual ability and/or disability, difficulties in motor coordination, gastrointestinal issues, challenges with social interaction, difficulties with verbal and/or non-verbal communication, repetitive behaviors, quirky and/or tantrum-like outbursts) there is not one kind of autism. There is a saying among parents and therapists in the special needs community that illustrates it best: “If you know one child with autism, then you know one child with autism.” Each individual on the spectrum is unique and affected just as uniquely.
My family's story
My husband and I started traveling with our special needs son before he was 2 years old. Now that he’s a tween, I’m proud to say he’s become a bonafide travel hound over the past decade. After sustaining a mild stroke in utero, he was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, which is like a neurological traffic jam, preventing certain parts of the brain from interpreting sensory information correctly. He has also been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, which is a neurological disorder on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. Considered a less severe form of autism, and often called an “invisible disability,” children affected tend to be very intelligent and have solid academic skills in addition to doing well in sports and/or the arts. They often struggle, though, with conventional social rules despite wanting to have positive social interactions with peers.
Why traveling with kids on the autism spectrum is important
Travel is one of best gifts we can give our children, but so is teaching them that a break from the normal routine can be fun. I'm proud of my son’s atypical way of viewing the world, and encourage him to take ownership of his challenges while pushing his own limits in positive ways. Travel presents wonderful opportunities to increase awareness, acceptance, respect and support. My family looks at it as a two-way street. Not only does our son learn new ways to experience the world, but also the world learns new ways to experience him as person on the autism spectrum.
How do you plan ahead when traveling with your special needs child? Any tips, stories or questions to share? Let us know in the comments below!
A Note from Travel Mamas: Travel Mamas does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Although The Nerdtastic Travel Mama is a special needs mom and student in the medical field, she strongly recommends consulting your pediatrician, family doctor and/or therapeutic team before traveling with your special needs child to discuss any concerns or questions you may have.
Top Photo by Pilar Clark.