Family Trips and Vacations with Children Who Have Autism – It CAN be an enjoyable time!

Vacation with a child who has autism MAXimum ChancesSo school is out for many local students, and families everywhere are planning their summer vacations. Whenever traveling with children, there is a myriad of unexpected challenges that can happen, but even more so when one of your children has autism.

Many families who deal with autism have let go of the idea that they can have a fun family vacation, and have reserved themselves to just staying home… all the time. They eat at home, play at home, and do everything they can to avoid the public eye. It can be very stressful to deal with the anxiety that hits when you know a behavioral outburst could be just around the corner. When life only takes place in the confines of your home, the desire becomes even greater to break free and change up the pace a bit with the thought of a family vacation where you can get away from it all.

However, if you have not had a lot of public experiences that involve your child with autism, it is not a wise idea to jump right into a family vacation far from home and expect everything to go smoothly.  Start small, and begin to take your entire family regularly out to a restaurant that can accommodate your needs, or at the very least, go have a picnic in a park.

Once you have mastered those with relative ease, then it’s time to have a half-day outing to the zoo, an aquarium, the arboretum, or even an overnight camp out where you can begin to acclimate your child with autism to the idea of a longer trip away from home.

Once you feel your family is ready to hit the road for a vacation, you can make the most of any situation and have as restful and memorable a vacation as possible by being properly prepared. To help, we have pulled together some tips to help smooth the way.

  1. Begin with the end in mind. Choose a vacation destination that has your child with autism in mind – and everyone will have a much better time. Although some places may be great fun for you and other siblings, it won’t be fun for anyone when difficult behaviors emerge due to sensory overload.
  2. Prepare the family in advance. Setting the expectations for what will be happening is key to successful travel.
    • Prepare Yourself. You have most likely learned what the triggers are for behavioral meltdowns, so take time to mentally walk through each phase of your trip, and make a plan for handling these triggers, like bringing earphones for your child if there’s a chance for loud noises.
    • Prepare Your Child. Learning about destinations through their preferred methods can help tremendously. Use social stories full of scenarios that might happen on the trip. Discuss appropriate social behaviors and explain that running, hitting, or repeating songs and catch phrases a hundred times in row will not lead to an enjoyable time for the family.
    • You can also go online and look up tourism bureau videos for your destinations so your child can view the area and local attractions. They may even want to take part in planning the day-trips or tours. If you plan to go to a beach, go online and download ocean sounds. You can also get a tub and put some sand and water in it to give your child a sense of what it feels like before you go.
  3. Call ahead. Many vacations spots, including theme parks, are getting better at accommodating guests with special needs. Check beforehand by calling their guest relations office. Ask if you will be able to get special passes to circumvent the long lines where heat, crowds, other stimuli, and long periods of confined standing could bring on behavioral challenges. Upon arrival, visit the guest relations office first thing to confirm what you have been told on the phone and ensure things will go smooth.
  4. Be proactive.
    • Car Travel:
      • Night-time travel: For some, traveling at night is recommended as many children will sleep. In this case, pack sensory toys like teething rings, vibrating beanbags, weighted vests, blankets, or toys.
      • Day-time travel: Use tablets with games, travel DVD players, LeapPads, and the like to keep them entertained. If you are traveling with more than one child though, it may be difficult for them to agree on a movie, or who gets the gaming device, so have a plan beforehand.
      • Activity Bags: As a back-up, make individual activity bags that have wet-wipes, water, snacks, ear plugs, coloring books, and other activities that will keep them entertained. For DIY tips, search “travel game tins” on Pinterest. These activity bags will also come in very handy in restaurants when you stop for meals, as coloring on a menu may not contain them for long. If you have multiple children, switch bags at each stop, or for the trip home.
    • Air Travel: When traveling by air, use the pre-boarding option to explain to the flight attendants what your needs and concerns are PRIOR to the flight. This will gain you much better assistance than trying to explain things once there’s an incident. Also see the notes above, as almost everything for car travel can apply to your plane trip as well. Remember your 3 oz. limit for liquids prior to going through security, and consider the dietary needs of your child prior to boarding the flight. Ask your doctor about antihistamines or travel pills to ease with ear-popping and to help calm them during the flight.
    • Hotel: At the hotel, be sure to address dietary needs. If your child is on the gluten free / casein free diet, be sure to ask for a room with a small fridge, and to have the high-priced items removed from the fridge and mark it on your account so you won’t be charged for them.
    • Theme Parks: If considering a theme-park, check out this article by a travel agency that caters to those with special needs. Their FAQ section is sure to cover many of your questions:
    • Personal Locators: If you are headed to busy urban areas or even theme parks, it may be a wise investment to purchase a personal location device. These typically range between $200 and $500. You as a parent will carry the portable base, and your child will wear a special bracelet or device on their belt. When they get too far and have left the safety zone, an alarm will sound and the base unit will direct you towards your child.
  5. Don’t Stress. Your children can sense your anxiety, which will only heighten theirs. Understand that everything won’t go as planned and be prepared to be flexible… and relax. You just may enjoy the interruptions and diversions more than what was planned.

If you have any vacation tips for traveling with a child who has autism, we would love to have you share your experience with the MAXimum Chances community by commenting below.  Spending time together as a family is so important, and vacations can truly be fun if the proper care is taken to plan ahead!

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