For most people vacations are synonymous with relaxation, a chance to unwind, to be freed from day to day routines. For children and adults with autism, however, departure from daily routines and forced transitions may create tremendous stress. The better prepared you are the more likely it is that your vacation will run smoothly. By knowing and understanding your child's limitations you can prepare for and hopefully avoid many difficult situations.
This article is designed to provide suggestions on how to get ready for and travel with an individual who has spectrum autism.
Consider your child's unique needs very carefully when planning a family vacation. If your child has a specific area of interest, such as ocean life, you may want to plan your vacation around this interest. If your child is terrified by loud unexpected noise, plan to travel to a relatively quiet location. If possible, start with short overnight trips and build up to a more involved vacation.
Balance activities with down time. You may want to take someone with you who can serve as a babysitter. That way you may periodically leave your child with autism in the security of your vacation home while you sight-see with other family members. Again this depends on how much your child can handle. Start with small increments and add-on. It's helpful to have a back-up plan along the way in order to avoid frustration and overload.
Having a set daily routine paralleling your child's normal routine at home will provide a comforting structure. Again, plan to balance activities with quiet family time. A structure with built-in time for relaxation will more than likely meet the needs of the entire family.
Duplicate activities when possible. If you know, for example, that you will be attending a family function in a large restaurant start small by going to local restaurants to build up toward the larger event. Again, if all else fails, have a back-up plan.
Vacations typically involve wait time, you can help your child prepare by practicing periods of "waiting"; picture cues and social stories can be helpful cuing strategies. There are many methods for autism training and autism learning that can be found on the web and in autism-asperger books.
Communicate with everyone who is involved in the trip. It is essential to discuss the needs of the family with all involved. Let friends and relatives know what to expect. If your child is likely to have a meltdown, or strip off clothing, prepare others by explaining the possibility and indicate how they can respond and assist.
Before the vacation, prepare in as many ways as possible. Plan for the expected as well as the unexpected! While your preparation probably began months earlier, approximately two weeks prior to your trip show your child pictures and explain where you are going. Find photographs and/or videos that depict the place you are traveling to and show them to your child with autism spectrum disorder symptoms.
If possible, when you are planning to travel by air, visit the airport ahead of time and run through security. Call your local airport in advance to find out if this is a possibility. Alert the airline about the specific needs of your child in order to avoid surprises. (Many airlines will provide seats in the bulkhead when there is a specific need or request. Plan to reserve this area well in advance as these seats will often be the first assigned.)
Although flying cannot always be avoided, it may not be the best option for many children with autism as it may be too stressful. When vacationing, try to start small and build up gradually. Some families choose to return to the same vacation spot year after year because they are able to build routine through familiarity.
When flying, or traveling by car, carry along activities and snacks that will keep your child occupied and calm throughout the trip. Recorded music and videos may provide entertainment and a diversion from what is happening nearby. Take familiar items, such as stuffed animals (if possible have duplicates in case of loss. One little girl was devastated when a family friend threw her doll across the room tearing off a cloth arm in the process. It wasn't until the arm was surgically replaced (needle and thread) by her mother that the home was restored to a peaceful state!) Remember that not just visual reminders of home that evoke feelings of familiarity.
Track the upcoming vacation on a calendar, count down the days, take the calendar along and refer to it during the vacation.
Create social stories. (The internet is a great source for photographs and vacation specifics.) Create a picture planner to refer to before and during your travels. If you and your family are returning to a familiar vacation spot, a scrapbook that recounts the previous vacation(s) will help your child to prepare. Carrying visual prompts, social stories, and photographs with you while travelling will also serve as reminders about what to expect, what is happening, and will help to reinforce appropriate behaviors. Visual schedules can be used while vacationing to initiate the day and as prompts throughout the day.
Base the daily routine, while vacationing, on your child's typical daily routine. While this is not entirely practical, strive toward primary events occurring (i.e. meals) at their fixed times. Have as many familiar foods available as possible. If you are staying with friends or relatives explain the need for your child to have the foods, beverages, objects, and routines that provide comfort. Remember to bring these items with you wherever you go!
Many vacation sites are designed to accommodate individuals with special requirements. Contact guest services; tell them when you will be arriving and find out what accommodations are available. Many theme parks, such as Disneyland, may allow you to by-pass long lines. You may want to take or rent a stroller or wheelchair to avoid your child's fatigue. Large theme venues will often have hotels available that are geared toward supporting very young children and older children who have specific needs.
Consider where you will stay very carefully. Often an environment similar to the home setting is advisable, for example a condo rental will provide many amenities. If you choose to stay in a hotel, ask someone in guest relations for a quiet room location. Consider your child's unique needs and plan on reserving a space that will accommodate the specific necessities. It is likely that you will be spending a fair amount of time in this setting also, so factor in your own personal needs!
It is recommended that staff and neighbors be alerted when there is a risk of wandering. In addition to having appropriate ID (as well as pertinent medical information) on your child, it is helpful to alert security in the event of a flight situation. You will need to attach the identification in such a manner that it won't be disturbing to your child. Include the phone numbers where you can be reached immediately as well as information concerning your child's specific needs. Make certain that you also carry a photograph of your child with you in the event that you have to identify yourself as your child's parent(s).
It is helpful to carry earplugs or a headset for your child to tune out unusually loud sounds and crowd noise. Take-out dinners and room service can also provide a respite from crowded and noisy restaurants.
Time your visits when parks, beaches, and tourist attractions are not as busy. Early morning and late afternoon may be the ideal times to visit the beaches. Museums tend to be less busy early in the day, especially on Sundays. Theme parks are not typically as busy in the spring and autumn months. Contact the visitors' bureau and ask questions, explain your situation. You will find the majority of people are ready and willing to help. Remember to build in flexibility. Even the best laid plans can fall apart. Have family members spell one another so that everyone has a chance to relax. When all else fails step back, regroup, and maintain a sense of humor!
There are always going to be individuals who are ready to criticize and make rude comments. Remember that their inconsiderate remarks reflect their own insecurities. You can always smile and walk away, or you can use the opportunity to educate them about the needs of individuals with autism. Again, remember that this is your vacation and nobody has the right to destroy your enjoyment. There are many related articles on the internet and several autism Asperger's books that provide information on traveling with children with PDD autism and autism in adults.
By building familiarity into the unfamiliar, family vacations can become a welcome change for your family, a time when your entire family can enjoy a break from the typical routine. By starting small and adding on, most children can learn to enjoy and eventually look forward to a family vacation. Through careful preparation and the implementation of change you can also help to foster your child's development, independence, and individuality. Travelling with individuals with ASD can become a vacation for the entire family!