Many parents cannot even contemplate the idea of traveling and enjoying a family vacation with a child with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD). While not all kids with ASD exhibit the same behaviours, most are only comfortable within the confines of a very structured, predictable environment. Changes in routine and environment are likely to produce anxiety and meltdowns, so many parents either forgo family vacations altogether or leave their child with a qualified caregiver while the rest of the family vacations.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Now, I am not an expert in the field – I am just a parent who has been there, done that and learned a lot along the way. With a good deal of preparation (because don’t kid yourself – this will require work!), our family has been able to enjoy several vacations together.
By now, you are probably (through sheer necessity) an expert on anticipating your child’s needs and preparing to meet challenges in advance. The first step is to research every aspect of your itinerary such as airlines (or other forms of transit like trains, buses or cars), hotels and attractions. When booking flights, for example, always let the airline know that you will be traveling with a special needs individual and require pre-boarding. This is not enough however; as soon as you arrive at the gate, introduce your child to the gate attendant and remind them that you require assistance.
I recently learned this lesson the hard way – when a gate change was announced giving us a mere 10 minutes to get to a new gate about ½ a mile away. Because I had neglected the above step, we ended up frantically racing through the airport with our carry-ons and the inevitable melt-down ensued. Had I informed the gate attendant when we arrived, they would have been able to arrange for transportation for us to the new gate. Sorry Sea-Tac – I understand why we are not particularly welcome back…
I also research every aspect of the accommodation. My son likes to swim and use the hot-tub. Does it have a pool? What hours are the pool and fitness centre open to children? Does it have a small fridge (kids with ASD are notoriously rigid in their diets and will only eat certain things – it pays to ensure that you have their comfort foods readily available). Once we were invited to a luxurious fishing lodge with a group of families with special needs kids – I called ahead to see if there were televisions in the room. Good thing I did – because there were no TV’s or even clocks or radios in the lodge. So we packed his portable DVD player and a few favourite DVDs, because at the end of a tough day holding it together my son needs the downtime to relax away from everyone.
This brings up another important point. Recognize that wherever you go, your child will need a private space to take a break, to stim, to retreat from the social world. Plan this in advance. I have gone so far as watching the 360 degree views of the hotel rooms when booking to anticipate exactly where we can create a quiet space for my son to retreat. When he was smaller, behind the curtains of the room’s bay windows with a few pillows and a book were all he needed for sanctuary.
Once your itinerary is established, create a book for your child that lays it out both in pictures and words. We are fortunate enough to have a computer program called Boardmaker and a laminator which have proven to be indispensable for this – check with your local Autism society for access to them if you don’t have your own. We literally lay out each day of the vacation for him pictorially, including creating avatars for family/friends we may be joining, all activities and an accompanying story that not only reassures him that he will have fun, but also that because this is a vacation it is time to relax and not worry about changes in the itinerary. Introduce the idea that factors such as weather may mean we need to change the plans and that this is ok. We then include all the step-by-step strategies he is familiar with to help himself relax. We introduce the book to him several weeks in advance of leaving and go through it together usually twice a day, practising the self-calming techniques together.
Whether it’s a car-trip, or by train or plane, ensure that your child with ASD has a backpack of essentials – favourite stim toys, DVD player or tape player with headphones, books, favourite snacks. While this is common sense for travelling with any child, it is particularly important that kids with ASD as they require the ability to block out their surroundings should they become overwhelmed. For older kids – it pays to check their bags or suitcase to see exactly what they have packed. Until we were detained by security, I had no idea that my son had a tucked a metal clock in the shape of a dachshund in his luggage. In the scanner, it pretty much looked like a handgun…
If you are planning on visiting any attractions, theme parks, aquariums etc, it pays in advance to have your child’s physician write a brief note advising that you child has a disability and cannot wait in lines due to anxiety. March straight to Customer Service when entering the park/attraction and present the note – most have special passes that allow your child and anyone accompanying him/her to by-pass the line ups, or use special entrances. Sometimes they will give you a discount as well. Keep extra copies of the Dr’s note in your luggage – they are indispensable!
Do not over-book your days. Be mindful of the fact that your child with ASD is easily overwhelmed. If need be, one parent can always take a break with him/her while other family members head out to (or continue enjoying) an attraction. There’s always next time – no need to sabotage the peace you have worked so hard to create.
Most of all – HAVE FUN! If you approach the vacation with dread, your child with ASD will undoubtedly feed off your anxiety. Rest assured that you have now planned for as many contingencies as possible and can approach your adventures together with a positive attitude. You have the tools to manage any situation. You will discover what a joy it is to create special memories for your entire family – including your child with autism.