After many trips with my autistic son, I have picked up some “tricks of the trade” – what to ask and expect at all stages of the vacation, how to prevent and quell public meltdowns, how to survive staff errors and scheduling mishaps, all while maintaining an educational and fun environment for our children. Since summer is fast approaching I thought I would share 20 of my best secrets that can make your next trip with your autistic child the best one yet!
1. Figure out what is most stressful to you and your family and try to come up with solutions to make it go more smoothly. This might be a plan getting through TSA check points, the flight or long car ride, theme park lines, etc.
2. Splurge on some comfort so everyone can relax. Try to get an upgrade to the executive lounge in a hotel so you can relax more and not stress about snacks, drinks, or even meals. You could also upgrade your room to give everyone more space.
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3. Consider hiring a private guide rather than trying to get everyone to listen to a group guide or reading out of a travel book. Many museums and attractions have docent volunteer guides that do an amazing job engaging visitors with personal stories while talking about the attractions.
4. Consider letting travel agents/security guards/hotel staff know of your child’s diagnosis so they can provide any extra accommodation and understanding you might need. If you don’t let anyone know about your child’s needs, it is a lot harder to get understanding for public meltdowns, or to get special requests.
5. Do some preliminary research online to find out about the hotel and attractions to look for potential sensory issues. Check for loud noises, strobe lights, or foul smells that could set off a sensory meltdown.
6. Pack light and wash items in the hotel or at the Laundromat. Make a list of disposable items that could be delivered to your hotel ahead of time instead of you having to pack them–diapers, baby formula, art supplies, laundry detergent, etc.
7. Find an animal activity to participate on during your trip. It usually ends up as one of the highlights, and creates fond and funny family memories!
8. Participate in festivities or holiday celebrations at your destination. As long as they are not too noisy or crowded, they provide a great way to introduce your child to new foods and cultures in a fun way.
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9. Don’t try to do everything! Allow your family (and yourself!) plenty of rest and unstructured time to unwind and relax. When the kids were younger, my rule of thumb was two hours of stimulation for one hour of rest.
10. Start your vacation a day before you leave and give yourself a day after you get back. Though it’s not always possible, this will give you time to relax beforehand and recover afterwards before getting back to your regular routine.
11. Pack the weekend before you travel. Never pack the day before or day of – you’re bound to forget something important!
12. Try not to travel with family or friends who are not fully understanding of your child’s condition. They will end up stressing you even more with their demands and lack of understanding.
13. Purchase travel insurance. Things can go wrong and travel is expensive, so this will make one less thing for you to worry about.
14. Start small and increase your travel distance each year. Start with short half day or less outings, then build up to full day and short weekend excursions before you book that week-long cruise or resort stay. Don’t be discouraged – remember that no two people with autism are the same and exposure is crucial. Your child will eventually adapt to travel.
15. Step out of your comfort zone as you get more comfortable. Try something new, such as a new sport or a new food.
16. Get to know your family’s travel style. If they can’t get out and ready in the early morning, avoid early morning flights or tours. If they all fall asleep by 9 p.m., don’t book the city by night tour or buy expensive concert tickets.
17. Make sure EVERYONE gets at least eight hours of sleep. Dealing with a whiny, tired child when you’re tired is no one’s idea of the perfect vacation.
18. Blend something new with something old. Kids with autism thrive on routines and familiarity so getting them accustomed to one resort might be a good solution for some, but always try to add a new activity to make it a bit more interesting for other family members.
19. Don’t get upset if your child doesn’t fit in at the cruise or hotel kids club and refuses to participate. Introduce him or her on a gradual, continuous basis and be patient. If things didn’t go well the first couple times, keep trying to get him or her more familiar with the place or activity.
20. Eat at least one meal together each day while on vacation even if you don’t eat around the kitchen table at home. It will help your family to get to know one another better and share thoughts about the day’s activities.
What tips have you picked up along the way that has made travel more successful for you and your traveler with autism?