Travel with any family can be hectic, and when you add the special needs of a child with autism, there are some additional factors to consider. If you keep an open mind and pre-plan to meet the needs of all of your family members (autistic or not), a family trip with your child with autism can be both rewarding and fun! Here are my top 10 tips for having a successful travel experience:
1. Think about the positive ways travel might benefit your family.
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Your child with autism could learn to love new foods, touch different textures, learning to cope with changes, diversity and differences in attitudes. Those parents who believe travel is beneficial will usually have a better outcome than those who don’t see the need to exposing their kids to different experiences.
2. Discover you vacation style.
Ask the various family members where, what, and even how they prefer to travel and then work out an itinerary that will cover most expectations. Everyone’s needs should be taken into account and a well-planned itinerary should have multiple elements and activities to hold everyone’s interest. If two family members love shopping, and two want theme parks adventures, consider Orlando – it is filled with as many outlet malls as it is with theme parks!
3. Fully understand what your child’s limitations are.
Many parents get swept in the excitement of thinking and planning trips that they might forget what their child might be able to cope with, especially when it parlays to never before experienced situations. For example, if your child is temperature sensitive, hiking in the Grand Canyon might not be such a good idea after all!
4. Gradual exposure is everything.
Start small and gradually increase your time and distance. Your first travel experience with your child with autism should not be a transatlantic or transpacific multi- city two-week affair. Start with half-day local venues like the zoo, aquarium, or art museum see how that goes. Continue by planning an overnight stay close to home, then a long weekend in a neighboring city, working your way to that seven day cruise slowly.
5. Start planning early and plan ahead.
Don’t hesitate to ask friends /extended family/travel agents for help if you feel you don’t have time to plan or feel too overwhelmed to plan. Research is crucial to help you determine what accommodations you need to ask for and it is pertinent you do your homework thoroughly especially when it comes to selecting hotel rooms, cruise cabins, and even flight seats.
6. Don’t be afraid to share your kid’s diagnosis.
If you want to increase awareness and understanding, you need to share your needs and the reason for them with airline/cruising/hotel/resort staff. Most horror stories of how poorly autistic travelers have been treated stem from the fact that parents do not want to share their child’s diagnosis until after an incident occurs. Many venues in the travel industry would love to be more helpful and “autistic friendly” if they can be told ahead of time what the client needs and expects.
7. Every trip you take, plan one extra step out of your comfort zone.
Consider exposing yourself and your family members to something you never thought about doing in the past. This might sound like complete fallacy to some parents, but from personal experience I can assure you this helps you show your kids that one should always strive to move upwards and challenge themselves.
8. Don’t plan to “see it all.”
You can’t see it all anyway, and half the fun is getting there – so don’t feel rushed. Before you go somewhere, divide the places you wish to visit into 3 lists- “Must”, “Should” and “Maybe.” Go and do things at your own pace and relax!
9. Always have a backup plan in case things go wrong, because they probably will.
Bookmark attractions close to the airports you’ll be using in case you encounter delays, keep a city map handy if it starts raining and you need to switch to an indoor activity, and be happy if your plans work out at least 50% of the time!
10. Don’t despair and throw in the towel when things go south.
Over the years I’ve heard way too many stories from parents of how awful their one and only vacation with their child with autism went and how they will never go anywhere again. Instead of wallowing in how bad things turned out, analyze what lead to the bad outcome – one event or maybe a chain of events. Once you identify the culprits make sure you avoid them when you plan your next trip.
Perseverance is everything and just like many other things in life the more you travel with your autistic kid the easier and more successful it will become!