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- Why a Short Getaway Works Best for Families with Autistic Children
- Travel with an Autistic Child: Our Son
- Travel with an Autistic Child: Our Daughter
- Challenging Behaviors in Unfamiliar Places
- Why a Short Getaway is Preferable to a Long Vacation
- Hotel Stays During Travel with Autistic Kids
- Spur of the Moment (with Photos) Trips Do Work
- Creating Routines for Travel with Autistic Kids
- Short-Trips Benefit Caregivers Too
- Fun Helps Build New Skills
- Nature Relieves Stress
- Preparing an Autistic Child for the Getaway
- Choosing the Right Destination
- Staying Close to Home
Special needs families need respite, but is travel the way to find it? It can be scary to think about children’s challenges in a strange place. And what about money, time and energy worries? These tips outline how short getaways are the right way to travel with an autistic child.
Why a Short Getaway Works Best for Families with Autistic Children
Travel helped my family discover the signs and challenges of autism in our two children. Now we see travel as a strategy and solution too.
My husband and I grew up as adventurous travelers. Naturally, we wanted to instill in our kids that same love of exploring the world.
We traveled long before our children were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Our journeys away from home, interestingly, enhanced discoveries associated with ASD.
Travel with an Autistic Child: Our Son
My autistic son, who is the oldest, was only two weeks old when I strapped him to myself in a carrier to visit a museum about Abraham Lincoln. He was five months old when we visited New Orleans and 11-months-old when we stayed on a beach in Florida.
He was a pretty easy-going traveler until toddlerhood.
During our visits to children’s museums I first noticed his intense fascination with trains and visual-spatial skills with LEGOs. When he became tired in these sensory-stimulating places, he would become, ironically, a ball of unbridled energy.
I was exhausted keeping up with him in public spaces, forcing us to leave when he didn’t want to. He showed his displeasure by screaming and running away.
Travel with an Autistic Child: Our Daughter
My younger daughter loved playing in water. Put her in front of a water table at a science-center and she was one happy little girl! She developed a lifelong affinity for animals after visiting nature centers and zoos.
It wasn’t readily apparent to me how she was affected by sensory-rich environments. She didn’t put her hands over her ears or use words to say what bothered her. She “spoke” through intense and frequent meltdowns. It was like a siren going off when she had enough!
We discovered, often through day trips to these fun places, that she had a much greater sensitivity to sensory stimulation and difficulty with language and transitions.
Challenging Behaviors in Unfamiliar Places
Given our kids’ sensory issues, we encountered more challenging behaviors in unfamiliar places. A simple day-trip to the zoo was exhausting when they were young. My 4-year-old son was crying and holding his ears during a very loud dolphin show at the Indianapolis Zoo. We left in the middle of the performance.
Despite these behaviors, we were determined to keep exploring new places beyond the home. Yes, they had meltdowns. But we also witnessed incredible growth because they were having fun.
Why a Short Getaway is Preferable to a Long Vacation
We learned it was best not to push our kids’ limits with a long vacation before they were ready. We did not want to spend a lot of time, money and energy on planning a vacation that made everyone miserable.
Short getaways became the right way to acclimate our autistic kids to the process of overnight travel.
First: Stays at relatives’ houses where the kids felt comfortable.
We played at the Fort Wayne Science Central Museum or the Children’s Zoo during the day — until burnout. Then we recuperated on a couch at grandma’s house with a bowl of popcorn and a movie.
Hotel Stays During Travel with Autistic Kids
Then we moved on to hotels for one or two night stays. We would visit parks and museums in a new city during the day. In the evening, a swim in the hotel pool was the perfect ending to a stimulating day.
One of our most fun trips was swimming at Great Wolf Lodge. Despite the auditory and visual stimulation, my kids absolutely loved this indoor waterpark. (I also felt more comfortable knowing that they had life-preservers and lifeguards patrolling the water’s edge.)
I also appreciated that we could go to our rooms to rest any time we wanted.
Spur of the Moment (with Photos) Trips Do Work
I love that short getaways can be planned spur-of-the-moment. As long as we showed pictures or videos of the place we were planning to visit to raise their excitement levels, my kids were totally on-board. (And it made it easier for them to transition to a new place.)
We didn’t need a lot of money saved up to take a short getaway. After paying for therapy, it seemed hard to justify spending thousands of dollars on a big vacation.
But for less than a few hundred dollars we could enjoy a mini-vacation. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about buying travel insurance, getting a passport, taking a lot of time learning about the destination.
Our autistic children appreciate a consistent routine. Weekend getaways ensure less schedule disruption for both my kids and our weekday workflow.
In addition, short getaways meant our family could take more vacations. How about five or more short “mini-vacations” spread throughout the year instead of only one week-long trip?
Sign me up!
Creating Routines for Travel with Autistic Kids
Traveling more frequently allows our autistic children to develop a “travel expectations playbook.”
In other words, they developed comfortable travel routines and associated positive experiences with exploring unfamiliar places. This set the stage for developing a willingness to venture out of their comfort zone to travel longer and farther from home.
For example, my son was 15 when he spent a week at the Boy Scouts high-adventure Sea Base in the Florida Keys. It was the first time he was not with family. It was also his first time sleeping on a sailboat in the open ocean. He loved every minute of that trip. He came back a very confident and happy young man!
Only through our frequent camping and short getaways could he have accomplished this.
Short-Trips Benefit Caregivers Too
As a parent of autistic kids, I felt a huge burden of responsibility to make sure we accessed all the resources available to us. I didn’t want to deprive my children of any potential therapy I thought would really benefit them. But in my overzealous ambition to be a “good special needs mom,” I was in jeopardy of getting stuck in one role. And getting quickly burned out!
I became a grumpy caretaker rather than “fun mom.” My kids were doing their own things. At times we felt distanced ourselves from one another. The daily routine would drain the energy of the entire family.
Time for a short family vacation getaway! We smile and laugh more. We play games. We learn things about one another. And we feel close to one another again.
Fun Helps Build New Skills
One of the hidden benefits of taking short getaways is witnessing personal growth.
Whenever we had fun together, their expressive language flourished. They couldn’t wait to tell me about the fun they had!
My kids also learned self-confidence at amusement parks and fairs, overcoming their fears about riding certain attractions. These trips helped pave the way toward a successful Disney vacation later.
Short getaways provided a chance to learn new skills and develop hobby interests. We loved the experiential, hands-on learning opportunities at museums, zoos, science centers, amusement parks,or camping.
My kids remembered educational facts and developed problem-solving skills much better than they could in a classroom.
Nature Relieves Stress
Immediate stress relief for everyone comes from getaways closer to home. I enjoy getting that natural “euphoria” from our getaways. Hiking in nature brings a great sense of stress-relief for me!
It’s the same for my kids. An overloaded therapy schedule brought burnout. When therapy was no longer fun, they weren’t really learning much anyway. Over time I learned to better assess their needs and just go where they could spend hours happily playing.
One of our favorite short vacations was a three-night stay in a large cabin in Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. We vacationed with extended family: aunt and uncle, cousins and grandparents. My kids had someone to play with and so did the adults.
Having trusted family around also allowed us some caretaking respite to do fun activities on our own, like hiking on more rugged, scenic paths. Oh, and there is nothing like relaxing in a hot tub and sitting in a rocking chair listening to the rain falling in a forest!
Preparing an Autistic Child for the Getaway
We got out of our “comfort zone” to explore new getaways. But we made sure to take sensory breaks to avoid meltdowns in public areas. We brought noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs just in case.
We also brought familiar items from home, like a favorite toy or an iPad.
I laugh now, but I was less than pleased when I discovered at Great Wolf Lodge that my daughter packed ALL of her stuffed toys in her travel bag instead of clothes! Still, bringing along a meaningful part of her life helped her transition to a strange place.
On occasion, we used social stories (short narratives of expected behavior at different settings) to mentally prepare them for a new destination and the travel process.
Videos of the destinations or amusement park attractions helped us with that. So did role-playing, an especially fun way to get used to camping trips.
Choosing the Right Destination
We chose destinations that would appeal to their sensory needs. My kids are sensory-seekers, but they still have their limitations. Sensory-intense environments like interactive-play museums could only be handled in “small chunks” before a major meltdown.
Our time limit at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum has consistently been four hours with a lunch break.
When we needed to de-stress, we went into nature. We feel instantly calmer on a lake or in a woods. But the camping experience was not always peaceful.
When we attempted tent camping for the first time, my 3-year-old daughter woke up screaming and wouldn’t stop. We simply had to leave. Luckily, the campground was only one hour away from home.
We didn’t lose a lot of money in this adventure. But it served a good lesson: we needed to “wean into” the getaway experience.
Staying Close to Home
Our short getaways were close enough to home that we could call it quits without a lot of investment. We started with one-night trips less than an hour from home. Once our children felt more comfortable with travel, we added more nights at places farther from home.
Finally, we used our kids’ passions in choosing where to go. This really motivated them to not only get used to the travel experience but actually look forward to it.
Even at 18, my son still loves to build with LEGOs. A few years ago, we took him to the Brickworld Indy convention where one can admire amazing creations and the latest designs. He was in heaven! We made it our short spring-break getaway with a couple of nights at a hotel with a pool.
My daughter loves horses. During a fall-break getaway at West Baden Resort in southern Indiana we surprised her with a 45-minutes horseback ride. She was so thrilled to guide her own horse through the scenic wooded trails. Someday I would love to take her on a longer horseback riding adventure vacation out West.
Short Getaways: Gateway to Lifelong Learning and Fun
My autistic children can handle being gone from home for long periods of time now. Whenever we travel to Florida, it’s usually for two-weeks at a time to visit Walt Disney World and the Gulf Coast.
But we still love taking short getaways. They are the perfect antidote to stress. The anticipation of knowing what’s in store when we arrive at our destination is enough to break the monotony of our daily schedules.
We became active in Scouts so we camp at least once a month for one or two nights. When we visit relatives we stay at their home or at least one night in a hotel. During the school breaks we often just take a few nights to go somewhere we have never visited before.
No matter how short our trips, the impact has been huge!
Through little getaways, we helped our autistic children develop not just a lifelong passion for travel. They have also learned the importance of self-care through respite and developed greater self-confidence to pursue their life goals.
About the Author
Growing up, Angela Zizak always looked forward to the next campout, and trips to the Smoky Mountains or Florida Gulf beaches. She visited Germany and Japan through friendships with foreign students and academic pursuits. Now a mom to two teenagers with autism, she instilled that love of adventure in her kids. The whole family is involved in Scouting, visiting iconic USA locales such as the Black Hills, Florida Keys, Boundary Waters and national forests. Since her kids’ obsession with Disney rubbed off on her, she plans trips for others to Walt Disney World and other vacation destinations. Angela founded Your Autism Guide hoping to inspire special needs families to discover a fulfilling life through journeys beyond the home and therapy. Her autistic kids have flourished more than she imagined through travel exploration, and she hopes others seize those opportunities as well.