Autism-Friendly Summer Travel

Summer vacation time is here—and for families who have a child on the spectrum vacations can require thoughtful preparation, creative thinking and flexibility on everyone’s part. For many of our children, routine and structure are essential to helping children feel calm and safe. Vacations mix that up—and take us into what can feel like a sensory explosion of new smells, tastes and touches. 

But being able to tolerate new experiences is an essential part of our children’s growth—and the more you can help your child to feel safe and open to trying vacations, the more you and your family will begin to enjoy traveling together.

For every family, vacation challenges may differ. As a mom of a ten-year-old son who has autism, I have discovered a number of essential elements that have helped our family to enjoy traveling together. Please take these ideas and adapt them to your child—and please share in the comments ideas that have helped your family have successful vacations. 

My top vacation tips are:

1. Start Small. I like to think about the idea of vacation in an expansive way—a vacation could be a day-trip to a beach or lake, one night in a hotel, taking time off work and doing family things right in your back yard. If your child is young or you haven’t traveled much yet, start small. A weekend getaway might be plenty of time for your family—you can work up to that week as your child gets comfortable in his/her travel skills. Taking a day off to explore a museum or hiking trails right in our city means that we can all come home that evening and get a good night’s sleep in our beds. Turning off cell phones and other electronics can feel like a vacation day to me, even if I’m only an hour away from home. You could try several day-long or weekend getaways with your family this summer.

2. Use Visuals. Thanks to the internet, I preview wherever we are going to go with my son by showing him pictures of where we will be traveling. My son retains a lot of visual information, so if I find a great gluten-free restaurant in the new city where we’re going, I’ll show him pictures of it on my phone and it helps him to adjust to the new smells and sounds of the place when we land there in real time. I know many families create social stories about the places that they’ll be visiting.

3. Think Nature. For children who get easily overstimulated in big crowds, amusement parks or busy cities, vacations in nature can offer lots of calm. Look for a cabin by a lake or check out available lodging at a state park. Beaches and oceans can make wonderful vacations—but if you haven’t been, be aware that the sound of the ocean can be overwhelming for some children with auditory processing issues.

4. Plane Prep. My friend, Dr. Wendy Ross, founder of AIR—Helping Families Soar–created an innovative program to help train TSA agents and other airline staff to be sensitive to the unique needs of children on the spectrum. Because of her work, I became empowered in asking for special help at the airport for my son to go through security. I contact the TSA before our flight, letting them know when we’re arriving and then an agent meets us to help us through the security checkpoint. This extra helps not only makes my son calmer, it makes my husband and me so much calmer! Don’t hesitate to contact the TSA at the airport you’ll be flying out of with this kind of request. 

5. Find Community. It can be lonely traveling when you see other families all around you who look so “typical” on the outside. We have used some of our vacation time to connect with other families like ours and it has been really supportive. For example, every summer we go to a family camp through the Ramah program. Check with your house of worship or local autism group to find family camps for families who have a child with special needs near you. There is also the “Autism by the Seas” cruise line that has wonderful supports. Or reach out to a fellow warrior family and invite them to share a cabin or beach house with you. More adults to help out and maybe even a few quiet moments when the kids go to sleep to enjoy some adult conversation!

Wishing you a happy summer!

Gabrielle Kaplan-Mayer is the author of The Kitchen Classroom: 32 Visual GFCF Recipes to Boost Developmental Skills. She leads parents and teacher training for cooking with kids of all abilities in person and over Skype. Visit her at www.kitchenclassroom4kids.com.

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