Going on Vacation With Your Autistic Child
At a Glance
In this post, we will cover some tips for parents and families traveling with their Autistic child.
Create a defined schedule and discuss it ahead of time to familiarize the Autistic individual with the routine and incorporate familiar anchor points during the day.
Gameplan how to handle last-minute schedule changes, involving the Autistic individual in the discussion and preparing alternative activities to minimize disappointments or frustrations. Also, identify potential decompression spaces on arrival to the vacation destination.
If you have ever traveled with a group, you know vacation is simultaneously meant to be relaxing but in practice can be a hectic process. On top of making sure we get where we need to go on schedule, we also want to make sure everyone’s needs are accommodated and that everyone feels included.
When preparing to travel with your autistic child for the first time it can be challenging to maintain that balancing act while trying to account for every unknown. Did we choose a good destination? Are the activities we chose as autistic-friendly as they appear to be? Did we schedule too much or too little? Are we prepared if something goes wrong?
This article from Autism Travel covers some helpful nuts and bolts tips on things you can check on at various steps of the travel process, from applying for a TSA disability notification card to what to put in your special travel pack to access in the event of an emergency.
Create a defined schedule and go over it ahead of time.
If you have ever read our Holidays Toolkit, you may notice some similar themes to what we might discuss when we are talking about vacations. Much like holidays, vacations can represent a major schedule upheaval and can take up so much of our energy even as they’re supposed to be time off for us to enjoy as well!
While obviously not every component of holidays and vacations overlap, one strategy from the toolkit that could be helpful during a vacation is clearly defining the day-to-day schedule it and making sure to go over it ahead of time.
Not only does going over the schedule ahead of time help familiarize it, it can also be helpful to reinforce the parts of the schedule that are familiar and part of a standard day-to-day routine so that there can be some comfortable anchor points during the day even if there are also a lot of new things! It’s also a great time to talk about what we’ll do in different situations if there are any questions.
That’s why it is crucial to schedule the whole day and not just the big event. How will our usual morning routine look in the new schedule? When are we building in some breaks? Are we planning on dinner at the usual time or a little later?
It is important to note here that just because we create a meticulous schedule does not mean we will always be able to adhere to it perfectly. Sometimes things change and there just isn’t much we can do about it.
More important is to think about how we will manage those potential changes, which we will get to in a little bit. In the meantime:
Err on the side of more breaks and decompression time.
Much like the holidays, vacations can sometimes put a lot of pressure on us to get everything done in the limited time we have in a place or to maximize the bang for our buck by doing as many enriching things as possible.
At the same time we do not want to create a schedule that is overwhelming and leaving us or the autistic person we are supporting feeling burned out when there are still a number of activities left in the day.
If you are worried about striking the right balance, particularly if this is one of your first vacations with your child, we recommend erring on the side of more breaks and decompression time and not being afraid to fill a little bit of extra time with some comforting familiar activities. As much as having great experiences is important to a fun vacation, so is feeling like you can relax and unwind.
If you go on one vacation and discover that your group or family could have handled more then you will be that much better prepared to gauge the right balance between activities and kicking back.
On the whole, it is much better to have a fun relaxing vacation where everyone wishes they could have done a little more than it is to have a stressful hectic vacation with lots of experiences but also lots of frustration!
Speaking of hectic…
Gameplan how you will approach last minute schedule changes.
As we mentioned in our first section, it can be hugely beneficial to schedule out the day to day of a vacation and go over it to build more familiarity in an unknown environment. But as we all know the most meticulous schedules are also those most prone to needing adjustment as the reality of the day unfolds.
Sudden changes are not fun to deal with and can be especially stressful for autistic children but that does not mean there’s nothing we can do to help the situation!
Just like we go over the schedule itself ahead of time, we can also talk to the autistic person we are supporting about the reality that schedules can change and talk about how we want to approach those situations. You may find the answer changes depending on what part of the schedule we are discussing!
If we have to delay a meal it might mean planning on having some snacks available to tide us over. If we have to cancel a big daily activity it might mean having an alternative activity planned ahead of time.
Acknowledging the potential for challenging changes and working together on how we will handle it can go a long way toward minimizing major disappointments or frustration in the times when it does happen.
Identify potential decompression spaces on arrival.
Although planning for potential changes can be hugely beneficial, sometimes in the great unknown of a vacation destination we will simply run into challenging situations unexpectedly. Those situations can be particularly scary when you are not accustomed to the location you are visiting and are unsure how the environment you are in will impact the situation.
One great thing to do when you initially arrive and also when visiting new locations is to keep an eye out for potential decompression spaces where you can go when a situation is just too much to handle and a straightforward solution is not readily apparent.
Some spaces like a quiet or unoccupied corner might be ideal for getting some immediate separation from the center of the action, while an area outside the building with some benches might be good for when a longer breather is needed.
While you may not feel comfortable with hanging out in a designated smoking space, many locations have a comparable outdoor space that isn’t designated for smokers but still offers a little bit of isolation from the hustle and bustle of whatever space you are visiting. If you do not spot any good candidates yourself that may also be a great time to check in with an employee and ask ahead of time.
Not only will employees typically know the best spots, if they are clued in they can also help you get where you need to go in those high-pressure moments.
Check out some local menus BEFORE you go.
In the grand checklist of things to do before preparing for a vacation, it’s not all too uncommon for figuring out where to eat to be pretty far down on the list or not at all. After all most places have a few meal options and we are bound to find something that works, right?
While we don’t necessarily think you have to plan every restaurant ahead of time, it can be extremely helpful to identify a couple of places that will have some surefire winners on the menu so that you always have a fallback option in case the cool-looking restaurant you had your eye on just isn’t compatible with the dietary preferences of the person you are supporting.
While not all menus have visual components, it’s also sometimes possible on Google to see pictures of some of the dishes available. It’s another great option to go over together with the person you are supporting to see what is acceptable to them and reinforce that we identify more than one option in case the first doesn’t go as planned.
As always, preparation and anticipating the possibility that our preparation doesn’t quite go as planned are key!
There are all sorts of ways to plan a vacation, both in general and more specifically with an eye toward supporting autistic children in their needs and preferences.
We hope this guide has offered some avenues for helping you feel more prepared for some of the possibilities that may arise. If you are interested in hearing more tips regarding vacation planning, particularly getting into more specific locations or activities, we would love to hear from you!
Let us know what you are thinking at email@example.com and we will be back next week with a post aimed toward autistic adults looking to manage their own travel plans and schedule.