Most people go on vacation because they crave a change of scenery, a break from routine and the opportunity to relax and share new experiences with loved ones. However, many ASD kids hate disruptions in their schedules. If you intend to go away with a child on the spectrum—and want everyone to have fun—a lot of thought and planning are necessary. Nobody has fun (and that includes strangers in the immediate vicinity) when an ASD child has an extended meltdown. But with some savvy strategizing, autism families can enjoy vacationing together.
During 25 years of traveling with my daughter on the spectrum (along with her neurotypical twin brother), our family has experienced many fun and happy memories—with some difficult and embarrassing moments interspersed. Flying home from Puerto Rico, 12-month-old Samantha screamed non-stop from an ear infection, while her twin brother pooped and vomited on his dad. In later years, we managed to enjoy Disney World during four consecutive days of rain, stomping through puddles and singing. In good weather, our kids’ successful peak experiences included parasailing, jet skiing, and swimming with dolphins and sting rays. As my daughter developed more language and better self-control, I gradually learned how to prepare her for vacations so we could all have fun. During the twins’ adolescence, we even managed trips through Europe in bone-chilling rain and blistering heat. I’m proud to say that our daughter was often the best sport of all!
1. Show pictures before you leave
I discovered the best way to start our vacation process was by showing pictures—a sneak preview of fun ahead. In addition to travel brochures and photos, we explored websites together, and checked out maps showing different states or a globe for foreign countries. When visiting a beloved friend or relative, we discussed the fun we’d had together in the past. Being specific in advance helped Samantha envision what would feel familiar vs. new and exciting. When there was a terrific water slide or a yummy ice cream store, I’d describe it. If your child loves building elaborate sand castles, try discussing moats and towers while purchasing or packing sand toys together.
2. Get your kids involved in packing
Speaking of packing, get your ASD kids as involved as possible (depending on age) to minimize anxiety over leaving home. Enlist your child’s participation by using questions with two simple alternatives. Instead of packing Samantha’s favorite bathing suit (green), I asked: “Would you rather take the red or the green?” She loved yanking out her green suit and tossing it into her suitcase. The goal was for Samantha to feel some measure of control. We kept a dialogue going (not always easy), but our daughter knew her needs and preferences were heard. In addition, this simple conversation served as a template for future communications with others.
3. Clear communication is key
Clear communication is key. Setting ground rules is one way I avoided unnecessary arguments and meltdowns while traveling. If your ASD child loves to spend hours in the water at a sunny location (like my daughter), I recommend pre-negotiating sunscreen, hats and tee shirts. Upon arrival arrived at the beach, you can remind your ASD kid of their previous agreement; this not only sets the stage for a better experience, but also teaches kids about honoring promises and taking responsibility.
4. Swimming safely is a top priority
Before my kids were proficient swimmers, life vests were a must. Even when Samantha swam like a mermaid, she wasn’t allowed in the ocean without a parent until she understood the dangers of drifting and rip currents. In order to swim independently, my kids had to obey pre-agreed hand signals that meant “swim closer to shore.” Samantha never wanted to emerge for lunch (or even sundown) so we insisted on a five-minute warning before getting out of the water.
5. Plan for bad weather and/or travel glitches
Planning for bad weather and/or travel glitches can prove crucial. Is there a game room at the hotel, or should you pack your own distractions? In Jamaica when it rained two days, we lucked out with our hotel game room and played Sorry. If bad weather delays your plane, it’s important to pack favorite games in your carry-on bag. Samantha always took knitting and lanyards, while our son preferred Harry Potter and sports books. Nowadays families can use electronics and technology when stuck at the airport or on rainy days. Here too, advance agreements are crucial. After all, the main point of going away as a family is to spend quality time together, right?