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Planning A Family Vacation With An Autistic Child

Posted: 7/30/2020 - 3-Minute Read

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Planning A Family Vacation With An Autistic Child

As our community values inclusivity and support of people of all needs, we were happy to accept this guest article by Liz Talton, a contributing author for the Speech Blubs blog, where you can find information about speech and language learning for children.

In recent years, two of our local communities — the Village of Lake George and Town of Horicon — adopted "ThinkDIFFERENTLY" resolutions that encourage supportive environments for people with special needs.

Through adopting these resolutions, our local officials were answering the call of Dutchess County’s “ThinkDIFFERENTLY” initiative, which calls on businesses, organizations and individuals to reflect on how they think of and interact with people who have special needs.

The initiative was established in 2015 by Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro.

In addition, we're celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilties Act of 1990. This landmark legislation provides protections against discrimination of people with disabilities in many areas including employment, education, health care, recreation, transportation, and housing.

Read on for some travel tips for anyone headed on vacation with children on the autism spectrum.

By Liz Talton
Contributor, Speech Blubs 

A family vacation is a memorable experience for the whole family. To make a vacation comfortable and stress-free for everyone, certain accommodations need to be planned ahead of time for children on the autism spectrum. With minor changes to the way you plan and organize a vacation, you can help your child experience the joys of vacation!

Children on the autism spectrum crave organized structure and familiarity. Because of this many families avoid vacations altogether. Instead they prefer to keep their child at home. Some common parental fears about vacationing with an autistic child include:

  • Fear of frequent sensory meltdowns
  • Possible violent behavior
  • Their child running or “bolting”
  • Rude comments and stares from other people in public
  • Being judged by others

 Although these are real fears when traveling with an autistic child, it doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying a relaxing family vacation! In fact, family vacations can offer many benefits to a family with an autistic child.

 Benefits of vacationing

1. Provides much-needed family time

2. Reduces isolation that many families with autistic children feel

3. Teaches essential life skills to your child

4. Provides education benefits by learning about new cultures, history, and more

5. Desensitizes your child to sensory stimulation

6. Helps to spread autism awareness to others

How To Plan A Vacation with a Child on a Spectrum

1. Choose an appropriate destination

Planning a vacation for a child with autism looks different than planning a vacation with neurotypical children. You need to keep in mind what your child’s strengths and weaknesses are. Does your child do better with a rigid and timed schedule or does he/she do better with more flexibility with no time constraints?

If your child prefers scheduled activities, then a theme park may be an appropriate vacation if he/she thrives on sequences of ordered events. For children who need more time and flexibility, a mountain retreat or a beach resort may be best because it focuses on activities at a leisurely pace.

2. Allow your child extra time

Extra time is vital for children with autism. Although you may feel tempted to pack in as many activities as you can in your family’s vacation, a child with autism needs extra time. Here is an example of how to allow for more time:

 The two-hour block of time between 10 am to 12 pm is travel time to the hotel and extra time to unwind in a safe and familiar environment like your hotel room. During this time your child can eat lunch, play with toys, and simply relax with no crowds and no timed activities.

Of course, the amount of time all depends on your child’s needs. If you know it will take your child a while to leave the beach, allot your family an extra 30 minutes so you’re not rushing last minute to leave for dinner reservations.

3. Flying or driving

Whether you are flying or driving your family to a destination, there are things you can do to make traveling easier on your child. If you are flying call the airport and ask about pre-boarding. Some airports will allow families with special needs members to pre-board before everyone else. This can immensely reduce sensory issues related to crowds.

If you are driving to a destination there are small additions you can add to the car ride to make your child’s travels less stressful. Consider creating a “car care kit” to help your child feel more comfortable in long car rides. A car care kit is a bag or bin that includes favorite and familiar items to calm your child that stays within reach.

Here are some example items I keep in my son’s car care kit:

  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • A weighted blanket/vest
  • Sensory/fidget toys (any sensory and fidget toys that are small in size)
  • Favorite snacks

All these items provide familiarity to my son and work for calming down sensory issues while away from home.

 4. Go With Your Child’s Interests

What interests your child the most? No matter the destination your family is traveling to, find places and activities your child will enjoy. 

5. Use visual supports

Since vacations are considered out of the norm for your child it may be helpful to prepare before the vacation with the help of visual aids. Some children with autism need visual schedules to help organize their daily routines. To help make transitions easier, create a visual schedule for your child that covers what you will be doing for each day.

Another visual support you can use to help your child prepare for a family vacation is social stories. Social stories are picture books that depict activities, behavior, and more. Visual supports like social stories can teach your child about boundaries, regulating emotions, self-care, and more.

Social stories can be used to depict these vacation scenarios and activities:

  • Airports
  • Water parks
  • Car rides
  • Hotel stays
  • Crowded places
  • Meeting new people

 6. Think Safety First

 Children with autism typically display impulsivity and lack of fear. Due to these symptoms, safety is a great concern with autism, especially when traveling to new and unfamiliar places. A child who becomes overwhelmed in crowded parking lots may suddenly “bolt” or runaway without any fear of danger. Autistic children who are non-verbal cannot answer important questions like his/her name, parent’s names, and phone number in case of an emergency.

This is an extreme anxiety for me when traveling anywhere with my son. He is non-verbal and will try to “bolt” at times. Because of this my son has an emergency medical bracelet that includes phone numbers, his name, and his condition of non-verbal autism. If you are worried about your child’s safety in any way while traveling, consider safety measures like the following:

  • GPS tracker
  • A chest harness
  • Emergency card with essential information
  • A life jacket for all water-based activities
  • An Anti-lost wristband

Plan Ahead for Comfortable Travel

Many parents with an autistic child fall into the trap of at-home isolation. They are afraid to take their child out of the home for an extended time. For some, the thought of vacationing causes overwhelming feelings of worry and panic. I should know, I am one of these parents!

The utmost concern for planning any vacation for a child with autism is safety! Plan ahead for any possible situations of safety concerns with your child and make as many accommodations to make traveling easier for your child.

Works Cited

About the Author

Liz Talton is the contributing author for the Speech Blubs blog, where you can find all about speech and language learning for your child. After her son received an Autism Spectrum Disorder evaluation, she decided to do all she can to help her little one. She is a full-time blogger and a creator of Pitter Patter of Baby Feet, a website dedicated to trying to conceive; fertility, pregnancy; mental health, and anything related to motherhood. Before starting a family, she received a master's degree in forensic psychology and mental health.

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