School is out and summer has arrived! As the parent of a child with autism, you know that planning ahead is NOT optional when it comes to almost anything, but especially traveling. Knowing what to expect and limiting surprises while on a trip or vacation can help your family relax into and even enjoy the experience. Whatever happens to be on your summer schedule this year, we want to help you make it just a bit easier for your family and your neurodiverse child.
Our owner and CEO, Jennifer Helten, has some advice when it comes to traveling with a child who has been diagnosed with Autism.
Here are JENNY’S TOP TIPS to help make that upcoming event a success.
Tip #1 - DESENSITIZE
START DESENSITIZING AHEAD OF TIME
Whatever the main event is going to be, try to find little ways of introducing them to the stimuli they will be in contact with.
For example, if you’re going to a beach or someplace similar, introduce them to sand or stones or anything else that might be a sensory issue for them during your visit. Having a dish-bin of sand for them to put their feet in (you can purchase sand from a hardware store or plant nursery), is a good way to get them used to the feel of sand. Wet it down and let them build a sand castle. Let them know they might get sand in uncomfortable places, but the water will help clean it up.
Trips to the pool to assist them in getting wet, or allowing you to practice applying sunscreen are great opportunities to talk about what your family will all be doing together (remember, it is a family affair).
Tip #2 - FAMILIARIZE
GET FAMILIAR WITH YOUR DEPARTURE LOCATION
If you are flying, be sure to take visits to the airport in the car explaining that you will be visiting there when you leave for your trip. Point out the airline you will be flying with and find all the airplanes that look like that one (Logo and colors).
Find images (to add to a photo album or on a tablet) of the inside of an airplane cabin and what the seats look like, what you do with the tray in front of you, etc. What do the flight attendants look like (show pictures of them in uniforms) and what they will do while you are on the plane. The same steps can be taken for a trip on a train, RV, or whatever fun way your family intends to travel. Customize this tip to however you intend to move from point A to point B!
Call Ahead - TSA, Airline, Hotel, Attractions you are visiting
Some airlines have special programs they offer for traveling with a special needs child. Explain that you are traveling with your child who has Autism (or special needs) and request any accommodations you might require while traveling.
Arrange a walk through at a local hotel similar to the one you’ll be staying at. Families have even spent the night at local hotels to provide an opportunity to practice sleeping outside of the familiarity of their home and bed.
Tip #3 - MAKE IT A GAME
TALK ABOUT YOUR UPCOMING JOURNEY DAILY
Use of a countdown calendar and pictures of your destination on tablet or in a book are a great way to keep the conversation going. Your child can participate in the countdown by marking off the days until you leave. If you’re feeling crafty, you could cut out small pictures for your child to use as their daily marker on the countdown calendar. Talk about the places in the pictures, the restaurants, attractions, even the hotel/vacation rental you will be staying at. Write out the trip on a calendar, and even a loose daily agenda, but do not be too specific (ie: lunch instead of lunch at McDonald’s; or a movie without naming the movie).
Tip #4 - INCLUDE THEM IN THE PLANNING
MAKE YOUR CHILD PART OF THE PLANNING & PACKING PROCESS
Allow your child to assist you in packing. A great tip is to provide options for them in terms of their clothes, favorite toy, book, video, etc. Make this a special occasion.
Going to visit grandparents? Have pictures of your child with their grandparents and talk to them about who they are going to see. Video calling is a great way to re-familiarize your child with extended family they may not get to see very much. You can also have them help get an activity bag ready for the trip. Include books, fidgets, noise-canceling headphones, tablet, etc. Keeping them occupied and comfortable can help make the flight or ride easier for you and your little one (and your fellow passengers).
Have a MEDICAL ID bracelet/anklet
If you don’t already have one, you might look into a medical bracelet/anklet for your child to have on their person somewhere they won’t be able to remove it. If you get separated from your child during your travels, it is best practice to have a medical identifier on your child so that the person who is with them knows they have ASD and should handle them accordingly.
Tip #5 - DON’T FORGET.....YA' GOTTA GO HOME!
PREPARE THEM FOR THE TRIP BACK HOME
Implement any of the steps you took before the trip into the journey home. So much time is spent preparing for the journey, that oftentimes, coming back home is overlooked. Remember the daily planner? A countdown home, when it will occur, and how you will arrive are important to implement as part of the vacation process.
Small Consistency is Key. Perfection is not the goal.
Let’s be honest, we all try to attempt to remain on schedule when we travel. While this is important, it does not guarantee a smooth sailing trip. Keep the small things consistent. An example is perhaps a morning or bedtime routine. Little consistencies provide predictability for everyone.
You have permission to screw up. It’s going to happen…to everyone. Take it easy on yourself, the child, and the staff who are serving you on your trip. None of you are pro’s at this and learning takes screwing up. Take note of what went sideways and why, adjust the plan, and implement the adjustments on the next try. Own, adjust, and onward! Most importantly, laugh, smile, and be flexible! Do not expect things to go perfect, because honestly, what is perfection? Breathe. You’re doing great!
The idea is being together!
If you have any questions or additions to this list, please leave a comment.