8 Ways to Survive (and Maybe Even Enjoy) A Family Holiday With a Child With Autism

Work has become tedious. The walls of your home seem to be closing in. You NEED a vacation. But the thought of traveling with your children, especially your child with autism, is less than enticing.

Families need vacations: time to escape the regular chores, schedules and routines of home and family. Holidays mean a chance to break away from routine, a change of pace, new setting, food, people and activities; not exactly autism friendly! Traveling with children is always more challenging, but planning a vacation with a child with autism can seem downright daunting.

There are ways to alleviate some of the stress and create a getaway that is enjoyable for every member of the family. Some simple guidelines and smart planning will make a big difference!

1. Start small

Children with autism do best with small steps. If your child has never had time away from home it is wise to take a “mini vacation” for a few hours, build up to a whole day and soon after that a night away. The more familiar a child is with a new activity the less anxiety they will experience. A few hours spent in an activity close to home that is similar to what you plan to do on vacation, will be worth the time and energy. You may choose to visit a local beach, shop, sight – see in your town or spend some time on a boat. The closer the “mini holiday” matches the real thing, the better.

2. Take time to preview

Our anxiety levels typically increase when we have no clue what to expect about an upcoming event. Many people have a difficult time with the “unknown.” This is particularly true of kids with autism! As adults, we may choose to browse a travel guide, read rating scales and look at photo galleries of places where we plan to visit in order to preview where we are going and what we can expect. Our children who live with autism will benefit from these activities as well. Browse the Internet, peruse travel brochures and maybe even visit a bookstore and/or library to allow your child to read about a specific place that you plan to visit. There are numerous books about traveling on an airplane, visiting grandparents, ocean life or life in big cities. Whatever you decide to do with your family, reading about it is an awesome way to acquaint your children with the idea.

3. Pack a map

Individuals with autism gain a sense of calm from predictability and familiarity. When planning a trip, highlight the route on a map and if you know where you plan to stop, mark those spots on the map. Maps are often appealing to children with autism and they provide a visual tool that the child can hold and manipulate as they travel. For children that can read you may consider providing a list of some of the towns or cities through which you will travel. Children can check them off as they go or just use them as a reference when they want to know, where they are. Maps and trip itineraries are useful tools to reduce anxiety because they provide a tangible reference point and predictability. Route changes can also be made quickly on the map or just written on a piece of paper.

4. Pack a calendar with Velcro

Not knowing how days will be filled and what will happen next is unnerving for individuals who live with autism (and for many non autistic people)! Many of us rely on electronic gadgets or day planners to keep us feeling directed, calm and in control. When planning your family trip, bring along a calendar or a day planner of some sort. Attach a strip of Velcro on each day of the trip and bring along pictures of activities or places.

Photographs, brochure cut outs, or homemade pictures will work. If the child is able to read, then writing on the calendar may be just as useful. By attaching events and activities to specific days we give our children the opportunity to see what is coming and to organize the time in their minds. The Velcro gives us the flexibility of changing plans if necessary. It also demonstrates to our kids that events are not always fixed; plans change. The key is to teach the child to refer to the calendar when they are feeling uneasy. Reward them when they do so. The alternative is to listen to a constant barrage of questions.

5. Plan time fairly

Each person needs to know that their needs will be met. Children with autism need time away from the hustle of holidays. Holidays by nature, tend to be very social, unpredictable and novel. If we want to set up the experience to be enjoyable we need to try to create “downtime” for the child with autism. This may mean allowing that child to participate in a favorite activity for a portion of time; whatever activity the child truly enjoys doing that helps him to unwind. It may mean that the child spins, jumps, twirls a sensory toy or just sits in a chair.

Watching the history channel while the family is down at the beach may be just what the teen with autism needs. The activity is driven by the child and NOT the parent. Using a timer or visual clock helps to set parameters around the activity. Using cell phones or Walkie Talkies allow parents and kids to communicate when they are not in direct contact.

6. Avoid over planning

Choose a few favorite activities rather than trying to cram everything into the day. A trip to Disneyland can be a sensory nightmare for a child with autism. Limiting the amount of activity that is done in a day will go a long way to making the trip more pleasant for the whole family. Do you really have to visit all of the theme parks? Is it necessary to shop in every mall? Must you participate in all of the resort activities? Your child with autism may not be capable of managing the sensory, emotional and social stimulation that more typical children are able to cope with.

7 Plan for unstructured time

Children with autism may not be able to entertain themselves and parents shouldn’t have to be entertainment directors. Some simple tools will make unstructured times like travel time and waiting for flights much more bearable. Start with a written or picture menu of all of the available items to play with. Be sure to show only the choices that ARE available! Fidget toys, digital toys, magnetic travel games, iPods, handheld games, a whiteboard with markers and magnetic puzzles are invaluable when down time is non negotiable. “Wait cards” and “Unavailable cards” are invaluable when we need to let a child know that an activity or item is either delayed or not available. These cards must be part of the child’s daily life before the vacation so that they are tolerable for the child during the holiday.

8. Don’t leave home without the Visuals

Visual supports are an absolute necessity when traveling with children that have autism…even if you are away from home for a day! Pictures, calendars, maps, brochures, photos and short scripts provide individuals with autism a priceless gift of predictability and order. Holidays can be filled with distractions, changes of plans, new events and unknown people. Sensory stimulation, emotions and expectations are on overload and the potential for meltdowns is high. Visual supports can act as an anxiety reducer and a welcome relief. A social script can be quickly written on paper or a whiteboard before the child is expected to participate in an unfamiliar social situation.

For example, the rules of hanging out on the beach could be written as a social script and reviewed each time a child goes to the beach:

People like to play on the beach and some people like to lie down on the beach.

We are careful not to kick sand on people when we walk in the sand.

We can lay our towels next to each other in the family.

We can lay our towels 1 or 2 big steps away from someone that we do not know.

When we lift our towels we are careful not to shake sand on other people.

The beach is fun.

The most important item to make sure you bring along on a vacation is the expectation to enjoy it. Our thoughts control much of what we experience so it is worthwhile to affirm in your own mind that this time away will be fun. Remind yourself to really watch your children as they experience new things; smile, breathe deeply and laugh often. When plans don’t quite work remind yourself that “it is what it is” and your reaction to a situation is really what determines the outcome. Choose to be cheerful and positive and your mood will likely rub off on the rest of your family.

Plopping your children in a car, driving for six hours and telling them to stop whining will not likely result in a great vacation! Planning ahead will play a huge role in creating a holiday that is fun filled. There are little things that we take for granted about traveling that we must be aware of so that we can create a great vacation. You need it. Your family needs it. Go ahead and have fun!