By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
As summer approaches, parents of children with autism may dread the upcoming vacations that other parents anticipate with pleasure. Disrupting your child or teen’s schedule to drag them away to relatives who may not appreciate them, or to places they would rather not be, is difficult enough. But when the child himself lashes out or becomes sullen and withdrawn because of the irritated state that travel puts him in, every member of the family suffers.
There are things a parent of a child or teen with autism can do to keep disruption to a minimum and ensure a more pleasant trip for everyone. While not foolproof, the following tips and methods will help parents and children make summer travel a pleasure rather than a punishment.
First, include all members of the family in trip planning. It is essential that your child with autism feels he can be part of the planning process. After gathering any necessary materials such as maps, calendars, and brochures, hold a family meeting so everyone can contribute ideas.
At the meeting, each person can also let everyone know special requests, particular needs, or specific concerns about the trip. Equipped with information from everyone, parents can plan better and find ways to accommodate as many of the requests, needs, and concerns as possible. Particularly with a child or teen with autism, including her at every stage of planning will allow a sense of control. Be sure to use a logical approach to address any fears or uncertainties.
Take notes on the planning meetings, so that nothing is forgotten. Record decisions and create running lists of the requests, needs, and concerns, so parents can honor them and consider every part of the upcoming trip with these issues in mind. Make sure that each member of the family has a notebook or pad specifically for trip planning so they can note any ideas that arise in between meetings.
While holding meetings may sound burdensome, even one 10-minute planning session over dessert can save a family trip from unpleasantness or disaster. These meetings are especially important for children and teens with autism, since they may feel unable to contribute ideas in more spontaneous conversation. Letting them have their say when everyone else is listening can help them to feel included and respected.
Preparation is the next stage, when you put all the ideas into practice. The following tips will help with preparation for your child or teen with autism:
- Keep it simple. Don’t plan to go to the relatives and Disneyworld in the same weekend. Add in extra adjustment time for each change of location.
- When possible, keep the same schedule and meals that your child or teen with autism is used to at home. Save the exotic restaurants for later. Remember to bring his favorite cereal, sandwich fixings, and snacks.
- Bring dishes and silverware from home. Texture and feel are important to kids with autism– a fork with sharp edges or an unfamiliar feeling handle may bother them much more than it bothers others.
- Make sure to plan to stop for meals at the time your child with autism would normally eat. Bring a plastic tablecloth, stop at rest stops with picnic tables if you are driving, and eat a real meal. The tablecloth will help the child to feel a sense of consistency.
- Bring his pillow and favorite blanket from home. Unless you are backpacking, there is no reason not to bring these items. They help your child with autism adjust to changes in sleeping arrangements. Younger children may insist on favorite toys as well. Older children should be allowed to bring books or other reading material they are used to having at bedtime that is portable and light.
- Explain everything you possibly can in advance, with details. Think of yourself as the AAA agent for your child’s trip. AAA takes care of the details, but also provides maps, books full of information, and details down to the last square inch. Being prepared fully helps your child with autism relax and enjoy the trip more means you will, too.
- In the car, airplane, boat, or even when visiting, allow your child or teen to bring an iPod or MP3 player with her favorite music. Listening to familiar music is soothing and will have a calming effect.
- Give each child, not just the one with autism, a bag or small backpack full of things to do on the trip. Let them choose the items.
- A gift of a journal or sketchbook for each family member is helpful and can provide a good outlet for frustrations and other emotions. This also allows them to make a permanent record of the trip. The records your children make may well become a treasure in years to come.
- Finally, bring whatever instruments, song books, stories, or games you have traditionally used to help your family unwind and enjoy each other’s company in the past. A trip is not only about what is new, it is also about re-affirming the family traditions that hold you together in loving relationships.
When you are ready to travel, remember family trips are really all about play. Take the art of play seriously. The rules of play usually include:
- Everyone gets to have fun – and for a child or teen with autism, that includes understanding expectations.
- If someone needs a break from the play or activity going on, provide a safe way for them to take a break.
- If someone is really not enjoying the play or trip, find a way to maintain enough flexibility to change at least part of the plan to meet their needs.
Play in its best form is creative engagement with one’s environment, including the other people in one’s environment, in ways that fill the mind with pleasurable learning experiences. While playing with others can be a struggle for many children and teens with autism, when they succeed, they gain as much or more from the experience as anyone else. And your family is sure to benefit, too.
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Harriman, Cynthia. 2008. Take Your Kids to Europe. 8th Edition. Guilford, Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press.
Hughes, Holly. 2006. Frommer’s 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up. Hoboken, New Jersey: Wiley Publishing, Inc.
Jeffrey, Nan. 1996. Adventuring with Children: An Inspirational Guide to World Travel and the Outdoors. Ashland, Massachusetts: Avalon House Publishing.
Lansky, Vicki. 2004. Trouble-Free Travel with Children: Over 700 Helpful Hints for Parents on the Go. 3rd Edition. Minnetonka, Minnesota: Book Peddlers.