By: Catherine H. Knott, Ph.D.
As summer approaches, parents of children with Asperger’s 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 But when the child himself lashes out or becomes sullen and withdrawn because of the irritated state that travel puts him in, every member of the family suffers.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 Asperger’s can do to keep disruption to a minimum, and ensure a more pleasant trip for everyone. While not foolproof, the following methods will help parents and children make summer travel a pleasure rather than a punishment.
First, include all members of the family in planning the trip together. It is essential that your child with Asperger’s feel he can be part of the planning process. After gathering together any necessary materials such as maps, calendars, paper, and pens, hold a family meeting at a convenient time for everyone so that each member can contribute his or her ideas.
At the meeting, each person can also let everyone know of any special requests, particular needs, or specific concerns about the trip. Equipped with information from everyone, parents can then plan better, and work to accommodate as many of the requests, needs, and concerns as possible. Particularly with a child or teen with Asperger’s, including her at every stage of planning will allow your child to feel a sense of control and use a logical approach to address any fears or uncertainties.
Use paper and pens or computers to take notes on the planning meetings, so that nothing is forgotten. Record any decisions made, and create running lists of the requests, needs, and concerns, both so that parents can honor them and so that trip planners can consider every part of the upcoming trip with these issues in mind. Make sure that each member of the family who is going on the trip has a notebook or pad specifically for trip planning, so that he can note down any ideas that happen to arise in between meetings.
While holding meetings may sound burdensome, even one 10-minute planning meeting over dessert can save a family trip from unpleasantness or disaster. These meetings are especially important for children and teens with Asperger’s, 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 will put all the ideas into practice. The following tips will help with preparation for your child or teen with Asperger’s, from where to go, to the details of food and lodging.
1. 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.
2. To the extent possible, keep the same schedule and meals that your child or teen with Asperger’s is used to at home. Save the French restaurant for later, and remember to bring his favorite cereal, sandwich fixings, and snacks.
3. Bring dishes and silverware from home. Texture and feel are important to kids with Asperger’s – a fork with sharp edges, or an unfamiliar feeling handle may bother them much more than it bothers others.
4. Make sure to plan to stop for meals at the time your child with Asperger’s would normally eat. Bring a plastic tablecloth, and stop at rest stops with picnic tables if you are driving, and eat a real meal, or make a point to find a place to eat at the normal time. The tablecloth will help the child to feel a sense of consistency.
5. Bring his pillow and favorite blanket from home. Unless you are backpacking, there is no reason not to bring these items, which will help your child with Asperger’s 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, or anything else they are used to having at bedtime that is portable and light.
6. 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 Asperger’s relax and enjoy the trip more, which means you will, too.
7. 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 on it. Listening to familiar music is soothing and will have a calming effect on your child.
8. Give each child, not just the one with Asperger’s, a bag or small backpack to pack full of things to do on the trip. These items should be ones they choose themselves.
9. A gift of a journal or sketchbook for each family member is helpful, and can provide a good outlet for frustrations and other emotions, as well as a way to make a permanent record of the trip. The records of the trip that your children make may well become a treasure in years to come.
10. 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 that family trips are really all about play, and taking the art of play seriously. The rules of play usually include:
1. Everyone gets to have fun – and for a child or teen with Asperger’s, that includes understanding what the expectations are.
2. If someone needs a break from the play or activity going on, there is a safe way for them to take a break.
3. If someone is really not enjoying the play or trip, there is 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 Asperger’s, when they succeed, they gain as much or more from the experience as anyone else. And your family is sure to benefit, too.
Le Glatin Keis, Mari. 2007. The Art of Travel with a Sketchbook. Fort Worth, Texas: Design Originals.
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.