Summertime often means fun activities, new experiences, and vacation, which usually also includes travel. I always have mixed feelings about travel. It can be so liberating, educational, and just plain fun, but the process of getting places or finding your way around new places can be stressful and children don’t make it any easier.
Traveling with any child can be difficult. Logistics of keeping everyone together and safe, trying to keep children occupied (who wants to threaten to turn the car around), and doing anything you can to ensure no meltdowns on an airplane can be a lot to take on when you’re supposed to be “relaxing”. Traveling with children with autism may bring some additional factors to take into account. Fortunately, with some solid preparation, many of these concerns can be alleviated, allowing for you and your whole family to enjoy your vacation. I’ve included some tips below for things to think about ahead of travel.
- Packing activities
- Prepare your child
Whether you’re traveling by plane, train, or car, having activities prepped can help make for a much smoother trip. A great way to do this is creating different kits or groups of activities and toys. Grouping different kinds of things together and rotating them through each day can be a great way to keep things fresh.
It’s also great to keep your child’s interests in mind. For instance, if your child is super into maps, picking some up ahead of time for the places you’ll be driving can be a great way to keep your child engaged in something he or she enjoys.
Remember the reinforcers. In addition to just keeping occupied, it will be important to have those items you know your child really likes in order to keep motivation high. This can work in a variety of ways, but you may keep those highly valuable items separate and deliver them to your child every so often following appropriate behavior. If you know you’re going to be picking up souvenirs along the way, you can use these for reinforcement, as well.
Since travel is completely outside of your child’s typical routine, a child with autism, in particular, may struggle with this. Making sure you prepare your child as much as possible and create as much structure as you can, will help your child to feel supported and prevent potential challenging behavior. Some things you can do to help:
- Start talking about it well in advance Because transitions can be so difficult, talking to your child about what to expect can help prepare them.
- Create visual schedule for transitions and routine If talking isn’t enough, or your child just needs some extra support, visual schedules can also be a great way to accomplish this. This way your child will know what to expect in the day or upcoming hours and be more prepared for any transitions. Letting your child be part of the schedule creating process whenever possible can also be a great way to get them on board. You can always provide the options and let your child pick the order. For more guidance on creating visual schedules, take a look at our article Visual Schedules and Autism and download our Free Visual Aids Starter Kit.
Along the same lines as scheduling, it will be important to take your child’s skills and needs into account when planning the days of travel. If your child can barely handle a trip to the grocery store, then cramming in museum after museum is only going to end in disaster. This doesn’t mean you can’t do these things, but I would think about spreading them out, scheduling in breaks, and ensuring reinforcing activities are in there, as well.
When looking at the day ahead, it can be helpful to think about any additional support items your child may need. For instance, if your child has some hypersensitivity to noise and you know you’re going to a loud place that day, you might want to bring headphones along.
Doing your research is also a great way to make sure your child’s needs will be met when planning activities. There are a lot of autism-friendly places and activities out there. Maybe you’ll discover that where you’re going really caters to individuals with autism or you can at least find places that may be accommodating.
Traveling can prompt us all to have to think a little harder about safety and emergencies. You may want to think about carrying emergency information or having a letter of your child’s diagnosis on hand in the event of an emergency. It’s obviously not pleasant to think about, but you may not be available to explain to people in the moment and having a letter or something identifying your child’s diagnosis may help prevent misunderstanding and help keep your child safe. Some other possibilities include ID bracelets or necklaces with identifying info. This way, if your child gets lost or separated from you, your contact info will be there.
It’s also a good idea to practice what safety personnel look like, what signs or symbols your child can recognize to identify a safe place, and any social information your child can give to others to help in the event that he or she gets lost.
Wherever your summer travels may take you, preparation will be key. Taking some extra time to think about the what your child will need and using the above tips to plan, will help to set your child up for success and help ensure that your vacation really feels like a vacation.