Vacations should be fun and relaxing for your entire family, but they’re often minefields for children with autism. This article will show you how to plan ahead and prepare to handle unexpected obstacles when traveling with your child with ASD.
When vacationing with your child who has autism, the most important part of the trip is preparing them ahead of time. When your child knows what to expect, they have a stronger sense of control.
This rehearsal of what’s to come will lessen their anxiety about changes in routine and new environments. Here are some ways to familiarize them with their vacation destination and modes of transportation:
- Show YouTube videos or pictures of where you’re going.
- Describe in detail what will happen during the journey, like plane rides, to help them know what to expect.
- Introduce any new people they may meet along the way by showing them pictures.
- Practice packing and unpacking their suitcase to help them feel more comfortable with the process.
These tips can help your child better understand what they will experience while on vacation, making it much easier for them to get used to the different environments they will encounter.
Get Them Used to Different Environments
An important step to prepare your child for their holiday is getting them used to different environments. If they are not accustomed to being out in public or trying new things, it can be overwhelming when they get on vacation and have all these new experiences thrust upon them at once.
To help ease this transition, introduce them to different places and activities beforehand, such as:
- Shopping malls
Give your child time to adjust and be mindful of their reactions. If they seem overwhelmed in a certain activity, take a break, move on to something else, and always have an emergency bag, just in case.
Bring an Emergency Bag and Medical Information
Bringing an emergency bag with all the necessary medical documents and information is a great way to prepare for anything that could happen when you’re away from home. This would include cards explaining your child’s diagnosis to hand out to people unfamiliar with autism.
If your child is prone to elopement, having a safety plan in place is a great idea. If your child wanders off, every second counts, and having a plan you can give to members of your search party, including first responders, is crucial to saving time and getting them looking immediately.
Some things to include in your safety kit would be:
- Personal information. Your child’s full name, date of birth, address, and any other pertinent details.
- Description. A detailed description of your child so that people know what to look for. This should include height, weight, hair color/style, the clothing they wore when last seen, and any identifying marks or tattoos.
- Diagnosis. Include a brief explainer of their diagnosis if it is relevant to their behavior.
- Name they respond to. If your child responds to a nickname or shortened version of their name more than their full name, then include this as well; this could be the difference between your child being found quickly or not.
- Likes/dislikes. List any likes and dislikes that may help predict where they might go, such as a favorite store, hobby, or area they like visiting.
- Verbal ability. Is your child verbal? If so, include some phrases you’ve heard them use before so searchers know what words to listen for if your child is interacting with anyone else.
- Comfort items. Include any comfort items that could help calm down your child if he/she does elope; this could be anything from a stuffed animal to a favorite toy.
- Tracking ID. If you have a GPS-tracking device that your child wears, include the tracking number and any other pertinent information so searchers can easily access it if need be.
The more detailed your safety plan is, the better off everyone will be in an emergency situation. Take some time to create one before you go on vacation, and make sure everyone who’s traveling with you has seen it as well – that way, there won’t be any confusion about what to do if your child elopes while on vacation.
Aside from your elopement safety plan, a letter from your child’s doctor is always a good idea to have on hand. Depending on your specific needs, you may want to consider getting a medical ID bracelet or tag for them.
That way, if any unexpected medical issues arise during vacation, you can easily access the required help and have all the important documentation ready immediately.
Keep in mind that you can and should call ahead to guest services so you can get special support and accommodations during each stage of your journey and when you actually reach your destination.
Next, let’s chat about activity kits.
Prepare Activity Kits
Prepare for your vacation by packing a special activity kit tailored to your child’s abilities and interests. Here are some items you should consider adding:
- Include comfort items such as books and stuffed animals for familiarity, calmness, or comfort
- Bring CDs of favorite songs or audio stories for long wait times
- Pack puzzles and board games that offer hours of entertainment
- Put stress balls in the activity kit to reduce anxiety
- Have iPads and other electronic devices with interactive activities on hand
- Don’t forget headphones so your child can listen to music without distractions
- Offer a new toy at set intervals throughout the trip for extra fun
- Bring a journal or art supplies such as colored pencils or markers for self-expression during downtime
By having a travel activity kit packed and ready to go you’ll have a great grab-and-go strategy to keep your journey stress-free as you sightsee.
Consider Your Child’s Needs, Likes, and Dislikes When SightSeeing
When planning a vacation with your child who has autism, it’s important to consider what they enjoy and what they don’t enjoy. For example, one of your children may find an art museum fascinating, while another might feel overwhelmed by the quiet atmosphere. Similarly, some children may thrive in a new urban environment filled with sensory stimulation; others may not be able to handle all of the activities around them.
The key is finding activities that meet your child’s needs and those of other family members. Strike a balance between activities that you know will please and not trigger your autistic child and experiences that everyone can have fun doing together.
Lessen Stressors and Avoid Triggers
To make your trip successful, try to reduce stressors and avoid triggers that may increase agitation or anxiety in your child. To do this, you can:
- Plan ahead by researching activities, attractions, restaurants, etc., to avoid sensory overload when exploring new places.
- Create an itinerary for each day but leave enough flexibility for spontaneity; this can help reduce anxiety and structure the day.
- Have a plan for handling challenging behavior if it happens; this is important for your safety and maintaining peace of mind during the trip.
The good news is you are already familiar with your child’s triggers which gives you a chance to find creative ways to deal with them.
Slow Down and Get Creative
It’s important to slow your roll and pick your battles when on holiday with your kiddo who’s on the spectrum. Take frequent breaks throughout your day, plan ahead as much as possible to know what kind of activities are available in the area, and be prepared to deal with unexpected changes in plans with games or distractions.
Once you’ve found what works, the hard part is replicating it for the next time, which is when you’ll need to do a little homework.
Take Notes on What Worked and What Didn’t
With so much going on during your holiday, it can be easy to forget small details. Take notes at the end of each day, or even while you’re on vacation, to remember what worked and what didn’t.
This can help you plan for future trips. If something was difficult during one outing but much easier during another, note that so you have it for reference later. Having this information written down, along with pictures of the trip, can be extremely helpful in making sure your next trip with your child is as successful as possible.
Use Photographs to Help Your Child Reflect on the Trip
A picture is worth a thousand words, particularly when it comes to helping your child with autism. Taking photos of the places you visit, events you attend, and activities you do can help them understand and remember the trip for years to come. Photos also provide calming visual reminders that they can look back on when needed.
Proof that your child successfully navigated a new, challenging environment will instill confidence in them for next time. You can also print out some pictures from the trip or create a photo album so your child can easily access these memories whenever needed.
Of course, when it comes to memory, scent plays a major role, which leads to our next point.
Do Not Wash Any Comfort Items Before the Trip
If you want to start your trip off right, ensure you don’t wash any of your child’s comfort items before bringing them. The new smells of washing detergents and fabric softeners could make them uncomfortable in an unfamiliar place, disrupting their entire vacation experience.
Pack these items away separately from your other luggage to ensure they remain clean and in their best condition while traveling. Now, consider what you’ll feed your child when traveling.
Pre-Pack Meals and Snacks
Children on the spectrum are notoriously picky eaters, which means the last thing you want to do is be stuck somewhere that offers none of the foods they’ll actually eat. Before you set out on your trip, take some time to pre-pack some of their favorite meals and snacks.
This will not only provide a sense of comfort for them, but it’ll also save you the trouble of hunting down something they actually like while you’re away. Pack things that are easy to eat in small portions, such as crackers, lunch meat, granola bars, and other items that don’t require too much preparation or utensils.
A good practice is to bring along some non-perishable items, which is always a good idea just in case of any unexpected delays or disruptions during your travels.
Now Take That Vacation
Overall, going on vacation with a child who has autism can seem daunting, but it is possible to have a successful and fun trip. With the right preparation and planning, you can create an enjoyable experience for your family and child.
Remember that each situation will be different, so take the time to learn what works best for you and your little one. If you want more tips on how to make the most of your next vacation, plenty of resources are available to help you out, so get out there and vacay away!
If you are ready to work with the best ABA therapy provider in New York, New Jersey or Indiana, give us a call at (732) 402-0297. Our dedicated team is ready to help and we will treat you like family.
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