For many people, an out-of-town trip can be refreshing and invigorating. Experiencing a new place together as a family offers the chance to make lasting memories outside your normal routine. But for individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), traveling brings a host of unique challenges. New sights and sounds paired with the disruption of their usual daily routine can make it difficult to navigate the unpredictable nature of a trip.
Benefits of Travel While traveling with a child with autism may seem like a challenge, there are several benefits that a trip may bring to all members of the family. For the family member with autism, experiencing a new environment can gently push their comfort zone and build confidence. Traveling is also an effective way to build social skills and interact in new situations, like going to a restaurant, using public transportation or waiting in line.
A new environment may also help with sensory desensitization. Rather than completely avoiding loud or crowded areas, travel offers the opportunity to learn new coping mechanisms to minimize anxiety as much as possible. Traveling with a person who has ASD requires some preparation from everyone. “Graded exposure” practices, like practicing new experiences in advance, can be helpful. Additionally, you may opt for a shorter trip if it’s your first time traveling with your child with ASD.
The shared experiences of a family vacation offer a unique bonding opportunity. Additionally, parents need their own time to relax and take a break from the challenges of everyday life.
10 Common Obstacles and Solutions
Problem: Leaving home and a familiar environment
Solution: Create a countdown calendar, so your child is not surprised when it is time to depart. Discuss the plans for your trip with your child in detail, so they know what to expect. Share pictures and other information with them about where you are going, where you are staying and how you are getting there.
Problem: Change in routine
Solution: Identify parts of your child’s regular routine that you can continue, like eating the same breakfast foods or staying on the same nighttime schedule. Discuss some new parts of the routine that might be introduced while traveling so your child is prepared and can participate in planning the new routine.
Solution: Avoid an overpacked vacation schedule. Include time for breaks, especially if you are in an area with high sensory stimulation. Don’t try to introduce too many new things in one day to a child with ASD, as it may overwhelm them. Give them a chance to appreciate one or two activities per day without feeling like they are bombarded with new things. Try to avoid activities or places that are very crowded or loud if possible.
Problem: Unexpected plan changes
Solution: Sticking to the plan is important when managing your child’s expectations. Make reservations in advance to help prepare those expectations as much as possible. Try to avoid too many activities that depend on things like the weather. Again, avoid packing your schedule with too many activities, so there is less chance that something won’t work out.
Solution: Make backup plans for your scheduled activities and discuss those with your child in advance. Use language like “might” or “hope to” so that there has been some preparation if bad weather causes a change.
Problem: Keeping track of your child
Solution: Consider placing an ID tag on your child’s bag or shoelace. In case you get separated, they will have your contact information on them. Discuss in advance what to do if you get separated, so your child knows what to do to get back to you.
Problem: Emergency situations
Solution: In case you encounter an emergency while on your trip, bring a physician’s letter and any other medical documents that may help a new care provider understand your child’s needs. Research the areas you will be traveling to and see what care facilities are nearby if something should happen.
Problem: Behavior perceptions
Solution: Be open and honest about your child’s needs when traveling, which can make employees and other travelers much more accommodating.
Problem: Noisy lodging or restaurants
Solution: Rent a vacation house instead of a hotel room to help control noise and cook your own food. If you are at a hotel, call the hotel in advance to explain your child’s needs and ask for a room at the end of the hall and away from elevators.
Problem: Considering a future trip
Solution: Help your family prepare for future vacations by logging what went well and what could be changed to work better next time. Ask your child what they enjoyed about past trips and what presented challenges for them.
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