Travelling is fun but the journey can sometimes be a little stressful. Especially for kids with autism, all the new impressions may be very overwhelming. Breaking out of their routine can be an enormous stress factor for children with autism. This is why you want to prepare extra well for your next family trip going on holiday with your autistic children.
In honour of the 13th annual World Autism Awareness Day (2 April 2020), we spoke with a few people affected by autism (people with autism as well as parents of autistic children) to share their issues and resolving tips when travelling. Autism is an enduring developmental disorder that alters how a person communicates with and reflects on other people. The condition often includes challenges with social interaction, communication and imagination and sensory processing.
To make sure you and your family can get the most out of your holiday, it is useful to know what to expect.
Before Your Trip
1. Consider the type of destination you would like to visit
Close to nature destinations such as the ocean, forests, and mountain destinations are especially nice holidays with autistic kids. They are away from the crowds and yet offer lots of interesting places to discover. Nature gives them space and a quiet place to calm down if they are overwhelmed. Another benefit of a natural holiday destination is the fact that there are lots of animals you can discover and observe there together. You might want to consider an active holiday such as walking or cycling. This is an excellent combination of activities and relaxing nature for the whole family. Finally, walking is like a superpower because it is believed to be directly connected to a person’s happiness.
2. Prepare your kid for the holiday
Go through the itinerary with your child, explain where you are going and what you are doing. Talk through different situations and provide photos or videos of planes taking off, going through airport security or the hotels you might be staying at. Remember to include how long the holiday will last and when the family will return home.
3. Research airports, hotels, and other sightseeing locations
If you book with a tour operator, inform the operator about the special needs of your child and ask for assistance. You can also contact airlines, airports or hotels directly as most of them have become very good at accommodating special assistance. You might be able to get priority boarding or access to a quieter waiting area. Some hotels also offer small kitchenettes so you can prepare your child’s food the same way you do at home to keep up with their routine.
During Your Trip
4. Arrange an activity bag
Pack your kid’s favourite books, music or video games and remember to bring headphones in case they are getting sensory sensitive to new impressions. This way, waiting times will be much easier and your child will be able to block out unfamiliar environments.
5. Consider your child’s needs, likes and dislikes
Think of your child’s interests but try to include them into activities that the whole family enjoys. Parks, petting zoos, playgrounds with lots of activities to choose from are excellent activities for the whole family. With active things to do, keep in mind to explain to your child what is happening and what they need to do. For example, being on a water slide means that your kid should swim away and make room for the kids sliding down after.
It is also advisable to always arrange a meeting point; in case you have lost each other and to make sure your child knows where it is. Actively show the meeting point to your child.
Sometimes exploring and just observing nature is already very interesting for an autistic child and gives them lots of space to soak in all the new impressions as well.
In terms of food likes and dislikes, you know what your child eats. So, find out if the hotel provides buffet with foods your kid likes, try to avoid peak times to avoid crowds but also try to balance it with the usual time your child eats to keep a normal routine.
6. Slow down and give space when needed
New places, new people and a change of daily routine can certainly be overwhelming for children with autism and it can take them longer to absorb all the new things. Often, autistic children cannot process all of the situations because of the amount of new, foreign impressions. Thus, they might get upset and shut down or have a meltdown. In these times, you know your child best and often it helps to slow down what you were doing and just give your child some space to rest and calm down.
If your child is looking for support, offer to talk through the situation, distract them with a familiar activity, or do breathing exercises.
After Your Trip
7. Reflect (with your child)
When you are back home, take some time and reflect on your holiday. What were things that went well, what did not? Give your child some time to adjust being back home and speak to your kid about their experiences. Ask how they felt the holiday went. It will give you lots of great insights in order to prepare for your next holiday.
Also, if you were especially happy with certain suppliers, make a note! It will be very beneficial if you can go back to places your child feels a little more familiar with next time. You can also share this with other parents who may be in a similar position.
Finally, we need to emphasize that every child with or without autism is different and you as the parents know your child best. Even with autism, there are different forms and levels of severity which makes generalising impossible. However, these tips may be a good guideline if you plan on going on your first big vacation or travel to a new destination. In the end, try not to overthink it and enjoy your family holiday. Give your child some space and don’t be too afraid and clingy. It’s a special time to bond, get out and have fun.
If you have any questions on how to prepare for your next trip or if your needs can be met, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Would you like to learn more about Autism? Have a look at the Irish Society of Autism.