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Tips For Vacationing With A Child On The Spectrum

Published on 11/16/2023
tips for vacationing with a child on the spectrum

Everybody deserves a vacation, but “vacations” may seem like the opposite of relaxing or enjoyable when you have a child on the spectrum, and you aren’t prepared. Unfortunately, we hear every day from parents and caregivers of a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who haven’t had a vacation in years. We’re here to change that.

There is no reason you and your family have to sacrifice happiness, relaxation, peace, or fun because someone in the family has ASD. The goal is to find ways to enjoy your vacation while also setting the stage for behavior and experience success - and minimize the risk of meltdown.

Yes, You CAN Enjoy Vacations With A Child On The Spectrum

Applied behavior analysis allows us to get personalized insight into a child and their family system and then provide tips to help them move smoothly and successfully through daily activities. However, we also provide support to help families enjoy things that migrate outside the normal daily routine - such as how to enjoy the holidays or prepare for an upcoming vacation.

5 Essential Vacation Tips For Your ASD Child

As we move from winter into spring, we know the summer vacation season is just ahead. These tips can help your family prepare for a vacation that supports the needs of a child on the spectrum while also honoring the vacation desires of siblings and other family members. 

Ready to take the “It’s not faaaaair….” mantra out of the family dialogue this vacation season? 

Plan a vacation without your child with ASD once in a while

Depending on your child’s sensitivities, triggers, and behaviors, it may be impossible to take some of the vacations the rest of the family longs for. This is the vacation equivalent of some people going to the movies and others staying home or doing something else because the movie isn’t right or appropriate for them. The good news is it’s okay if there are some things you do without your child. 

If there is something your family wants to do that is a no-go for your child with ASD, consider syncing the family vacation with a concurrent activity geared toward the child with autism. This includes things like summer camps for kids with ASD or a long weekend with a grandparent or other family member who can replicate daily routines and has a good rapport with your child. Rather than missing out, the child with ASD frequently feels they’re in heaven since all activities, routines, and foods are specifically designed to accommodate them - - without family interference.

Every once in a while, this may be the solution to everyone’s wants and needs.

Sign up for the autism adventure guide is powered by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES), the industry leader in training and certification in autism and other cognitive disorders. Their home page states:

Taking a vacation together as a family can be challenging. We created Autism Travel to provide families and individuals with easy access to destinations and attractions that are trained and certified in autism and special needs care. 

Their website is a treasure trove of information, but we highly recommend downloading their Autism Adventure Guide. It’s an incredible resource that gets better every year. In addition to providing information on destinations and attractions specifically prepared to accommodate individuals with autism and other special needs care, the guide offers a wealth of travel tips. The best part is that the places you can feel comfortable going to are virtually limitless and will make everyone happy.

Their ever-growing list includes thousands of worldwide certified autism center options, including resorts, a variety of accommodations, and popular vacation destinations. Examples include, Six Flags Over Texas, The Space Center in Houston, TX, Legoland California Resort, The National Cowboy Western Heritage Museum in OK, Lake Havasu, AZ, Discovery Cove Water Park & Sesame Street in Florida, resorts in Jamaica and the Caribbean…and the list goes on.

The Autism Travel Guide should be the first stop for family planning, and you may find that other members of the autism community are vacationing in the same spots as you are - which makes things even easier. 

Once you've decided on your destination, it's time to put the rest of the tips into action.

Get the family's input and go from there

Many children with autism spectrum disorder have a "my way or the highway" approach to life. When it comes to certain triggers and soothing tools, we surrender. That said, to make friends or participate in groups, we must all learn how to collaborate and cooperate - and ASD isn’t an exception to this universal principle. While every choice may not be possible, many options will be, and that's where to place the focus. 

Having a family meeting to discuss everyone's interests and then compromising to ensure everyone gets one or two of their priorities met is fantastic modeling. If your child is nonverbal or does better with visuals, it's time to get out the PECS cards and start laying out all of the potential options:

  • Beaches
  • Being out in the sun
  • Swimming
  • Sand
  • Waves
  • Exploring without a plan
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Spending time in nature or the outdoors
  • Museums or other places/icons of history
  • Theme parks
  • Pools
  • Reading
  • Staying in hotels
  • Eating in restaurants (and trying new foods)
  • Learning more about a location's culture
  • Photography
  • Botanical gardens
  • Watching or learning about wildlife
  • Quiet time each day
  • Tours of a particular region or location
  • And so on

Then the family can mix and match, ensuring everyone has at least something of theirs on the final list. Finally, explain that everyone can't have everything they want, and the remaining events or experiences will move to a list for future vacations or weekend experiences. Eventually, all the boxes will be ticked over a lifetime of vacations and adventures together.

Plan and prepare months ahead of time

The more you prepare your child for the trip, the better children on the spectrum weather the changes. 

Preparing a child with autism for a vacation may look like:

  • Watching YouTube videos about the places you’re staying or the attractions you’re visiting.
  • Creating visual charts or schedules to replace the ones you use at home (if your child is able, you can make this schedule together so they're involved).
  • Making a schedule for each day and put them in a binder, so they have access to what's current and ahead of them.
  • Working with your behavioral specialist, aides, or school-based support specialists to help you scaffold vacation planning and preparation.
  • Talking about the various modes of transportation you'll use and what that means in terms of what people can and can't do, such as long lines, airports and flights, train rides versus car rides, rideshares with other people or guests, and so on. 
  • Explaining how ages, heights, and weights may affect what they can and can't do when it comes to rides or attractions at amusement parks.
  • Practicing or trying “vacation boot camp” segments where you eat in restaurants more often or simulate and role-play various scenarios that might come up so you have a Plan B. 

Of course, it's impossible to predict every potential challenge, trigger, or red light, but preparation also includes escape plans and coping mechanisms. As the trip gets closer, questions are bound to come up. You and your child’s emotions may waver between excitement and fear, anxiety, and back to excitement again. This is normal and may lead to new visuals or chart planning.

Create a vacation survival kit for your child on the spectrum

Balancing quiet time and downtime in a hotel room or tent or finding a way to create a sensory-free zone on the road is essential. Your "packing list" may be longer and more varied than the average parent’s, but it will be worth it when you have most of what your child might need.

Things to include in an ASD vacation survival kid are:

  • Sound canceling headphones
  • PECS binders/cards
  • Fidget toys
  • Fully-charged gadgets and extra chargers
  • Favorite snacks
  • Medications, supplements, and sleep aids (and copies of medication prescriptions/contacts)
  • Contacts for doctors, therapists, and other helpful resources on the road
  • Vacation-friendly soothing tools for overload moments
  • A notebook for tracking "new things," "new experiences," "people I met," "photos I took," "new places I went to," "programs I participated in," "challenges I navigated," etc. If you use a sticker or other type of reward system, continue that on your vacation. Positive reinforcement is a strong motivator and encourages children with ASD to stretch outside of their comfort zone.
  • Loose-fitting sleep mask 
  • Dark sunglasses
  • Favorite books and travel-sized versions of games
  • Blankets or comfort toys that smell like home

It may require that siblings attend certain attractions with one parent while the other remains back at the hotel, accommodation, or a meet-up spot. Knowing this ahead of time makes it easier when it happens.

Cultivating ASD Awareness Before You Go

We recommend connecting with airlines, hotels, or tour guides/groups before you go. We've found this to be incredibly helpful because they want their guests to be as content as possible. 

Giving these entities a heads-up helps them select rooms that are quieter, off the beaten path, or free of balconies/patios (if you have a nighttime wanderer). This gives them a chance to inform staff ahead of time so they can be prepared, too. They may also procure specific food or snack items to have available during your stay.

You can also check ahead with theme parks or other “exciting” attraction destinations to explain your situation and learn whether or not they have quiet rooms or the best places for a sensory break. You may find far more resources available than you would have thought.

Need More Support Planning a Vacation With a Child with ASD?

The Autism Response Team would love to help your family develop their next vacation plan. Schedule a consultation to learn more about our services. Once we get to know you and learn more about your child and the vacation goals, we’ll help you create a customized behavioral plan to support a fun, relaxing, and much-deserved family vacation.

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