28 tips for autism friendly travel
It IS possible to travel as an autism family.
My own family is living proof of that.
We have three kids, two of whom are on the autism spectrum and for years we let our fear of “what ifs?” overrule our desire to travel and explore the world. We longed to travel but we simply could not imagine taking the leap, spending all that money and investing in a holiday that might result in disaster.
However, as the kids grew a little older and our understanding of them and their conditions grew, we started to revisit the idea of travel. We took small steps at first, journeying close to home before venturing a little further afield as we found our feet.
Eventually we took the biggest leap of all – we took ourselves and our three kids on a plane and travelled overseas. And we have lived to tell the tale!
My husband and I have now conquered our own anxiety and fear (as well as our kids’) to successfully holiday overseas twice. So far we’ve taken the kids to New Zealand and to the United States. Our next adventure could be anywhere. The destination doesn’t really matter.
What matters is that we KNOW we can do it. And we WILL do it again.
Yes, we have cruised the Caribbean!
Along the way we found little ways to help our kids and help our family better cope with the challenges of family travel. We discovered the power of the 4 Ps – PLAN, PREPARE, PACK and PERSEVERE. These principles form the basis of all our travel planning now and have been the reason that each holiday has been increasingly more enjoyable.
If you would love to travel too, but you are held back by autism or another blocker, here are 28 tips that WILL help. Hopefully these tips can help your family take the leap too!
This one is obvious but it goes deeper than just planning on where you will go or when you will go. From the start you need to plan your trip with your whole family in mind, particularly your kids with autism. All your thinking about where you will stay, how long you will go and how you will get there will need to be in line with your kids’ needs.
It sounds daunting (and at first can seem that way too!) but here are some practical tips for successfully planning autism friendly travel.
- Flexibility needs to be your guiding light. While you need to stick to an overall itinerary, ensure that you have some contingencies in place for each day to respond to any challenges such as unexpected venue closures or inclement weather. Having contingencies means that if one plan fails, you can move immediately to another and minimise unnecessary upset.
- Involve your kids in discussions about the holiday from the start. Our son didn’t want to know about the trip at first, but he liked being asked his opinion on the travel options we were considering and ended up helping us finalise our plans.
- List activities that you already enjoy as a family, together with a list of activities or experiences you would like to try. This list will form the basis of your planning and will help identify the type of trip that will best suit you and your family.
- Try to incorporate special interests, if you can, into your planning to get your kids more comfortable with the idea of travel.
- Consider travelling in the cooler, less crowded months so you have less people to deal with and you can get more bang for your buck.
- Add a little bit of extra time on either side of the trip so your kids can have some down time at home too. This has helped us combat the stress of being out of routine and being away from home and has led to a much happier holiday.
- If you are hesitant about taking the leap, consider taking along extended family so you are supported throughout your stay. Another strategy is to invite close friends along and have a combined holiday together.
Some of our planning documentation…
Once your plan is in place, it’s time to prepare for how it’s all going to happen. While the plan sets out WHAT you are going to do, the preparation phase basically takes it one step further and helps you work out HOW you are going to make it happen.
You need to prepare the whole family emotionally to withstand the rigours of travel. Developing strategies to deal with difficult situations as well as having back-up plans as a contingency, is also a core part of the preparation process. The following steps can be used as a guide.
- Regularly talk to the kids about the holiday. Don’t make it a big deal – introduce the idea at mealtimes and at other times you come together naturally as a family.
- Buy a large laminated map of your destination and hang it in a prime position – in the kitchen, dining room, hallway, etc. This acts as a visual talking point, a natural conversation starter and concrete proof of the holiday and of the destination for your kids.
- Develop a visual itinerary for the holiday. Make it visual, full of photos, facts and reassuring information about the destination and the holiday itself. Make sure this is in both paper and pdf format for use on an iPad or other electronic device. We’ve used these itineraries in the past as social stories for expected events on the holiday. Expected events might include plane travel etiquette, lining up, eating out, waiting for a turn, or using manners.
- Seek the advice of specialists (e.g. occupational therapists, psychologists, speech pathologists) to ready the kids for the holiday. We worked closely with our specialists to ensure our son in particular was prepared to try different food and find alternate ways to find calm while we were away. Identify specific strategies for calming down and practice them before your holiday.
- Encourage your kids to actively document the holiday. If they like to take videos ensure they have a device so they can. If they like writing, make sure they have a way to record their memories. Ensure you take the time to introduce your child to new technology well before the holiday so they (and you) are used to using it.
- All autism families need quiet time to recover from the social demands of each day, not to mention the strain of trying to regulate behaviour. So don’t overload your itinerary – if possible build in a period each day for quiet time or only plan activities on alternate days.
- Negotiate what items, books or toys can be brought along with you. If space is an issue, upload some books onto a device instead so your kids can take a few other things along for comfort and for entertainment.
Our personalised itinerary/social story for our trip to the US
The strategies and tools developed as part of the preparation process will be rendered useless if you hurry or pay too little attention to packing. Making lists, starting the packing process early and reviewing your luggage is essential to ensuring that everything that needs to go with you to make your holiday a success actually goes with you.
We’ve found it also helps to get your kids involved in the packing process so they can see where everything goes and can be reassured that nothing has been left behind.
- Undertake a clothing stocktake a month or so out from your trip. Doing this early will allow your kids with autism to become used to any new clothes before the holiday and will boost the chances of them being happy to wear them while away.
- Develop a streamlined holiday wardrobe. You should be able to do laundry as you go so only take enough to get you by for a few days, in between laundry visits. Get your kids involved in this process so they can choose what they want to wear to avoid any issues later on when they can’t find anything they want to wear.
- Don’t leave packing to the last minute – take the time to pack properly. A well-packed suitcase can reduce the amount of overall luggage you need to cart around and definitely makes it easier to find what you need when you arrive. Which is very important when you need to find a particular book, toy, hat or jumper to avoid a meltdown when you arrive.
- Make a list so you don’t forget to pack phone re-chargers, toiletries, a portable clothesline, medications and other often forgotten extras. Another tip – ALWAYS take along noise cancelling headphones and a neck pillow for comfort (believe me, you will need these).
- Tie a ribbon to your bag, attach a big name tag or make some sort of other addition to make your bag easier to find on the carousel and less likely to be mistakenly claimed by someone else (as happened to us when we went to NZ!).
- Pack a change of clothes in your handbag, backpack or carry on luggage. If someone happens to spill anything or you find yourself with lost luggage at your destination, having fresh clothes on hand will help defuse the situation.
- Get the kids to carry their own backpacks with activities for the trip, as well as favourite belongings, for a sense of comfort. The backpacks can also be used to also transport water, jumpers and headphones while tripping about during the day. Don’t forget to attach a tag on the bag with your child’s name, your contact number and a little bit about them, in case they get lost or separated.
Be organised with your packing and you too can look calm before you leave!
This is possibly the most important of the 4 Ps but obviously the hardest to follow through. Taking the plunge and deciding to invest in a family holiday is scary. But once you make the decision you need to follow it through. After all, perseverance is all about mindset. You need to train your mind to accept that things will go wrong and develop the mental strength to face them and deal with them when they happen.
- Expect the worst and be prepared. This might sound pessimistic but if you are mentally prepared for how hard the trip could be then you should be able to handle anything that is actually thrown at you. Remember the preparation you have already put in place and use it. Be prepared for meltdowns and for things to go wrong and for luggage to be lost. Be prepared to feel stressed and for your kids to want to go home. It might not all happen but at least one of them will (N.B. all of these things happened day 1 of our NZ holiday!)
- Be open as a family about your hopes and expectations for the trip. Acknowledging what you all want out of the holiday can give you the strength to go on and fight for it, even if it seems too hard to go through with.
- Have contingencies in place should things go wrong. Consider where your plans could fail and make sure you can deal with them if they do.
- Practice flexible thinking. Work on positive thought processes and practical ways to get through the tough stuff. Learn to find the positives amid all the negatives.
- Talk to friends or family who have already travelled before you head off. Talk through your concerns and discuss practical ways to overcome them.
- Consider seeking professional advice to manage your own stress and anxiety in the lead up to the trip.
- Practice mindfulness. Colouring-in, meditation, exercise and controlled breathing are all practical ways to help you discover inner calm and the strength to go on.
The hardest test of perseverance for me was on our trip to NZ. It represented our first trip overseas and the first time for the kids on a plane. I was petrified. We had invested over $7,000 in a holiday that we were unsure we could complete. The night before we flew out I could not sleep – the anxiety and stress coursing through me was palpable.
At first all was well – the kids loved the flight and were perfectly behaved. My son even tried some of the plane food, which was a huge achievement for him.
But then when we landed in Auckland a series of bungles saw us lose luggage (the kids’ bag – of course!), miss out on a booked tour and forced to buy a booster seat when there was none available through the hire car company. At any time during those first 24 hours I would have gladly turned back and gone home. I was a mess and I could not see how we could salvage our trip.
But this is where perseverance comes in. We stuck with it through those first 24 hours and then, when our expectations were lowered, we had the most wonderful holiday. It was physically, mentally and emotionally tough to keep going in the face of my son’s meltdowns and my own fragile grip on calm. But I did it and was rewarded by having a fantastic time.
Happy snaps from our NZ holiday – after an inauspicious start it was one of our best experiences ever!
You can make all the plans in the world; have first class preparation; and pack like a champion. But if you baulk at the first sign of trouble all your effort will come to naught. Each holiday is stressful in a different way and you need to be prepared for this – you need to strengthen your resolve and be determined to persevere. There are many times on each of our trips when we could have easily just given up and gone home. But we rode through the rough patches and persevered.
We have never regretted sticking it out through the hard parts and I bet you won’t regret it either.
Do you travel as an autism family? I would love to hear your tips!