10 Strategies for Successfully Travelling as an Autism Family

Last weekend I was honoured to present to other families about our experiences travelling as an autism family. I was even more honoured when I had the chance to speak to families in more detail about their hopes and dreams and fears for travel.

Travelling as an autism family is a huge step. It takes a whole lot of courage, belief and hope. However, in my experience, the risk has always been worthwhile. Our travels to different parts of Australia and to New Zealand, the United States and the Caribbean, have all been amazing experiences. I feel so privileged to have been able to have shared them with my family.

The stress of autism parenting is hard at the best of times. I realise that travelling away from home is not a priority for many families just trying to get a better grip on everyday life. However, I also know there are many other families out there, like us, who yearn to explore the world and open up new experiences for our kids.

10 Strategies for travelling as an autism family - www.myhometruths.com

I’m in the process of finalising my long promised e-book, tentatively called The Ultimate Guide to Travelling as an Autism Family. It’s full of practical tips based on our real-life experiences and so far it’s been getting positive feedback from those who have reviewed it.

If you are interested in being updated on the progress of the e-book, join my mailing list below. Subscribers will be the first to know when it’s ready for release and will receive exclusive bonuses along the way. I’d love to be able to share my knowledge in more detail with you.

In the meantime, I thought I would share the strategies I showcased as part of my recent presentation. These come from the upcoming e-book and are just a sample of the strategies and practical ideas that are included in the guide.

10 Strategies for Successfully Travelling as an Autism Family

10 strategies for successfully travelling as an autism family - www.myhometruths.com

Start Small

Start Small: Holidaying as an Autism Family - www.myhometruths.com

Baby Delilah enjoying a family holiday at Gerroa on the NSW south coast circa 2012

We started out by staying overnight with our parents and parents-in-law. This allowed us to see what elements of staying away from home most affected our kids and gave us the chance to keep practicing and testing the waters.

Start with an overnight stay with family or friends or consider staying in a hotel/motel in your local area. This is a low risk way to identify whether travel is a viable option for your family and gives you the chance to try out different ways to help your kids.

You can then work your way up to staying in a cabin in a caravan park. In our experience this is a great option for a first family holiday, as it combines the comforts of home (a secure cabin with cooking facilities) with the fun amenities of a holiday park (pool, playground, activities, jumping pillow, etc).

Do your research

First, list your negotiable and non-negotiable requirements as an autism family. Be clear on any special requirements you need, such as special diets, accommodation for service or companion animals, extra security if your child is likely to run away or access to a secure outdoor area.

Also take into account any of your child’s fears or phobias that could impact on your choice of destination. For instance I was deathly scared of mountains and was traumatised by a family trip to the snow when I was younger – I can only imagine how my son would have emerged from a similar scenario.

Make sure the needs of your family come first – don’t compromise, even if you are tempted to do so.

Then look for a location that gives you what you need. Airbnb and Stayz are great options for trying to find a homelike location while Trip Advisor, Expedia and Wotif are the best for looking through a range of accommodation options at a glance.

Use social stories

USA Itinerary & Social Story - www.myhometruths.com

A glimpse into the social story Nathan put together for our USA trip

Social stories answer the “why/what/where/how/when/how” questions for our kids and they have been the most successful strategy we have used when preparing our kids for travel. They are a great way to help reassure our kids and make them aware of what’s going to happen and how they should behave when on holidays.

There are a lot of social stories available online, ready for you to use. Royal Caribbean have a cruise social story that can be personalised, there’s one from Project Autism for riding in the car on a roadtrip and you can find many, like this one from AbilityPath, about flying for the first time.

It’s also straightforward to make your own social story in Microsoft Word, which can then be converted to pdf and saved on various devices. Add a map, copy of your itinerary, calendar, photos & anything else that will help reassure them and make them feel less anxious about the impending adventure.

If you are in need of more inspiration, check out the copies of the visual itineraries/travel social stories we have used for New Zealand and for the United States.

Identify sensory threats

Identifying Sensory Threats: Holidaying as an autism family - www.myhometruths.com

A cruise may not be ideal for kids with vestibular (balance) sensitivities

It’s important to identify any potential sensory triggers that could affect your child (e.g. smells, sounds, sights, textures, movement). It’s a good plan to work out how they can be avoided or limited and have strategies in place to deal with them.

For instance, in New Zealand, we chose to stay at Taupo instead of Rotorua as we knew the sulphuric smell of the geothermal fields would have been too much for our kids. Ensuring we stayed in a location that limited the smell and the sensory threat, helped make our visit a success.

Also consider what sensory items you can take along to help your kids. Noise cancelling headphones, ear muffs, fidget toys, weighted blankets and chewy jewellery may need to come along on the journey too, in order to keep your kids calm and address their sensory needs.

Incorporate special interests

incorporate special interests: holidaying as an autism family - www.myhometruths.com

One of Gilbert’s special interests – public payphones

Special interests can be seen in a negative light as they do tend to cause upset in daily life. However, if you can, include your child’s special interest in your holiday planning as they can be a powerful motivator.

Special interests serve two main purposes. They help centre and calm your child in periods of stress and anxiety so they can be a very effective tool when away on holidays. My son loves public payphones so we often find ourselves seeking them out when we’re away, to provide him with a sense of calm and control.

Special interests can also be used as a very effective motivator throughout your trip. Apart from payphones, we have also used science and space (visits to observatories) and animals (visits to zoos) as special interest outings for our kids. They love knowing there is a whole outing planned, just for them, catering to their specific interests.

Be honest with the diagnosis

If there’s one piece of advice that has never steered me wrong, it’s this one. Don’t be afraid to share the diagnosis with your travel agent, airline, cruise line, accommodation provider or tour operator.

On all our travels, I’ve never regretted being open about our situation. If people can help you, they will. Do not feel like you are a burden or that you will be judged for being open about a diagnosis. Honestly, if you don’t share the diagnosis, you won’t be able to access the help you may need.

In addition, you may need to provide proof if you want to access certain services or accommodations for your child. For example, we needed to provide proof of Gilbert’s diagnosis when we applied for a Disability Access Service Card at Walt Disney World. This allowed him to be given a return time on certain rides, in avoid having to wait in long queues.

Be proactive – help your child (and yourselves) by being honest with the diagnosis and asking for the accommodations you need as an autism family.

Plan contingencies

Let’s be realistic. You need to be prepared for things to not go to plan such as weather, venue availability, tour schedules, etc. On our New Zealand trip, we had a bag taken from the baggage claim carousel, we were not provided with a car seat for our toddler with our hire car and a tour we had pre-booked did not have a record of our booking.

All that happened in the first 24 hours of our first ever overseas trip. You can only begin to imagine my mindset at the time.

When things go wrong (and they will) make sure you have an alternate plan in place. Think about how you can take a positive from a negative.

In our case, our bag was eventually returned and the kids got some new clothes out of the experience. We still use the carseat we had to buy in NZ for Delilah (best value holiday souvenir EVER). And we ended up having an impromptu walking tour of Auckland while we waited for the next available tour.

Be prepared for things to go wrong and try to look at each adventure in a positive light so you can help your kids through it too.

Minimise travel and movement

When planning any holiday, basing yourself in the one location is the best way to reduce anxiety. Your kids are more likely to be settled and you are more likely to be able to relax yourself.

However, this is not always possible, especially if you are embarking on a road trip or an extended vacation. In these cases, consider limiting the number of destinations you visit. Instead of staying at every location, try to stay in a central location instead and take day trips to your chosen destinations.

Minimise travel & movement: holidaying as an autism family - www.myhometruths.com

Our itinerary for our New Zealand road trip

If you need to travel to multiple locations, stay a few nights in each place to avoid constant travel. When we travelled the north island of New Zealand, we decided to stay in a few key locations. We spent 3 nights in Auckland, 3 nights in Taupo, 1 night in Napier (only to break up a long journey) and 3 nights in Wellington.

Staying longer in less locations can also serve to break up the trip and make it easier for your child to concentrate on one part of the trip at a time. So instead of worrying about the trip as a whole, they can be encouraged to just focus on one part of the holiday. This has helped our kids cope on our longer trips away.

Don’t overload yourselves

Don't overload yourselves: holidaying as an autism family - www.myhometruths.com

Having a rest day the the Beach Club resort at Walt Disney World

One of the most important things to understand when you are holidaying as an autism family, is the fact you will ALL need quiet time as a family and as individuals. It’s stressful to constantly anticipate potential issues, support your kids and try to stay calm yourself.

Ensure you build rest time into every day – make it part of your itinerary. Encourage your kids to have some down time by making sure you have quiet time yourself. In other words, lead by example. Read a book, watch a movie, have a nap.

Another successful way we have done this is to plan for half-day trips to theme parks & attractions. Most locations will offer multi-day passes so use them. Plan on spending a morning or afternoon out with the family then head back to your accommodation and have a rest or cool off in the pool.

This strategy helps address anxiety and usually avoids meltdowns too by reducing the sense of overwhelm.

Involve the kids in planning

Involve kids in holiday planning: holidaying as an autism family - www.myhometruths.com

Our current travel planning activity for our upcoming sabbatical in 2020

I really believe in encouraging your kids to have a role in holiday planning. Start off by talking to them about the potential trip and ask them what sort of holiday they would like to try (beach, skiing, caravan park, roadtrip, theme park, etc.)

Laminate some maps and put them up on the wall as a handy visual guide to where they could be headed. Give them two options to choose from so they feel included without being overwhelmed. You can also create a countdown calendar and ask them to mark off the days until the holiday to give them a sense of control.

You can also borrow books or DVDs from your local library on specific locations to familiarise them further with potential destinations. Get them to identify some activities or attractions that may incorporate their special interest and help them look forward to the holiday.

Stay positive - You've got this! www.myhometruths.com

Don’t forget to sign up to my email list below so you are among the first to get your hands on my upcoming e-book, The Ultimate Guilde to Travelling as an Autism Family, which features many more tips, templates and hints for successful travel. You’ll also get access to a range of travel resources only available to subscribers.

If you’d prefer to check out my video sharing these same strategies, feel free to watch below (don’t forget to subscribe to my youtube channel for more hints & tips!):

What strategies have you used in the past for succcessfully travelling as an autism family?

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20 Responses

  1. I love how you’ve involved your kids in the planning of your trips Kirsty. There’s so much to think about when travelling with kids, let alone the extra things you need to think about! So fabulous to see you and your family tackling this issue and winning! 🙂

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Lyndall! It’s something I’m very proud of our family for tackling and it shows me that we can do so many things if we are prepared to put in the work beforehand.

  2. Deborah says:

    Good luck with the book Kirsty and I’m sure it’d be a valuable resource for so many people… there’s so much to consider!

    I love the hints you’ve included here and noted you’ve already got everyone planning your next vacation/s!
    Deborah recently posted..Speaking with authority

  3. I love the whole “involved in planning” and “social stories” components. In fact, I like them all! To be honest I think we could all take a leaf out of your book for inclusion.

    This is going to be such a valuable resource for so many people because I know families who don’t travel at all, ever, because of their Autism experience and challenges. I can imagine it must be so incredibly difficult but at the same time I fear they are missing out on so much.

    Thanks for joining the Lovin’ Life Linky.

    • Kirsty says:

      That’s exactly how I feel too Leanne. I know of many families who are tied to home because of autism. To be honest, we were like that for a long time and a lot of weekends we still are! But travelling is a gift for the whole family and we needed to give it a go for ourselves as well as for our kids. I do hope others can take a leap of faith too – it’s so worth it.

  4. What a brilliant resource! I can take many of these tips myself, from involving the children in the planning to minimising the movement. Overloading ourselves is something else we tend to do often, and it only creates problems. Love this post thank you.
    Nicole @ The Builder’s Wife recently posted..My Favourite Space with Helen Edwards

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks so much Nicole! These ideas are relevant for any family, not only those with a family member on the autism spectrum. All my kids have benefited from us adopting these strategies – I hope they might help in your future holiday planning too!

  5. This is such a wonderful resource Kirsty and your book will be brilliant I’m sure! I think I’ve told you before that one of my boys was diagnosed as Aspergers when he was 9 … so I have some idea of the difficulties involved! You’re doing such a wonderful job with your beautiful family and for other families dealing with special needs. Hope all goes well with completing your book! 🙂
    Min@WriteoftheMiddle recently posted..The Lovin’ Life Linky – Aqua and Purple

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Min. It’s with the editor still and will them require design and layout so I’m hopeful to have it out early in the new year – fingers crossed!

  6. I’m sure you are helping so many people Kirsty and even more presenting and writing a book. I found reading this post really interesting and took some of my own ideas from it.

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Karin – I really do hope families who have never considered travelling before will take something from the post and from the book!

  7. Grace says:

    All great tips. I completely agree with you about being honest with the diagnosis. We are upfront straight from the beginning about our boys’ peanut allergies. Everyone needs to know…Everyone!

    • Kirsty says:

      I’m really passionate about this as so many families don’t want to draw attention to themselves or be seen to be demanding so they don’t talk about any diagnoses straight up. If you don’t ask for help you won’t receive any and you certainly won’t receive the understanding your family might have otherwise received. It just makes sense to be honest and access all the help you can get so everyone has the best time possible.

  8. Alicia says:

    When it comes to family holidays, as long as the kids are happy, it is much more enjoyable for the parents. I think the emphasis is on family, and a that includes the kids and the things that make it a fab holiday for them!

    • Kirsty says:

      Definitely Alicia! Although it’s always good to try to sneak in something for us parents too, if we can so we can have something to look forward to as well.

  9. What a wonderful list and great ideas! Will bookmark for us and I’m sure other families too! Thanks so much for linking to #spectrumsunday

  10. Melly D says:

    I think this is a very sweet article. Great job Kirsty! This definitely a very informative and helpful article and I am sure a lot of people can benefit from this. Thumbs up for you!

    • Kirsty says:

      Thanks Melly! I really hope it does help families living with autism to aim to travel as a family. It’s been the best things we’ve ever done!

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