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.
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
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
A glimpse into the social story Nathan put together for our USA trip
Social stories answer the “why/what/where/how/when/who” 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.
Identify sensory threats
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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!):
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