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Traveling with Autism: The Importance of Preparation

With Memorial Day in the rearview mirror and summer fully on the horizon, it’s that time of the year when families find time to make that trip to Grandma’s in PA or spend time on the beach on the Outer Banks in North Carolina. However, vacations with a child with autism spectrum disorder can be chaotic, nerve-wracking, and stressful through exposing your child or children to countless situations that are largely new to them, be it the longer time in the car or it being their first time at the beach.


This week we’re going to talk about some simple, but essential preparatory steps to take in order to ensure that your trip is fun, relaxing, and enjoyable.


While there are many strategies and approaches suggested by experts, one thing that seemingly every person with experience recommends first is the absolute importance of preparation. Preparation takes on a different meaning for families with autism as not only should you read everything and anything on your designation and means of travel, but it’s also crucial that you prepare your children, both neurotypical and autistic, for the trip.


When preparing a child with autism for vacation, one of the first things to assess is to better understand their core problem areas and make your plans accordingly. If sensory issues are a problem area, then plan for them. For example, if you’re visiting an amusement park that’s full of visual and aural stimulation, than be sure to pack headphones or earplugs. Furthermore, if your child is on a gluten free/casein free diet, then be sure to reserve a room with a refrigerator so that you have fresh snacks and meals for the entire trip.


However, preparation extends far past a child’s core problem areas. One thing to plan for is the actual trip to your destination and ways to keep your child engaged and keep them from getting restless. Perhaps a social story that incorporates elements from your trip, such as arguing with one’s sister or singing a certain song repeatedly can keep them entertained and involved with their surroundings. It’s also extremely helpful to engage your child or children visually about where you are going to, such as renting a video of your actual destination to show your child both before you leave and while on the road. You could also request a DVD from the tourism bureau or a library book on your destination.


Furthermore, when planning your trip, you’ll want to think about your destination in terms that you might not have before. For instance, while the beach is a choice destination for many families, a child with autism could experience sensory overload from the sound of the waves, the feel of sand and wind, the taste of the salty water, or the bright sun. However, you can prepare them for a trip to the beach by putting sand in a bucket and dipping their feet in it or take them to a tidal pool so they know what to expect from the ocean.


Of course, planning for every possible situation is a guaranteed impossibility, but by just tackling those potential issues that seem like they could occur and drawing up a contingency plan for the situations you can think of, you will save yourself, your child, and your family considerable stress and help them to enjoy their vacation all the more! And tune in next week when we’ll have suggestions for making your actual travel time as stress-free as possible.