Travelling as an autism family is a huge step. It takes a whole lot of courage, belief and hope, but it is possible to travel successfully and for everyone to enjoy the trip.
Here are 15 strategies you can use to make your holiday as an autism family a success (and one that every member of the family enjoys!)
- Start small – don’t book an overseas holiday for your first adventure. 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, discover potential issues and find ways to deal with them.
- Don’t compromise – you may need special diets, accommodation for service animals, extra security if your child is likely to run away or access to a secure outdoor area. Make sure the needs of your family come first – don’t compromise, even if you are tempted to do so for convenience or budget reasons.
- Use social stories – social stories are a great way to help reassure kids, make them aware of what’s going to happen and guide their behaviour. For your trip, include a map, copy of your itinerary, calendar, photos & anything else that will help reassure them and make them feel less anxious about the holiday.
- Identify sensory triggers – know what triggers your child (e.g. smells, sounds, sights, textures) and have strategies in place to deal with them. Pack sensory items such as noise cancelling headphones, ear muffs, fidget toys, weighted blankets and chewy jewellery to keep your kids calm and address their sensory needs.
- Incorporate special interests – special interests help centre and calm your child in periods of stress and anxiety and they can also be used as a powerful motivator. Where possible, include your child’s special interest in your holiday planning to get them interested in the trip and to give them a sense of control and reassurance.
- Be honest with the diagnosis – share the diagnosis with your travel agent, airline, cruise line or tour operator. If you don’t share the diagnosis, you won’t be able to access the help you need. Put your child’s needs first by being honest and asking for the accommodations you need as an autism family.
- Plan contingencies – you need to be prepared for things to not go to plan such as weather, venue availability, tour schedules, etc. When things go wrong, make sure you have an alternate plan in place or strategies to help your kids cope. Try to look at each adventure in a positive light so you can help your kids through it too.
- Minimise travel and movement – Your family is more likely to be settled and relaxed if you base yourself in a single location. Where this isn’t possible, try to stay in a central location instead, and take day trips to your chosen destinations. If you need to travel to multiple locations, stay a few nights in each place to avoid constant travel.
- Don’t overload yourselves – it’s stressful to constantly anticipate potential issues, support your kids and try to stay calm yourself. So, build rest time into each day – make it part of your itinerary. Encourage your kids to have down time by making sure you have quiet time yourself. In other words, lead by example and take a break!
- Involve the kids in planning – talk to them about the holiday and ask for their input. Laminate a map and put it up on the wall as a handy visual guide to where they could be headed. Highlight destinations aligned to their special interests and give them two options to choose from, so they feel included without being overwhelmed.
- Utilise technology – technology is your friend and you should take every opportunity to use it. Tablets and smartphones are all-in-one entertainment devices, noise cancelling headphones can help reduce background distractions and tracking devices can ensure your child’s safety, even in busy locations.
- Sort out luggage early – it’s important to know what luggage you’ll be taking so you can get your kids to practice moving their suitcases and wearing their backpacks. It can be hard to maneuver through doors, on escalators and around corners so make sure you all practice before you leave (else you’ll be left with all the bags!)
- Get specialists on board – identify the main issues you feel you’ll be facing when away and ask for help from speech pathologists, occupational therapists and psychologists. They will have targeted strategies to help your kids, be able to provide practical advice and will be a source of support in the lead up to heading off.
- Pack a backpack for your child – include small toys, books, activities, sensory items, a spare change of clothes, their device and anything else that will keep them calm, occupied and content. Ask them to help you pack it so they are reassured that everything has been included and nothing left behind.
- Grow your mindset – the biggest barrier to travel for most families, is belief and confidence. It’s important for autism parents to believe that they are strong enough to take their family outside their comfort zone. Work on developing a positive outlook, practice flexible thinking and rationalise your thought processes. You’ve got this!
For more tips, check out, Autism Family Travel, the ultimate guide to travelling as an autism family, featuring many more tips, templates and hints for successful travel.