This article follows Part 1: Traveling With an Autistic Child: Yes, It Is Possible!
and Part 2: Traveling with An Autistic Child: Tips for The Plane and Transportation
When I talk about traveling with my autistic son, many people (and even some of his therapists) wonder about the upheaval of his daily routine and how difficult it can be to cope with these changes.
Keep Your Good Daily Habits
Of course, not all children have the same capacities and limits. As far as we are concerned, our philosophy is: we try as best we can to keep habits similar to those we have at home.
For example, as I mentioned in a previous article, I use a daily calendar for my son so that he can get his bearings straight. We also use pictures, especially pictures that we in our family call “happy guy” and “unhappy guy”, that enable us to reward good behavior or help him understand when something is not allowed. It doesn’t matter where I’m going, I bring these tools with me in order to put them on the fridge in our temporary “home.”
We also try our best to conserve habits around his sleeping hours and certain daily tasks so that he feels like he’s still at home. Of course, we can’t always do this perfectly, but that’s our goal. Maintaining good habits also helps the whole family to not be unsettled and makes for an easier transition when returning home.
Carefully Choose Your Lodging
Like I told you, we have already spent seven weeks living in a Westfalia van. Of course, we changed our location constantly, but our home was always the same. This really made a difference.
When we travel, we usually find a website that lets us rent a house or apartment. We largely prefer this to a hotel because we can settle in, the kids have a room, we can make our own food, and we can have our own quiet space when we want.
Additionally, we try to stay in the same place during our entire trip in order to keep some of our routines despite being on the move during the day.
Adapt Your Schedule to Their Pace
Concerning sleep, we really try to ensure that our son sleeps, and we adapt our rhythm and our planning in order to not overwhelm him with too many activities. Either way, we don’t have a choice now that his little brother is there! We plan the most stimulating activities in the morning or in the early afternoon.
After 6 pm, our son begins to have trouble handling himself, so we try not to come back too late at night and don’t plan any activities at night (with few exceptions).
Everything also depends on the place where we find ourselves. If we’re in the middle of nature on a fishing trip, we hang out together around the fire late at night without a problem. But when we spend all day traveling in cities or places that can leave our child’s senses feeling overwhelmed, we need to return somewhere calm after 6 pm.
Carefully Choose Your Daytime Activities
In everyday life, as a parent of an autistic child, you know well how to adapt your rhythm and your choice of activities based on the needs and capacities of your child. So there is no reason for that to be different while traveling. Make sure to choose activities that they will enjoy but that won’t overwhelm them, and of course, avoid crowded and over-stimulating places.
Many of the parents that I consulted mentioned that they alternate their days spent doing activities and days spent relaxing. If they decide to visit a city one day, they will not do anything big the next day except for maybe a short trip to the beach, for example.
Here are some suggestions for places and activities:
- Museums for children where they can touch everything
- Artisan workshops for children (pottery, painting, etc.)
- Anything related to water (ocean, pool, lake, etc.)
- National parks
- Zoo or animal refuge where they can interact with the animals
- Horseback riding, if your child has been riding or goes to equine-assisted therapy
If you visit an amusement park as a family, your child will definitely be over-stimulated, but you can still organize things in a manner that allows them to still have a great time. First, know that theme parks like Disney parks, Universal, or amusement parks like Canada’s Wonderland or La Ronde in Montreal (like most amusement parks around the world) offer priority passes for children with special needs and their families. This saves you from being trapped in lines, and generally, their siblings are happy to have this, too (and they deserve it as well). Throughout the day in these parks, take calm breaks with your child to withdraw yourselves a bit from the sounds in a lusher and calmer corner of the park.
There are also more and more resorts, vacation destinations particularly in North America, that offer activities for children with different sensory needs and that are certified Autism Friendly. Here are some examples:
- Chelsea Hotel in Toronto, Canada: services specifically for the comfort of autistic clients and clients with other disabilities.
- AIM: Autism Involves Me at Channel-Port aux Basques in Newfoundland, Canada: an association that aims to make the neighborhoods safe and adapted for autistic individuals. This town also has the first hotel in Canada to be certified Autism Friendly.
- Beaches Resorts: personnel with renowned qualifications, spaces adapted for individuals with sensory disorders, and camps for autistic children.
- Royal Caribbean: all of the cruise ships are labeled “autism-friendly” and offer adaptive services.
- Morgan’s Wonderland, San Antonio, Texas: the park is entirely accessible to people with disabilities and free for children.
- Sesame Place, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: the park is certified autism-friendly and offers special equipment and information on the sensory effects of the activities as well as quiet rest areas.
- Surfside Beach, South Carolina: activities accessible to autistic individuals near the pier.
What about their siblings?
Having a sibling with autism isn’t always easy, and as parents, we often feel guilty that we aren’t able to give each of our children as much attention. The pace of the parents is determined by their most fragile child. However, in order to not make your other children feel hurt, it is also important to give them time and allow them to do activities that are important to them. Why not separate them when possible? One parent can stay with the child who needs calm and the other can go do a special activity with their siblings. Before going on vacation, ask your other children what they definitely want to do during the trip and plan with them for these activities. This requires a large investment from the parents, but it is not impossible to make sure that no one feels left out.
Ensure the safety of your child
Your priority as a parent is, without a doubt, the safety of your children. We are often more vigilant with autistic children, even when they become adolescents and adults because their reactions can be sudden and they can disappear in a split second sometimes. In addition, your child may not always be aware of the danger.
Some practical tips:
- According to your child’s age and their cooperation, make them carry a GPS tracker that you can easily buy online
- Dress your child in light colors and clothing that is easily recognizable
- Make them carry or attach a card to their clothes with your contact information in case they get lost and that describes how they may react in stressful situations, especially for nonverbal children
- For the car, put a cover on the seatbelt that indicates that your child is autistic in order to help first responders know what to do in case of an emergency. You can also put a similar cover on their backpack if they have one
- Avoid crowded cities and large gatherings
Accept that it won’t be perfect
Even if you are the most caring parent ever, anticipate all possibilities, and are extremely well prepared, there will definitely still be crises that you will have to handle during your trip, and you may not always understand where they’re coming from.
What’s important is that, like every other day, you control your own emotions. Children, especially autistic children, feel our frustration and are sensitive to our reactions. Stress and negativity will only make things worse.
What I find difficult when traveling is managing a crisis while we’re in public. Crises are already difficult to manage when I’m somewhere familiar, but when I’m somewhere I don’t know, it stresses me out even more because I don’t necessarily have access to my usual quiet spaces or even my car to help my child calm down.
If there is anything that I learned in traveling with my son, it’s that I need to pick my battles and that I have the right to give up every now and then. Our daily lives are not always simple. There are certain things that I let slide more while on a trip than usual because my son has to deal with a lot of stimuli, and it’s not the best time for him to add new instructions. If a crisis happens, I try to remain calm, and then when possible, we leave the place, or even go back to our lodging to rest, because a crisis often implies that we’ve done too much.
I repeat, the advice mentioned here comes from parents of autistic children who travel regularly and who are kind enough to share their experiences. Of course, all of this advice does not necessarily apply to your situation. Nonetheless, if possible, don’t stop traveling…just travel differently!
Regardless of their neurological, sensory, intellectual, or physical limits, our children deserve these privileged moments and can enjoy them with a lot of serenity if we prepare them well and we ensure to respect their rhythm, not to mention that often this will help them to progress greatly.
Will this require preparation? Yes. Will you be tired? Without a doubt. But you will have plenty of memories and precious moments that will be good for your whole family.
Meanwhile, the best journey of our lives will still be parenting these extraordinary little people who help us every day to become stronger and appreciate those perfect little moments.
Thanks a lot to Viviane for her exceptional contribution, and get to know her a little more thanks to her short biography below
Also, a big thanks for their contribution:
- Eileen, firstname.lastname@example.org, FamiliesGo!
- Muir, email@example.com, Twitch Content Creator
- Lisa, firstname.lastname@example.org, Project HOPE Foundation
- Dr. Raun Melmed
- Mackenzie, email@example.com, Bolt PR
- Kristen, firstname.lastname@example.org, Mom Managing Chaos
- Merriam, email@example.com, Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT
- Vanessa, firstname.lastname@example.org, Vcreativeart16