Three years ago, my wife and I took our son to Cuba for a family vacation. There were several obvious reasons to go—it was February, Montreal and freezing—but our main one was to give our son, who’s on the autism spectrum, the opportunity to get on an airplane for the first time. We had never ventured more than a road trip, and when it comes to travelling, the parents of kids with autism too often end up limiting themselves. They let anxiety and stress turn a simple trip into the latest Mission Impossible sequel. Fortunately, there are ways to make your next getaway both possible and fun.
1. Call ahead and research like an FBI agent. When you’re booking a hotel, call ahead to see what accommodations can be made for your child. Is there a quiet time to check in? Is there a room available in a particularly quiet part of the hotel? Are there high locks on the doors (if your kid is a wanderer)? Do the same with amusement parks or other tourist-type attractions you plan to visit. See, for instance, if you can arrange for reduced wait times. And be sure to consult your child, while browsing the websites of possible destinations and attractions. That way they’ll also feel they have a part in planning the trip, which will make it more exciting to them.
2. Practice, practice, practice. Social stories help break down travel into small, easy-to-follow steps, usually with pictures, so kids can mentally prepare for a new experience. But even better than showing and telling is doing. If you’re planning a long trip, practice first with shorter, more manageable trips. You child gets a feel for being away; you get a valuable glimpse at pitfalls to avoid. Speaking of practice, airports in cities like Halifax, Charlottetown, Montreal, Vancouver and Calgary offer children with autism mock flights. This includes trial-runs on checking in, clearing security, boarding the airplane. See if you can find something similar for buses, trains or cruises. If possible, videotape your practice session and review the steps required for successful travel before the actual trip.
3. Maintain some routine and structure. There’s no avoiding it—travel involves many, many transitions and, as every parent of a child with autism knows, transitions can spell trouble. Do whatever you can to make your child feel secure. The more your child knows about what to expect the easier it will be for them to adjust to an unfamiliar environment. And to help mitigate fears around the unfamiliar, before you go and do a countdown on the calendar with your child to replace anxiety with eager anticipation. Visual schedules and checklists are also helpful. And make sure to bring along familiar items from home—favourite toys, stuffed animals, books, music. Food can be another issue for children on the spectrum, so pack your child’s favourite snacks, to keep at least that element of their daily life consistent.
4. Be flexible. Do your best to manage expectations for your child and yourself. Don’t plan too many activities in a day. Make sure your child and you have as much down-time as you need. If you don’t manage to make it to The Grand Canyon or Disneyland, there’s always next time. Neither is going anywhere.
5. Redefine adventure. Travel is a chance to see new places and try new things, but you should do it at a pace that’s not overwhelming for your kid. Slow down and take your time and be prepared to work your way through some stress and anxiety, yours and your child’s, so you can both enjoy the rewards of experiencing something new together. You may be surprised by what your kid is capable of, when stretched by new vacation activities.
6. Be upfront with other people. Make sure your child is always carrying an I.D. with current phone numbers and details about their condition. Medical alert bracelets or tags can be ordered ahead of time. Also, when visiting or staying with friends or family who may not be familiar with your child, provide them with a crash course in autism. For that matter, consider telling the people you’re going to be spending time with on an airplane or at a resort that your child has autism. You’ll be surprised at how helpful people can be once they understand the situation better.
7. Don’t sweat the low points. If you do find yourself in some far-flung place and your child, or just as likely you, ends up having an epic meltdown take comfort in a simple fact: you’re probably never going to visit this place or see these people again.
8. Just go! Our time in Cuba ended up being both exciting and relaxing, a trip we thoroughly enjoyed. So much so we wished afterwards we hadn’t been afraid to fly somewhere exotic with our son sooner.