Many parents who have a child with autism have given up their dream of traveling. With today’s technology and being able to connect with people all over the world, this dream does not have to be gone. Now parents can experience traveling with autism, and get advice on how to have a great trip. Below are some common mistakes from planning, hotels, and food, with some easy solutions.
As a blogger, one is the most frequent questions that readers ask me is “how do we manage to travel with autism?” My answer has always been the same. We learn from our past mistakes. Like everything else in life, practice makes perfect and the more we traveled, the better we got. What I did discover from talking to other parents was that I made eight common mistakes that impacted our trips. So, over the years, I’ve learned from the errors, and now we can have near perfect family vacations.
Don’t Overbook Yourself
By far the most frequent mistakes. I was guilty of this myself for at least at the beginning of my decade of travel. I was trying to see and do it all. Wanting to see and doing it all is particularly prevalent when taking those once in a lifetime vacations overseas. Many parents who plan these vacations, including me, end up overbooking their itinerary and tiring out themselves and their kids. That of course seldom ends well for anyone. For someone who has autism, a jam-packed itinerary can lead to major meltdowns.
We had an incident like that in Paris. We arrived early in the day, and our room wasn’t ready. Our son was tired since he had not slept on the transatlantic flight from Los Angeles and was exhausted. I had booked the hop on hop off bus to get acquainted with the city. Only instead of getting on the bus, he started screaming and crying. Since then I’ve tried to book flights that arrive at our destination later in the day so he can relax after the flight catch some much-needed sleep and get adjusted to local time.
Keep Your Kids Busy
Keeping kids busy is one thing that most parents know, but it is still worth mentioning. When traveling with autism, depending on your child’s interests you need to make sure you have at least two ways to keep them occupied in airports restaurants and even hotel rooms. Never rely on one type of entertainment since it might fail you. Our son loves surfing the Internet, so we carry a tablet with us. However, there are places that the Wi-Fi I is weak and sometimes non-existent. So, I always make sure I carry several magazines in my backpack to keep him busy if necessary.
Stick to a Dining Schedule
Unfortunately sticking to a dining plan may be harder than you may think. Especially when traveling overseas, it tends to mess with everyone’s regular schedules. In some countries like in Spain, dining hours start on the late side of the day and may not fit into your family schedule. For kids with autism that need a consistent routine, this can create a problem. The easiest way to solve this is to research and map ahead several fast food places. Alternately if you are staying in a private home or hotel room with a kitchenette like the Residence Inn by Marriott then getting items from the local grocery store is a good solution too. Also, you can prepare food that is familiar to your children, leaving one less reason for a potential melt-down.
Seek Familiar Surroundings to Stay In
I always found it a bit ironic that many parents to kids with autism focus so much on the topic of flying. Though, I completely understand that in today’s world with the TSA checkpoints and sparse legroom on aircraft it is far from a pleasant experience it is still only a few hours. In comparison staying in a hotel room stretches along multiple days. So I end spending much more time and thought to where we stay than to how we fly. When we first started traveling, I usually booked hotel rooms based on price and location.
As I understood my son and autism better, the hotel is one area that I paid attention too. Knowing, he was comfortable meant that we had a better hotel stay. Nowadays we only stay at chain hotels where our son knows what to expect regarding accommodations and room layout. One of our favorites is the Residence Inn. The Residence Inn has locations throughout the world. We’ve stayed at many Residence Inn hotels and always found them very autism-friendly.We especially love their spacious suites with kitchenette free WiFi and complimentary breakfast.
Include Your Kid in the Planning
Surprising as it may sound to some many parents do not include their children in the planning of a trip. And that is a big mistake. It does not matter if your child is lower or higher functioning. They have their dislikes and likes too. Many kids with autism spend hours on the Internet, and you’d be surprised at how well they can research topics they find interesting. Here again, I have to backtrack to our first European vacation to Paris. I didn’t ask my son what he wanted to see. Instead, I planned what I thought was a jam-packed itinerary filled with cultural venues and iconic landmarks.
When we reached the Eiffel Tower, I figured it was enough just to show him the structure. Who knew he wanted to climb to the very top, and of course, my plan didn’t include the three hours we spent doing so. Had I have spoken to my son, I could have planned this in better, and also scheduled some relaxation time afterward too.
Set Ground Rules of Behavior, Spending, and Packing
Setting ground rules of behavior is a good idea for every family, but it takes a different dimension for families with autism. When traveling with autism, to avoid breakdowns in communication along with ensuing meltdowns I sit with our son and remind him of what he can and cannot do. In his case, he always insists on packing his entire plush toy miniature collection, so he doesn’t miss it. Considering I fly with carry-on luggage only, this has been a point of contention between us for some time.
To avoid last minute packing confrontations, I start reminding him a week before the trip how he forgot one of his favorite toys in a hotel room last year and we never got it back. Furthermore, if he does manage to squeeze the collection in his carry on, he would have to forgo buying souvenirs altogether. So, I am always explaining this to him before we leave our house.
Crowded places tend to be noisy and have limited personal space to move around, which is far from being a comfortable environment for people with autism. Moreover, there are usually lines to wait in. The first time we took the kids to Walt Disney World in the summer of 2000 we live to regret it. Apart from the heat, we encounter long lines for the attractions. We didn’t get to experience the rides like we originally had planned. Both my kids returned disappointed. Then I started paying attention to them.
I learned that the best time to visit was the early spring or late fall when the parks are almost empty and wait times for the rides short. Whether it is a trip to a theme park or iconic city abroad I try to advise people to skip the crowds and travel off season. Apart from the obvious benefit of skipping the tourist season, I usually can find cheaper flights and hotel rates which are a bonus.
Analyze and Scrutinize What Went Wrong
Moving forward this tip might be the most useful advice for many traveling with autism. Many people spend quite a bit of time planning their trip but none analyzing what they could have done better. When you return home, talk to the entire family about what they felt went wrong. Also, talk about what went right. You may even want to write them down so you can have then handy to use for your next adventure. If something did happen to be wrong, what was it? What will you do differently in the future? By doing that you will start to understand more about your family traveling style and hopefully improve your next vacation.
In conclusion, I hope that you have found the tips both helpful and inspirational enough to book your next vacation. After traveling for the last decade we still learn new tricks with every trip we take. By the end of the day, we cherish the good memories and realize that even the bad ones helped us bond as a family.
Have you experienced traveling with autism? What mistakes did you make, and how would you prevent them in the future?
Thanks to Residence Inn and Travelingmom for promoting the conversation on traveling with autism. As always, all opinions are my own.
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