Autism Awareness Month: Planning Summer Vacations for Those on the Spectrum

April 1st marks the beginning of Autism Awareness Month—and are you aware that according to IBCCES, 78% of special needs parents are unwilling to travel with their children? Whether out of fear of what others might think if their child experiences a sensory meltdown, or a lack of knowledge of what resources exist, these parents resign themselves to remaining at home rather than venturing out and enjoying the world.  Surprisingly, very little has been written to change their minds. Until now.

Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for Parents of the Anxious, the Inflexible, and the Neurodiverse (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022) by Author Dawn M. Barclay is based on interviews from over 100 mental health professionals, special needs parents, autism allies, advocates, and Certified Autism Travel Professionals. At 344 pages Traveling Different is basically the travel bible for those on the autism spectrum or with invisible disabilities like ADHD, but its advice can help soothe the travel hiccups of any family.

How to plan a summer vacation for kids on the spectrum:

Thoughts of summer travel bring to mind visions of happy children balancing on jungle gyms on the playground or frolicking on a sunny beach at an all-inclusive resort. Unless your child is one out of every forty-four that falls on the autism spectrum, or copes with attention or mood disorders. Then you might spend weeks fretting in advance over a potential sensory overload caused by crowds, unusual smells, or the unfamiliar texture of sand caught between toes. If you’re like 78 percent of most special needs families—according to a 2022 survey by IBCCES—you might very well let those worries keep you from traveling at all.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, says Dawn M. Barclay, author of Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for Parents of the Anxious, the Inflexible, and the Neurodiverse (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022) More and more venues are becoming autism friendly and by slowly introducing the concept of travel, starting small, and planning ahead, you may be able to make this summer’s trip a less fraught one that the entire family can remember fondly.

Introduce the Concept:

Most children crave predictability, says Barclay, especially those on the spectrum, so you can win half the battle by making the upcoming vacation more predictable for your child. Here are some strategies:

  • For the child who doesn’t understand the concept of traveling, ask your librarian for picture books featuring their favorite characters in travel situations.
  • Thanks to technology, you can preview every aspect of an upcoming vacation through videos on YouTube or those provided by the travel supplier. 
  • Role play aspects of the trip, such as taking shoes off to go through airport security, or not kicking the seat back in front of you during a flight.
  • Create Social Stories to describe various aspects of your upcoming trip.

 Starting Small:

  • If your trip involves the child’s first overnight in a bedroom that isn’t their own, spend an overnight at a friend’s or relative’s house so you can instantly see where triggers may lie. Does your child need the familiar scent and texture of the sheets, blankets, towels, and toiletries from home? A nightlight? A fan to block out noise from the hallways? Use this information to prepare for your actual holiday.
  • Remember that vacation rentals and hotels with kitchens cut down on restaurant dining, with their long waits and unfamiliar foods.
  • If you’re flying, check out Wings for Autism®, a program that sponsors dress rehearsals of airport experiences from check-in until boarding. And if you close your eyes, a car ride on a bumpy country road can simulate the sensation of light turbulence aloft.
  • Before a long train journey, take a short one (even if it’s just a commuter ride to the next town) to preview the experience. The same goes for a one-hour car ride before one that lasts for days, or a ferry ride before a long cruise. You’ll quickly see where potential travel problems may lie and have time to brainstorm practical solutions.

Planning Ahead:

  • Noise-cancelling headphones and a go-to bag with electronics loaded with favorite shows and movies, fidget toys, non-perishable snacks, and other distractions are a must.
  • Sample unfamiliar elements in advance. Going to the beach for the first time? Buy some sand at a local craft store, pour it over a tarp, and have your child walk on it. Live in warmer climes and heading where it’s cold? Practice wearing layered clothing.
  • Use a Certified Autism Travel Professional (CATP) to help you plan your vacation. Many have neurodiverse children themselves and their training will help you plan the perfect holiday for your special needs

Dawn M. Barclay is a veteran travel reporter, the mother of two “challenging” children, and the author of “Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for Parents of the Anxious, the Inflexible, and the Neurodiverse (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022).

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