by Sarah Glass, BCaBA, a past SkillCorps member and a mother of an individual with autism

With a little bit of preparation, families with children with autism can have exciting vacations enjoyed by all. The first thing families should consider, is their child’s specific needs. Since every child with autism is different, following a pre-written strategy or guide may not be helpful. The following post will discuss how my family individualizes our vacation preparation to meet our son’s needs and the supports we use that help him cope with unfamiliar experiences.

My family typically opts to rent vacation homes with a pool rather than staying at a resort. Cities and vacation destinations can be noisy and unpredictable. Renting a house allows my son a more quiet and an environment similar to his own home. We also do not have to worry that his loud vocal stims, that typically occur when he is over stimulated, disturbing people in adjacent hotel rooms.

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Our son is a natural born swimmer and is happiest when surrounded by water. For this reason, our vacation plans always includes opportunities for water play. Even when we travel to large cities or plan visits to museums, we schedule breaks throughout the day for the pool. We have found that our son is best able to handle the hustle and bustle typical of most vacations when he is given time to recharge and find his center.

We always make sure to bring noise canceling headphones when visiting museums or touring loud city streets. Prior to our visit, we check location maps to find quiet spaces to retreat in case of overstimulation. I have also found it helpful to map out locations like parks or recreation centers where people will not mind if he becomes loud. While sight seeing we encourage engagement at his level. But we also build in 15 minutes of video or music time for every half hour of sight seeing.

My husband and I love to eat in trendy restaurants and explore local cuisine. We have worked hard to find a balance that allows a comfortable experience for everyone. While we still eat in restaurants throughout our visit, we typically eat out during lunch to avoid less crowed eateries during the dinner rush. Eating dinner at home also helps him stick to our usual night-time routine.

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Safety is a huge concern for families that have children with autism. Before renting a vacation home, we carefully consider safety hazards. We avoid homes with balconies or without enclosed yards. We also choose not to rent the fancy homes that I prefer if they are positioned next to the ocean or a lake. The temptation for a late night swim may be too strong for our son to resist. I typically call property owners to discuss locks on windows and doors. Generally, they are very kind and have even sent pictures.

These are the supports that have allowed our family to successfully travel around the country. Remember, each child is different and may need more or less supports based on their comfort levels. I have found that it is better to over-prepare and not use a strategy than to be ill-prepared and deal with a tantrum. Good luck and happy travels!

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