Planning a family vacation with Autism – 10 tips for success
Going on vacation is is supposed to be relaxing but it can often turn out to be the opposite for those on the spectrum if we don’t plan it right. And for parents of autistics, that stress can spread to the whole family. When I was a kid, my parents made a lot of efforts to take our family on vacations and while I’m sure they probably felt frustrated at times, they took a very smart approach that took into account my needs as an autistic so our vacations usually were quite successful and when they were stressful my parents learned from those and planned future vacations with those experiences in mind. Here are some tips so you don’t have to learn from scratch.
1. Create a concrete plan you share with you child and set expectations before going on the vacation – If we know exactly what’s going on and can see a schedule beforehand it feels much less overwhelming to tackle new places and new experiences.
2. Make sure you’re staying in a place with enough space – when I was a kid, if we stayed in a place with plenty of space, my parents had no issues. For example, every year my parents would take us to Pawleys Island, SC. Generally that trip was fine because my parents rented a big enough house and I had my own space, which is something a lot of us on the spectrum need. One year, we moved to a much nicer but much smaller house. I had to share a bedroom with my brother and the house was very compact so we felt packed in and I had a lot of difficulties. Even though the house was nicer, renting the bigger, albeit more shabby, beach house was much better for our family.
3. Plan your vacation during the destination’s off-season and go to a place that’s less crowded in general Autistic people can get overwhelmed in large crowds or places that have a lot of people. And when you go to tourist destinations, that can be even more overwhelming if it’s during a busy season.
4. Plan a lot of physical activities Things that involve bike riding, walking, swimming, or even outdoor activities like the zoo, are good for helping to get rid of that excess nervous energy that can build up .
5. Doing more shorter vacations like day or weekend trips can be easier than going on a single longer vacation If a week long vacation is too much, try doing a few 3, 2 or 1 day trips. If your child hates the trip, you can leave without worrying about the fact that you paid for a whole week.
6. Since activities can be overwhelming, limit them in time and scope and plan them so that they work for your child -
As an example, for a trip to a museum, create a plan of things to see and do and share it with your child before going in. Whatever you do, don’t just walk around looking at things. People, especially kids, on the spectrum don’t like uncertainty.
Also, call ahead and ask what the least busy time is – sometimes google has a graph that shows how many people are at a specific attraction for each hour of the day.
Also, plan mini tours that involve activities related to what you’re doing (like a scavenger hunt). Often times, places like a museum will offer guides for children. Don’t be pedantic, the experience of new places and experiences should be enough. You don’t need to teach them everything about everything you see and don’t try too hard to make sure they’re learning. Children will remember activities related to what they saw, not what was written on a plaque you made them read. Be more hands off and your child’s curiosity will do the rest.
Plan an escape if it’s a new overwhelming experience. One time we went to a haunted house. My sister who is also on the spectrum was insistent upon going in so my mom talked with the people running it and they came up with an egress plan for her to go to a guide to take her out if she got overwhelmed and needed to leave.
7. Always have a plan of where your next meal is coming from – either bring your food or plan to eat at a specific place you research that is fun and not overwhelming from a sensory perspective
Plan rest times – While it can seem like it’d be better to make use of all the time you have and do as much as possible, if you do less things and have built-in breaks, the things you do will be much more rewarding and memorable. You don’t need to see the whole city or even the whole museum. A lot of parents
8. Be aware of your child’s needs and prioritize those over your own- If your kid likes rocket ships, go to the air and space museum. Even if you think you’d enjoy an art gallery more, you won’t if your kid is having a melt down the whole time. You can still go to the art gallery if you make it fun, but sometimes the path of least resistance is best.
9 Prepare staff in advance - Tell them you have a kid on the spectrum and explain that a meltdown is possible. That way, if a meltdown does happen they will be more patient and accommodating and you won’t get as many people judging you.
10. If you have multiple kids on the spectrum, consider one parent taking them each separately on different vacations based on their needs and interests. Or if you’re doing activities on the same trip, maybe split off so each child can do something that will work for them.