Planning a family vacation with Autism – 10 tips for success

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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.


16 thoughts on “Planning a family vacation with Autism – 10 tips for success”


    • Magna on November 2, 2018

      Thanks, Alex. This is such great advice. I’m reticent to go on vacation myself for many of the reasons and challenges you describe that I encounter. I’m getting better at trying to waylay my fears about taking vacations since I know they’re good for my family to go on such adventures.

      We took our first vacation in 13 years and I used many of the tips you described including planning out and researching most aspects of the trip in advance. I was able to do most of the planning which made me more comfortable. I think having an autistic child assist in the planning process is a great idea.

      I also wanted to pick a place and time that was in the off season for the very reasons you mentioned. Unbeknownst to us, there was a fat-tire off road bike race happening that same weekend so it was busier than I expected, but I was able to roll with it (no pun intended).

      I’m sure parents of autistic children would already know to do this, but making sure all "tools" needed for an autistic person’s sensory issues are a must. I know I don’t go anywhere without sunglasses, hat and earplugs as well as clothing options.

      Notifying the staff: That’s an interesting tip to me. I can see some advantages for doing that, not only for the family but also for the staff. I worked a good number of years in the restaurant industry when I was younger. Meltdowns or plain old tantrums can happen with any child, NT or ND. Not knowing exactly what your opinion might be on this, you and I might differ though in whether or not it’s OK for a child, any child, to completely melt down (e.g. have a screaming fit) in a restaurant where the family might continue to eat. I don’t think that would be right at all, NT or ND. I think any child who became completely "unglued", as courtesy to the other patrons, should be removed from the restaurant by a parent. Maybe you where thinking of different scenarios in relation to this.

      Like you said, having the kids be aware of the plans and the itinerary beforehand and reminded each day or even again during the day can make such a big difference rather than having an autistic child being in unfamiliar places, for unknown periods of time can be scary and very upsetting.

      I enjoy reading every article I see you put out there. Thanks again.

    • Canadian Penguin on November 3, 2018

      If there is one thing which I think is a must have it’s having a place to retreat to (where possible) and making sure you’re not venturing too far (again, where possible).

      Our family likes to go to all-inclusive resorts (and sometimes, cruises). Having the ability to go back to the room to get away from people and everything, at any time, makes a huge difference. I don’t know that I’d be able to survive otherwise. I can imagine how important something like that might be to parents of Autistic children, just being able to have a break from the noise and crowd.

      Having a family that also understands my need to do that is also big.

      On cruises we do do excursions where you don’t have the option of retreating. I can do them, but it’s exhausting.

    • CockneyRebel on November 3, 2018

      I think those are all very good suggestions. That way, the whole family can have a good time. My parents took those things in account when we planned our family vacations.

    • StillAlienAfterAllTheseYears on November 5, 2018

      Alex, thanks for the very useful tips. One thing we find useful is to minimize change – if we are to stay in a different hotel each night, try to stay in the same chain of hotel as for many chains they all look the same, the rooms are the same, have the same layout, the same (or very similar) breakfasts, etc. That way everyone knows just what to expect.

    • tern on November 5, 2018

      Planning where next meal is not always doable when outside the English-speaking world. Be aware of the possibilities, plural, but each one depends on whether it’s a place you can cope with when you get there.

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