Basic Travel Tips for families with kids on the spectrum

There are many everyday things that are far less easy to do with children in general; Going shopping, going out to eat, long car rides, etc. But having a kid on the spectrum in your family often seems to take that hard task to almost impossible, or unbearable at the least. So, obviously you can imagine that vacationing would be near the top of the list for things that are hard to do with a kid on the spectrum. Whether you are traveling close by, or far away, I have a go to list of tips I use that I hope will help make your trips and outings go as smooth as possible.
1) Extra Hands
Being a family of 5 with 3 young kids close in age often has us feeling out numbered. Two of my kids are generally ok with a one-on-one sort of attention in crowded places, but my son with autism is getting faster and faster by the day and if you pair that with his tendencies for elopement, it almost takes two people to care for him at times. I often just tell people; I don’t have enough “hands”. Needless to say, it is not crazy to think that things would be easier having another adult or two, or five, help out when available. We are fortunate to have both sets of our parents very close by. They all spend a lot of time with our kids and know them well. These are often our go to people for inviting to go with us, including on the big vacations. To us, it is well worth the cost of offering to pay for their admission or travel to stay somewhere, just to have that extra help. Fortunately for us, they seem happy to go. If you don’t have parents willing to do this maybe there is another family member that you could invite, a paid babysitter, or look into a place that offers a childcare option? Many of the places that offer a childcare option for children with autism can be even pricier than bringing someone along and we personally have never attempted it ourselves, but it is out there. Could we do it without extra hands-probably, would we lose our minds-probably. As I said, just a good option to consider if it is available.

2) Research
For those of you that are familiar with the ABCs of ABA (applied behavioral analysis) you’ll understand that if you know the antecedents (the things that take place before a behavior), you can maybe avoid the bad behaviors or meltdowns altogether. Example-If you know your child loves mini bowling, but you know (from a little research ahead of time) that the mini-bowling machine doesn’t open until 9am, then you can wait to go until 9am and avoid the meltdown that comes when they see the machine and can’t understand why they are not allowed to play. By knowing the rules and offerings of the place you are going, you can do your best to avoid things or areas that may have unpleasant reactions, and also make sure you have an opportunity to hit the ones that you think they will do well with. If you can’t find what you are looking for on there website, don’t hesitate to call and ask your questions. There are many places that offer helpful options or programs for people on the spectrum as well, such as alternatives to waiting in line. Most of these can be found out by a phone call or visit to customer service ahead of time. Will knowing everything help you 100% of the time in avoiding bad behaviors, no, because not everything can be foreseen or controlled. But it has been a pretty big help for our trips overall.
3) Prepare for Lines
Growing up my autistic brother often responded back to anything that required waiting with “patience is not my virtue”, and I’ve found this to be an accurate sentiment to many others who I have met on the spectrum, including my son. Lines are hard to avoid almost anywhere. Whether you are at an amusement park, or the grocery store, most things in life just require some form of waiting your turn. Obviously, this is not always an easy task, but in lieu of avoiding outings altogether, we have come up with ways to help in the waiting game. These will
son loves numbers and ABCs and would often visually stim while I recited the ABCs in sign language to him. We would do this many times, over and over, as it was a fairly quiet task and would help us pass the time as well as help regulate him a bit.
4) Snacks
My household comes with two boys with many sensory issues to foods. I would love to say that we could go on an all-inclusive vacation and not pack snacks or extra food, but even with all of our “practicing” with eating, we are not there yet and may not be for some time still. We work hard on our feeding therapies at home and have extended it to other settings as well, but in general, traveling to places that are already strange to their everyday routine don’t seem like the best place to push the issue. Obviously, to each his own and if you are taking a hard line on it, I say good for you and stand your ground. But right now, I have chosen my battles, and our full feeding therapy when traveling has not won out. So, we always travel with plenty of preferred food and snacks because the last thing I need is hangry little ones. These can often be used as a reward for the waiting in lines as well.
5) Adjust your Expectations
Is there anyone who has ever taken a family trip that didn’t have some rough patches, especially when young kids are involved? If so, it sure wasn’t my family. Does the picture in my head of how things will go often get changed, sure, that’s life. Sometimes things go even better than I figured they would, and many times hiccups happen. I must still like it overall, or I am just a sucker for punishment because I continue to book family outings. But all in all, if you understand where you might struggle, and adjust your expectations accordingly you will probably be pretty pleased with how things tend to go.

Sometimes I leave a place saying I will never go back, sometimes I can’t wait to take them again. I’d say that may be accurate to how most parents feel even if they don’t have a little one with special needs. But the truth is, even though traveling with my son has its challenges, the more we do it, the better he has gotten. He is really getting to the point where he even loves to go places, which is interesting for someone who thrives on routines. It is not out of the ordinary to hear him request to go to the park or even a hotel from time to time. So as his love for traveling continues to grow, I will keep with my checklist above and push through because I know, as with everything else, all my kiddos do better with practice.