Traveling with children can be daunting, and when you travel with a child who has autism and requires organized structure, venturing out into unfamiliar surroundings can add an entirely new dimension to the experience.
Autism is a spectrum of neurological disorders characterized by severe and pervasive impairment in various areas of development such as language and social skills. It affects 1 in 88 children, primarily boys, and it is most often detected by age 3. Because children with autism typically require predictability, vacations can be over-stimulating and distressing for the child with autism.
Unfortunately, there are many parents with children on the autism spectrum who are afraid of journeying beyond their own communities. Even thinking about taking a vacation can summon up feelings of trepidation in parents and family members. Caregivers are overwhelmed at the thought of managing quirky, self-injurious, or violent behaviors that their child might exhibit in public; they also fear stares, rude comments, or judgments by others. They may opt, therefore, to keep their special needs child at home.
But traveling with kids who have autism is possible and doesn't have to be difficult. Here are tips that can make your trip a pleasurable one for your child and a positive experience for the family.
Choose the Best Destination for Your Child
Vacations mean transition, which children with autism may find difficult. You have to know your child and have a thorough understanding of his needs first. Children with autism tend not to be socially intuitive, and new experiences can result in meltdowns, so planning what can be executed and enjoyed by your child is imperative. "Children with autism are stress detectors. They sense others' stress and react in ways that are considered an interruption to the planned agenda for the day. For this reason, vacations at the beach or in the mountains, where schedules are often flexible and unhurried, can be ideal for a child with autism," says Rebecca Landa, Ph.D., Director of the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.
Does your child like amusement parks? Is hiking in your child's comfort zone? Do you find that his sensory issues fade when he's basking in the sun on the beach? No matter where you travel, you should always remember the activities that your child will enjoy. Try not to overload him by bombarding him with too many things to do, as this will cause stress for everyone involved.
Include your children as active partners in the planning. Adapt it to your child's interests, information-processing abilities, and attention span, and relate it to the upcoming trip. Researching the destination and how you're getting there, and talking about accommodations and the kinds of activities that are well suited to your child are all part of planning process.
Make Arrangements Ahead of Time
Calling ahead to make special arrangements will make your trip easier. Contact airlines, hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks and explain that you are traveling with a child who has autism; discuss your needs and request certain accommodations.
Kim Stagliano, mom of three girls ages 11, 15, and 17 (all whom have autism) and author of All I Can Handle: A Life Raising Three Daughters with Autism, is a firm believer in planning ahead before she and her husband take their trio anywhere. "If we fly, I use the pre-boarding opportunity to tell the airline staff that the girls have autism, so that they can understand if we have a situation and offer us extra assistance if we need it.
Many major airlines, theme parks, hotels, and restaurants are often amenable to the needs of children with autism. In 2011, Logan Airport in Boston hosted a free rehearsal flying experience, called Wings for Autism, for children with autism and their families so that personnel can better understand the community. Families from three states -- Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire -- took part in the airport dress rehearsal. JetBlue even lent one of their planes for the event and its flight crew volunteered their time. Families were allowed to go through a mock airport experience, including a normal screening process with airport staff checking to see how a child reacts when a favorite toy or backpack is taken away for scanning. Then they boarded the plane and helped practice staying seated and belted. Airports in Philadelphia and Newark have staged similar events and Manchester Airport in London produced an informative brochure on flying with autism, called "Airport Awareness."
Theme parks across the country are also finding ways to accommodate children with autism. "We usually go to the guest relations office that can be found in most theme parks and request special passes so that we don't have to wait on long lines," says Amy Dingwall, of Trumbull, Connecticut, whose 17-year-old son, Ryan, has autism.