Although planning a family vacation with children can make any parent pull out his or her hair, it can be a rewarding and memorable experience for everyone in the end. It is no different if you have child with autism in the family. The important thing to remember is that you need to be prepared for whatever life throws your way. To a child with autism, vacations can be scary and confusing, or they can be fun and a great learning experience for the entire family.
First, choose your vacation destination with your special needs child in mind. If he or she is sensitive to sound, an amusement park is probably not the best idea. Quieter vacations are possible at small beaches and by camping or glamping. Some resort and cruise companies even feature autism-friendly accommodations and programs. With all the options available, you should be able to find a location that can be enjoyed by all family members.
Once on site, plan out your days accordingly. For example, you may want to see attractions very early or late in the day to avoid crowds. You also might want to consider taking your vacation during the off-season, if your children’s schoolwork will not be disrupted. For children made nervous by crowds, a less hectic environment can comfort them and provide you peace of mind. When choosing a destination, also note how far it is from your home. How will you get there? If your plans involve air travel, remember that airport security and/or TSA may have to touch your child. You’ll want to be prepared for this eventuality; rehearsing at home potentially problematic situations can help. A familiar toy or “lovey” from home can be a comforting “safe base” from which your child can find his “just right zone” and calm himself.
Choose a location and activities that everyone can enjoy, but that also provide learning and social interaction opportunities for your youngster with autism. Even children who normally are sensory-avoidant may enjoy the soft sand of a beach, and the waves can provide a new, very different sensation him. A beach also is a great place for your child to yell and let off steam without disrupting others. A non-responsive child may benefit from an age- or interest-appropriate museum, where she can ask questions and you can interact with her calmly and quietly.
Remember that most other people on vacation at the location you choose will not have dealt with autism before. Try to be understanding of their ignorance, but also stick up for your child, if he or she is being treated unfairly or unkindly. Advocate for your child’s needs, but also be willing to compromise. For example, if a restaurant is reluctant to serve you after your child caused a scene there previously, explain the situation and ask if it would be possible to take your food to go, even if this normally is not done. Try not to be rude to others; staring, even insensitive comments can happen, but ignore them as much as possible, and focus on having a good time with your family.
If properly planned, and with the right attitude and expectations, a vacation away can create the fond, fun memory of a lifetime for you and your youngster.