Summer is the time for planning your vacation! Many of us look forward to our family vacation all year. But vacations can be a source of anxiety for children on the spectrum due to the changes in schedule and routine, new sensory inputs (lights, sounds, smells, etc.), the amount of downtime, etc. Take the time to plan out your vacation for your child with autism so everyone in the family has fun and as stress-free as possible time.
Possible Traveling Challenges for Your Child When Planning Your Vacation
If you are flying:
- Can your child wait in line (possibly for an extended amount of time)?
- Does your child wait their turn appropriately?
- How will they tolerate the security scanners?
- Will they endure being separated from their belongings (i.e. at security, checking bags, etc.)?
- Can they tolerate waiting in the terminal if flights are delayed?
- Does your child have activities with which to engage on the plane?
- Is your child toilet-trained or will you have to schedule potty breaks at the airport and on the airplane
- Is your child independent enough in the restroom to manage using the small facilities on the plane?
- What is your behavior plan if a challenging behavior occurs while on the aircraft?
If you are driving:
- Does your child have engaging activities with which to engage in the car?
- Is your child toilet-trained or will you have to schedule potty breaks along the way?
- Is your child familiar with and independent with using public restrooms?
- What is your behavior plan if a challenging behavior occurs in the car?
Possible challenges or new behaviors required at your vacation spot:
- If you are going to an amusement park, how does your child tolerate rides? Will they ride and if so, with whom? If not, what will they do instead? With whom will they wait?
- Is your child prone to elopement or wandering? What is your plan for eliminating this safety risk while on vacation? Does your child have a medical autism bracelet with contact information? Will you use a child harness? Will you activate GPS tracking devices?
- Can your child swim? If they cannot swim, do they have proper swimming safety gear? Does your child understand water safety rules such as not swimming at night, swimming with an adult present, etc.?
- If you are skiing, does your child know how? Will he participate or will someone sit with him at the lodge? What will he do if he does not ski?
- If you are planning your vacation in a cool location, does your child tolerate cold-weather gear?
- If you are camping, is your child able to relieve himself outdoors? Does your child know to stay away from dangerous animals she may encounter in nature such as snakes? Will your child tolerate sleeping in a tent versus a bed?
- For children who often engage with electronics at home, what will your child engage with instead while camping?
- Does your child know not to eat berries or other food-like items found in nature? Will she tolerate wearing bug spray?
- How does your child occupy their downtime? Are they able to choose appropriate independent leisure activities or will you have to prepare those in advance?
Strategies for Preparing your Child for Your Vacation
Vacations are an excellent opportunity to expose your child to new experiences and to teach your child new skills! If you want to give your child a new experience and teach a new behavior while on vacation, such as water skiing, boogie boarding, snorkeling, etc. think about how you can expose your child to these behaviors and teach some of the required behaviors ahead of time. This is going to help when planning your vacation and make for a much smoother time while you are on vacation.
A few months ahead, show your child videos of someone water skiing and discuss how they are doing it. Video family members who are practicing and explaining the skills. Video your child practicing the skills and watch them together to discuss. Show videos or pictures of your hotel, the rides you anticipate riding at the amusement park, the restaurant you plan on visiting, etc. The more exposure to the places and sights they will see on vacation, the better.
Write a social story about what they should anticipate on the vacation. These stories can be drafted in the first or the third person. The story should show visually in pictures as well as describe the sights and experiences they will encounter on the trip. If possible, use actual pictures of the locations you will be visiting. Carol Gray’s The New Social Stories Book is an excellent resource for learning how to write social stories. She even includes many sample stories that you can copy and use for your child.
Practice, Practice, Practice!
Practice appropriate behaviors at home if possible. Buy a snorkel and have your child practice at a pool or in the bathtub. Take your child to the store and have them practice waiting in line. For complicated or new behaviors, you may have to shape the behavior far in advance. For example, if waiting in line is tough for your child, you may start with waiting in line appropriately for 30 seconds and systematically build up to longer amounts of time. For a child that will not tolerate wearing a wetsuit, you may have to shape wearing the wetsuit for a short amount of time at first until they can wear it for longer and longer amounts of time.
For practicing airport behaviors, The Arc partners with airports to offer an amazing airport practice experience called Wings for All. Wings for All is an airport rehearsal event that allows children with autism to go to the airport and experience what it is like to obtain boarding passes, go through security and board an aircraft. It also gives airport personnel the chance to learn about our kids on the spectrum, so they are better able to anticipate and handle their needs when they fly.
Visuals are Invaluable
As we know, most individuals on the spectrum are visual learners. When planning your vacation, create visuals that will help your child understand the schedule and expectations along the way. For example, if you know you will spend one evening at a fancy restaurant, create a visual of the appropriate behaviors you expect (i.e. sit appropriately, inside voice, etc.). These visuals can have pictures as well as words, depending on your child. “First, Then” visuals can be invaluable when teaching kids to wait for a highly preferred item or activity. Create a visual that says “First, wait in line, Then, ride the roller coaster.” Make a visual schedule that shows the sequence of events for the day so your child is not caught off guard by the change in their routine. If your child does not do well with downtime, create activity schedules ahead of time and bring them along to help keep your child engaged. Keep some blank index cards in your bag so that in a pinch, you can pull one out and create a quick visual if needed.
Reinforcement is Key!
Remember, whenever teaching a new behavior, reinforcement of the appropriate behavior is essential! Reinforcement can include praise, social interaction (i.e. high fives, fist bumps, etc.), activities, and edibles. Create token systems ahead of time for those behaviors you know may be challenging for your child. Waiting in line hard for her? Create a token board with the expectations at the top and an appropriate amount of symbolic spaces for her to earn tokens while waiting in line at airport security. Reinforce appropriate waiting behavior with praise and a token every few minutes to keep her motivation high to continue engaging in the appropriate behavior. Again, index cards in your bag can save you in a pinch if you need a token board STAT!
Family vacations create memorable experiences for everyone in your family. Vacations also help your family unwind and relax. For kids on the spectrum, without proper planning, vacations can be just the opposite. Take the time to plan your vacation well in advance, asking yourself some of the questions mentioned here. Create visuals, practice new behaviors and create reinforcement systems. With proper planning your vacation can be relaxing and enjoyable for the whole family!