Traveling with autism, or children with special needs, is not for the feint of heart. The upside is that travel usually gets easier as children mature. When my family is on the road and we encounter an autism-related mishap, all in the company of strangers, my husband loves to remind me, “Honey, we’ll never see these people again!”
As my children enter their teen years, my challenge isn’t managing autism when we’re away from home. I can’t always predict, much less control, how my son will behave in situations that are new and unfamiliar. I accept that he will probably offend at least one person during our trip. More than likely, he will charm the socks off of that one person who takes the time to look past his quirkiness and engage his personality.
Traveling with autism can be difficult, but it can also be very rewarding. Introducing your child to new worlds, people, and foods can reap many short- and long-term benefits that far exceed the pleasure (or displeasure) of the immediate experience. Exploring new environments, especially when children are young, is a great way to stretch your child’s boundaries and teach flexibility. Whether you’re traveling to another state or another country, each time the family steps out of their comfort zone, you’re giving your child an amazing opportunity to grow and learn from new experiences. Exposing your child (and their autism) to the wider community has benefits for everyone involved.
I’ve learned two important lessons about traveling with autism. First, when there is a change in scenery and routines, expect protests and push-backs, no matter how thrilling the destination may be. Preparing your child for the trip, creating visual schedules, a social story (or two) to explain how events will unfold, and maps charting your journey can go a long way in reducing fear and anxiety. Nothing replaces a good fidget or electronic device to keeps fingers and minds occupied during flights or long stents in the car.
The second lesson learned is to leave your extended family at home. If possible, only travel or vacation with your immediate family. We have found that family vacations, no matter how noble the intent, are just too much for my children. Too many people, distractions, and conversations drive my ASD family over the edge. Eventually my kids become overwhelmed…and then they just want to go home.
We recently traveled to the beaches of southwest Florida. Spring break was in full swing with heavy traffic, crowded restaurants, and populated beaches. My son is not always keen on eating out or going to the cinema. I was determined we were going to do both. Because it was just our family, I was better able to parent, maintain consistency, and stick to my guns. We had a crying, kicking, screaming melting-down teenager when we departed for the restaurant. En route we were showered with profanities and colorful epithets. Upon arrival at the Pacific Thai Bistro, we enjoyed curious looks from fellow patrons and wait staff as our sullen teen sneered (at everyone) as we took our seats. I didn’t care one lick. Like my husband says, “Honey, we’ll never see these people again!”
To our amazement, my son settled down immediately and commented how serene the restaurant was. He studied the menu and ordered Chicken Satay (which he had never tasted before, but thoroughly enjoyed). The tantrum king morphed into a charming young man. We had a lovely, peaceful meal that was complemented by appropriate dinner conversation (no small feat for my kids). Next we were off to see The Hunger Games and no one was more excited than charm boy. Our family night out was one of the best in our collective memories.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this outcome would have been possible with the audience of extended family. No offense to doting grandparents and well-meaning aunts and uncles. Our families certainly sympathize with our challenges, but most folks have no idea what we (ASD parents) go through on a daily basis, much less how to take a child with autism to another state, have them sleep in a different bed, and eat food that isn’t prepared in the home kitchen.
This was the first vacation that my children did not want to return home early. After several pilgrimages to the beach with 12+ family members, this ASD family has finally learned to vacation solo. It just works out better for everyone, even for “those people you’ll never see again!”