As the fastest growing developmental disorder, autism has become a mainstream topic among travel professionals and families looking for an adaptive vacation. For the parent of a child or close relative with autism, many questions come up each day, even more so when trying to plan a family vacation.
That's why we thought one mother's words of wisdom could help those traveling with companions who have autism and other special psychological needs. I interviewed Ilene, the mother of two boys (a 14-year-old and a 12-year-old with autism), who shared her experiences and advice on traveling with a child who has autism.
Her insight will assist you in planning a vacation for your family, ensuring that all members get the most out of the experience. Many of her thoughtful suggestions apply to parents traveling with kids afflicted by ADD, ADHD, mental health issues, and other psychological challenges as well. Her advice is also helpful to family planners who may be organizing a reunion or other large get-together that will include a relative with special needs.
If venturing out on your first family vacation with a child who has autism seems too daunting, keep in mind that there are also excellent, organized programs and camps for kids with a variety of special needs. For further reference on these programs and camps, go to our story on Special Needs Camps.
10 Helpful Tips for Organizing your Trip
Ilene's thoughtful suggestions come from years of traveling with her active family, both to ski resorts in winter and Caribbean getaways in summer. Never one to let her younger son's handicap limit her family's experiences, Ilene planned a trip to Israel recently so that her boys could understand more about their religious heritage. While not every trip has been perfect, each has been more than worthwhile. Follow her strategies for success and the whole family is guaranteed an unforgettable experience.
1. Alert airlines and hotels ahead of time
There have been numerous cases of airlines removing passengers afflicted with autism from planes, or even refusing to allow them to board the aircraft because of their behavior, as was the case at Bangalore Airport in India recently. To avoid this, you should inform airlines and hotels of your child’s condition ahead of time to make sure that you and your child are treated fairly. Most airlines and hotels will be happy to assist you, with airlines even allowing you to board the plane ahead of other passengers. However, if you call travel professionals and demand services or other special treatment, they might be inclined to refuse to accommodate your needs. Ilene suggests being very polite and carefully explaining your situation, so you don't offend or scare the staff with possible scenarios.
2. Make sure your child is comfortable with the airplane
Some doctors and autism experts suggest showing your child pictures of the airplane before your trip. This familiarizes them with the aircraft, easing tensions, making them feel more comfortable. You can also turn flying into a game, letting them choose their seat, giving them more control over the situation to prevent them from getting scared.
3. Safety First
Contact hotels beforehand to arrange for any special services, such as adjoining rooms, food and sleep requirements, and secure locks on your doors. Some children with autism wander off, so you want to make sure they can’t get out of the room in the middle of the night when everyone else is asleep (our story on kid-themed hotel rooms, is a great alternative for families with children who have autism, who are sure to be entertained by the interactive elements of in-room amenities). Ilene's son loves water so much, that in the middle of the night he decided he had to go see it. Luckily he was located very quickly and was unharmed, but after that they learned that a deadbolt was not enough, as most kids can unlock them. She recommends checking to see what type of locks the hotel has to ensure that you, the parent, are the only one capable of unlocking the door from the inside. Avoiding rooms that include a balcony or terrace might also be a good idea, as they can be very dangerous. Autism sometimes has adverse effects on your child's eating and sleeping patterns, so inquire about the schedule and types of food service in and around the hotel. Some families will want to request a secluded room away from all of the hotel noise if their child has trouble sleeping.
4. Authorized letter from child’s physician identifying their disability and needs
This letter will be a huge help in ensuring that you do not have any problems with airport security. It will also help when traveling to amusement parks, allowing you to bypass long lines, which can be difficult for children with autism to handle, as they sometimes have a hard time waiting. Disney World (407/824-4321) has a great customer relations team, and they are always a huge help for people traveling with disabled members in their group. In addition, the Autism Society has wallet cards, which are similar to the doctor’s note, identifying the symptoms of autism, which you can carry with you to help put the airport and hotel staff at ease.
5. Be prepared
Unforeseen circumstances are a common occurrence when traveling, so prepare yourself in advance for flight delays, or limited access to food and entertainment. Ilene always brings a “takeaway bag” filled with her son's preferred snacks and foods, DVD’s, and other activities to keep him busy should anything unpredictable happen. Traveling can cause instability in your life, and maintaining your child’s comfort level is always the most important thing, so making sure you are always prepared is key.
6. Be creative
Sometimes part of vacationing means you have to get creative and turn something that has the potential to be boring into an exciting adventure, enticing your child to take part in it. Ilene recalled a trip to Paris, in which they raced up the steps of the Notre Dame Cathedral, and then played “find the gargoyle” once they reached the top. Her son likes more hands-on, physical activities so she planned accordingly and her son was happy.
7. Know your child’s likes and dislikes
If your child likes to be active — running around, swimming, and playing games — then select activities that allow them to spread their wings. Visit water parks or go camping, as they are sure to have their hands full at these types of locales. Taking an active child to a museum where they will be forced to ‘look but not touch’ is a bad idea. However, if your child enjoys reading and observing things, like art, a gallery or museum would be a perfect fit for them. The key is to know what activities your child prefers, and make certain that those activities are included in your vacation.
8. Focus on your child’s strengths
Since Ilene’s son loves to stay physically active, her family selected Costa Rica for a vacation destination. Costa Rica is a top attraction for adventure seekers, so it was the perfect choice for her son. He was able to go zip-lining and be active throughout the whole trip, which was great for him, and allowed for a fun-filled trip that each member of the family could participate in and enjoy.
9. Stick to your routine
Repetition is always good for children with autism, and sticking to their normal, everyday routine is important when they are in a different environment. If your child likes to do certain activities in the morning, and then have quiet time in the afternoon, you should follow that routine, and try not to deviate too much from their normal routine.
10. Plan for the whole group
While your child’s needs are very important, a vacation means relaxation and enjoyment for all. If you need to split your group up so that everyone can take advantage of what they are interested in, then so be it. Maybe you want to shop, while your travel partners want to visit museums or take in a local sporting event. If so, then incorporating these activities into the trip and making time for everyone's interests is necessary.
Choosing a Camp Program for Kids With Autism
While many hotels and resorts offer extensive children's programs, not all of those programs will be able to accommodate the special needs of a child with autism. The only person who can decide what programs are suitable for your child's needs is you. An invaluable resource for parents with children who have autism is Autism Speaks, an advocacy group that can provide you with guidance and information on how best to deal with the affects of autism in all areas of your life.
One resort that offers an adaptive program for kids with special needs is the Smuggler's Notch resort in Vermont, a top destination for families. The SNAP program allows kids to have a one-on-one experience with a trained counselor and incorporates special needs campers into their regular programs as often as possible. Kids of all ages with both cognitive and physical special needs are welcome at this camp, but they do require you to pre-register at least four weeks prior to your visit. Autism Snowman Camp is held each winter as a 5-day program for children and adults with developmental disabilities. During winter, campers will participate in a variety of different activities including sleigh rides, alpine and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, horseback riding, dog sledding, ice skating and swimming. Instructors support each camper to reach their fullest potential in every activity.
The Autism Partnership also offers some summer programs specifically designed for children with autism. These camps include one to three-week-long sessions, anywhere from 4 to 40 hours per week, involving lifestyle, recreation, and entertainment in Seal Beach, California. An important thing to note is that the camps do allow children who require extra attention to have a personal aide at an additional fee. The AP keeps a list of furnished apartments and notes that Seal Beach is "a small beach community located close to everything Southern California has to offer. Beaches, Disneyland, Universal Studios, professional sports and a wide variety of theaters are just a sample of top vacation adventures families have added to their “to do” list during their stay."
For more resources, tips and health services, view Autism: On the Spectrum.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.