How to survive the School Holidays: Tips for travelling with children on the Autism spectrum
With the school holidays around the corner, we can feel overwhelmed by the upcoming school holiday entertaining and, most of all, the much-feared transit. Traveling can be a burden, even for those who have spent months preparing. And if one of your little humans happens to be a special needs child, specifically one on the Autism spectrum, you can be in for a whole new set of challenges. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2018), about 1 in every 59 children is diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In honour of Autism Awareness Month and World Autism Awareness Day (April 2), we’ve put together a few tips for those traveling with a little one on the spectrum, hopefully putting your worries to rest and allowing your family the dream vacation they’ve always wanted.
Choose Your Destination Wisely. Sensory overload is a real thing, think overwhelming amount of sights, sounds, lights, smells and crowds. Often, children on the spectrum have a heightened sensitivity to their surrounding environment, so it’s essential to research the area you’re looking to stay/visit, and even the attractions you’re hoping to see.
Preparation and Planning are Key. As you plan your vacation, let these words be your mantra. Remember them, live by them, repeat them. You won't be sorry! The more you plan in advance, the less stressful AND ENJOYABLE your vacation will be!
· Practice scenarios. As the mother of a child on the spectrum, I’ve learned it’s best to prepare your child for what to expect ahead of time. Tell them there will be lots of other people around. If you have other children at home, practice standing in line, so they’ll understand they need to wait their turn patiently.
· Use a calendar to count the days leading up to your trip, starting two-three weeks or so before leaving. Make this calendar accessible to your child and let him/her tick off the day before bed, as part of the routine.
· Create a picture story depicting the events and preparation leading up to your trip. Include events like packing bags, the car ride to the airport if flying, going through security, boarding the airplane at the gate, and getting on the airplane. It might be beneficial to include pictures of what the inside of an airplane looks like, as well as events like arriving at the destination airport, going to baggage claim, and pictures of trip destination. All these can be found on the Internet using Google images and various sites.
· Review the days and activities frequently with your child and family in the weeks leading up to your vacation. Everyone should know what to expect from the upcoming trip.
· Create a list or document to keep track of your vacation plans. Outline and structure each day of your vacation in order to prepare both yourself and your child. The less uncertain, idle time the better!
· If flying, print boarding passes at home! This will make it both fun and cut down on time spent standing in line once you arrive at the airport.
· Call the airport prior to your travel day and ask which TSA entry point is the best for disabled passengers. If you explain your situation and request to go through the shorter line designated for individuals with disabilities, airports will almost always be accommodating. The less time spent standing in line, the less likely problem behaviours will be.
The big day
· Be prepared with snacks. Avoid packing liquids due to airport regulations but remember most dry snacks are approved and will absolutely make things easier for you throughout the travel day. Familiar snacks are a way to ensure comfort for your child.
· Bring the items that make your child most comfortable at home. For children with autism, travel and especially flying, can be even scarier. Prepare yourself, and your child, both emotionally and physically for the travel day. Consider packing a favorite blanket, stuffed animal, games, colouring books, etc. Earplugs or noise cancelling headphones are a great item to include when packing for your trip.
· Add some new and exciting items to the activity pack, which can be as cheap or as expensive as you want them to be. Think new pencils, new colouring in book, magnetic travel board games, etc.
· Take frequent breaks. If your little one is feeling overwhelmed, try to find a quieter spot, away from the hustle and bustle, and give them a few moments to reset. Talk calmly and let them know that everything is fine. If driving, again, ensure you take ample stops to stretch the legs, run around, and relax, before getting back into the car.
Flying: going through security
· Arrive at the airport with plenty of time prior to departure.
· Talk to the gate agent before you board. Ask them them to allow you to pre‐board when they call for passengers that need extra time getting on the aircraft.
· As you board, make sure items you will need for the flight, like snacks, water, stuffed animals are in a backpack or large purse/bag that you can fit under the seat in front of you for easy access throughout the flight.
· Be ready with a book, something to play with, drawing materials or some other non-electronic entertainment source at this point.
Ready for take off
· Make take off as fun as possible for your child! Try counting down from 10 to Blast Off, pretending you are on a rocket ship or a fun ride they enjoy. Keeping your child as comfortable and calm as possible is the priority. This will ensure an easier travel experience for the entire family.
· Keep your child engaged by having him/her talk to you in order to avoid any pressurization issues during take-off. Work through and prevent these issues by having the child swallow water, chew gum or sensory device during take-off and landing.
· Don’t forget to use the earplugs/headphones you packed for take-off!
YOU MADE IT!
Take a big deep breath and give yourself a few pats on the back! Use your vacation as a time to enjoy being with your child, family, and friends. Try not to stress about the things you cannot control and try to plan for the things that you can. Have a wonderful time!