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Traveling With Your Child With Autism
BY KIM KAPLAN
This time of year is a traveling time. There’s Easter, Passover, and spring breaks galore! I am taking my child away for two days for some spring break fun. This got me to thinking of a question… How do I travel with my autistic child?
We have never shied away from traveling with our child. We traveled with him pre-autism diagnosis AND after. We always wanted to travel and didn’t let autism stop us.
The most important theory we’ve maintained, and I’ve said this before but it’s worth repeating, are that experiences are worth it for our kids! Give them experiences, try things, and you may find your attempts rewarding.
You may also surprise yourself by discovering ways to make them work for your whole family. You may discover that autism doesn’t have to stop you.
How can you travel with your autistic child?
Explain the vacation or trip to your child well ahead of time (if you can). Especially if your child is old enough to understand the various nuances involved in traveling and/or vacations.
What do I mean?
Here’s an example… Your child is not going to be sleeping in their usual bedroom nor are they going to be sleeping in their own bed. They may have to sleep on a couch or in a sleeping bag on the floor! They may end up on a cot or a pull-out sofa bed. You’re going to have to communicate this with your child. You’re going to have to tell him that he’s going to be sleeping in his cousin’s bed or in a hotel bed or wherever for a few days.
Another example is you’ll probably have to tell your child that they may eat different foods on the trip – unless you bring your child’s food with you (and there’s nothing wrong with that, by the way). Then there’s the actual traveling part of traveling (you know what I mean). You may have to explain to your child they will be required to sit in a car for a long period of time. Let them know that they’re expected to do this. Yes, there will be “bathroom breaks” but the majority of the time spent driving to a destination is spent in the car with the seatbelt on!
Or, you may be flying to your destination. You’ll have to explain the “flying procedure” to your child. These days, a flying procedure includes waiting on lines to check in bags, waiting in lines at the gate, and waiting for the flight to take off. That’s a lot of waiting! Our kids are notorious for NOT being “good waiters!” (This is what my son says.) Prepare them for all the waiting.
Bring plenty of activities that will occupy your child. Don’t be shy of bringing the “obsessions” along as well. Be lenient. You may find that even if your child’s obsession is to watch Transformers 24/7, you may require him/her to be quiet and sit still at key moments. You cannot go walking around an airplane during take-off or landing, for example. If you need them to sit still and focus, and even tune out to their surroundings, let them. It’ll be safer for all.
For car trips, I bring our portable DVD player along and my child gets to watch his videos. What else can he do while locked up in a car? He also likes to read the signs, look at cars, and look at maps. I usually lean toward whatever will help him (and us) get through the trip.
What happens when we get where we’re going?
Once at your destination, try to be creative. For example, in your home (or at school) your child may have certain things he/she does to regulate their bodies. My child has a trampoline. We cannot fly with our trampoline.
What do you suggest to “substitute” for our child’s OT needs?
At hotels, I take my child into the exercise room and have him use the equipment (you can’t do this if they’re too young, however). We both exercise! You can also simply walk them around the hotel. And, many hotels have pools. Swimming feels good for most of our kids, so take them for a swim.
During our last trip, I rotated completing homework, OT-related breaks, and some “downtime” with his DVD player. (Usually, the homework came first.)
Will my child ever be able to travel on his/her own?
I’ve asked myself that very same question many times. For that reason, during the last year or two whenever we’ve traveled, I have specifically pointed things out to my son, things that someday he may have to do on his own. These things are not always “vacation-related” either.
One example is going through a circular door. It wasn’t too long ago that my son refused to go through but I took his hand and we went together. During this last trip, I asked him to try it solo. I explained how to “jump in” and “climb out.” He did great.
I’ve also made many attempts to explain things that my son will have to remember on his own some day. Like why he can’t play his DVD player why the airplane is taking off or landing. He has no choice in a situation like that. He has to find something else to do, yet he’s not always very happy about it.
Finally, I recently explained how to retrieve our luggage at a baggage claim. He knows our luggage flies with us on the airplane and he knows the luggage ends up at baggage claim. I realized during this last trip that he didn’t necessarily know how to watch for his own bag (and our bags) and grab them when he spotted them.
In regards to traveling, I will continue to explain things to him as they come up – keeping in mind that someday he’ll do these things on his own. I have confidence that he’ll learn these things someday, with practice. It can be his world out there, too, and I’ll help him get there.