Travel is and has always been a very important part of my and my family’s life. We try to get out of town, even if it’s just for a day or a weekend, every time we have a chance. Alex is almost twelve now and has been traveling with us ever since he was a baby. But I can’t say we didn’t have a rocky start. Years back, we took two year old Alex to Maui and had to learn the hard way that if we don’t accommodate his needs, he would make the trip miserable for everyone. We often had to leave the beach fifteen minutes after getting there, could not find food he’d eat, and luaus or waterfall hikes were out of question. To say we were frustrated would be an understatement. No one could enjoy vacation that we worked so hard for.
As tough as our first travel experience with Alex was, I hated the idea of giving in to the travel challenges and stop traveling (or not taking Alex with us). Just as it does for us, travel broadens his universe tremendously, giving him the opportunity to experience different places and cultures. So as the years went by and we learned more about Alex’s likes and dislikes, we resumed our travel attempts. I can’t say that I found a way to make travel with a child on the spectrum completely easy; meltdowns sometimes are unavoidable. But with the right state of mind and a few tricks and adjustments, overall, travel became an enjoyable experience for him and the entire family!
1. Engage in the trip planning process at every step of the way.
After being an autism mom for quite a few years now, I have accepted the fact that we plan all of our activities and engagements with Alex in mind. Now, as he has gotten older, he fully participates in the planning process. Together we google different destinations, look at pictures and lists of things to do, and decide the itinerary. It is easy to get carried away and pack our day with activities, but we stick to two per day.
I also think that learning to compromise is important. Alex loves exploring nature, and I can only take so much of it, so we compromise. Checking out a city landmark is always accompanied by something he enjoys. So we all get something.
2. Pack some favorite items to give a sense of comfort and security.
Most of the great things travel offers, are things Alex doesn’t really want. Everything he knows and feels comfortable with, his food, bed, couch, all look, feel and taste different during travels. Leaving the familiarity and security of home is hard. There is also the waiting game at the airports or lengthy car rides or flights. So bringing items that add comfort, security, and entertainment is a must. For the place we plan to stay at, I usually pack Alex’s favorite games, blankets, or small pillows, and place them in similar spots of the room and point them out to him. I also make sure to pack his most comfortable and favorite sweats, pajamas, and iPad to recreate his typical evening at home. So traveling with larger luggage is a must even if it’s only for a weekend.
All of these steps honestly don’t take much time or energy from me, especially in comparison to the energy that would be required to deal with more tantrums and upsets on trips. Just throw things into the suitcase and off we go. Seriously! And the benefit of a more calm and excited traveler and good family experience is so worth it.
3. Choosing place to stay, hotel vs. airbnb
Depending on where and for how long we are traveling, we decide if we should order a hotel or airbnb. Every child is different, and some may be overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of a stranger’s house, while a hotel room is much smaller and usually has design uniformity. I pay extra attention to photos, and always show them to Alex so we can decide whether it is something he can enjoy or at least be comfortable with. If we need to call a hotel or a host and ask some questions to help us make a decision, or even place a request (for a quieter room location, for example), we do that.
To decide whether to choose a hotel or a rent an apartment or a house, I go by this formula. If it is just a weekend in a city, I pick a hotel. If it is a longer stay in a city or if it is more of a nature exploring trip (no matter long or short), I prefer to check out airbnb. (During our recent trip to Portland, we staid at a beautiful home away from home!)
If we don’t have a car at the destination, I make sure that there is a food market within walking distance that would have Alex’s favorite food because a hungry and cranky kid is not fun for anyone, including him! And, of course, if I have no choice, I take his favorite food or snack with us (when he was little and wouldn’t eat food unless it’s blended, you guessed it, I dragged our blender with us too!).
4. Encourage to push the limits a little.
Every child on the spectrum has different challenges. And relationship with food is Alex’s. He has enough variety on his menu now to be able to travel without being hungry (croissants, grilled cheese sandwiches, burgers, and pizzas are available pretty much everywhere in the U.S.). But I always encourage him to try some new foods or at least different food presentation. We play ‘pretend to be a foodie’ game. Sometimes it doesn’t work, and sometimes it does. Sometimes we decide to go to a restaurant and try eggs scrambled and not sunny side up, place a special order, only to have him jump out of his seat when it is placed in front of him.
I always prepare myself for the unsuccessful try, and it helps me not to push him too hard (this never works!) and not to get visibly disappointed. But sometimes he just tries new foods with cautious enthusiasm and it works! In Portland (a foodie heaven!) Alex amazed us with his courage of trying new foods. He ate scrambled eggs at the restaurant, he bit into tomato(!!), and ate off of bushes yellow raspberries at a Portland family farm. Big success!
5. Spend time talking about the experiences.
Not that Alex loves talking about his experiences, but during travel, when we are not wrapped up in work and chores, we are more inclined to talk about what we liked about new place and what we didn’t. This is the part that I love the most about travel, and I think this is what makes his experience process and sink in and become memories for life. This is all true for Alex too. Also, experiencing different lifestyles (from cities to parks to farms!) sometimes points out great ideas we can implement in our life or points out challenges others experience that broadens his mind and understanding of reality.
Do you have a tough time traveling with your child on the spectrum? How do you deal with it? Please share your tips and tricks!
♡ Zuma A.