How to Teach Your Child on the Autism Spectrum to Enjoy Travel
As the weather gets warmer, I hear from parents who wish they could travel with their child. They can’t fathom going to a restaurant without their child having a meltdown so an extended vacation seems out of reach. Most are surprised when I say, “Your child can do this! Maybe not yet, but just like any other skill you have taught your child, traveling takes practice.”
1. Let go.
Let go of the idea in your head about what vacationing with your family should look like. Maybe you wanted everyone to go to Disney in matching outfits, perhaps you wanted your kids to experience camping the way that you fell in love with nature, or maybe you imagined teaching your child to snow ski at 5 years old. Just like every other mental shift you have made, you can adjust your expectations with traveling as well.
You must also let go of where you would like to go. Travel to those places with your partner or your friends. Teaching your child to love traveling is their journey, not yours. Forcing them to your favorite places won’t teach them to love traveling if they are not interested or become overwhelmed. You will make more memories with your child if they are comfortable and engaged.
2. Start familiar.
Many parents I talk to dream of their child being able to spend a night away from home. It’s not a dream, I’ll say, it’s a goal! Start small and start with the familiar. Begin your child’s travel skills with a “sleepover” at the house of a grandparent or close family friend. Since this person and their house is already familiar, your child only has to practice the process of traveling. Teach your child to make a packing list, pack an overnight bag, and think of toys and games to take along. The goal here is to practice taking their things somewhere else, sleeping in a different bed, and eating at a different table.
Just like a visual schedule or checklist is helpful in their daily routine, make a visual schedule for sleeping arrangements and mealtimes for the sleepover. Once they get this scheme down for grandma’s house, it’s amazing how you can expand the travel plan to a cousin’s house, a hotel, or even overnight camp!
The act of actually getting to the destination is often what stops families from traveling. The car ride is too long, siblings are fighting, or the airport is too crowded. Start with what your child can do and expand from there.
Make It Visual
If your child can tolerate a 30-minute car ride, find a destination in that range and make it a trip! Book a hotel and keep it simple. Or, take a day trip on a train to a children’s museum in a nearby city. Most importantly, map out your trip. If your child thinks spatially, use a map. If they think in time frames, use schedules. The most successful strategy is to create a picture social story of the events your child will see in the order they are likely to see them on the trip. The story begins with leaving home and ends with returning home. Visualizing the process through a story beforehand will help your child learn the plan without feeling the anxiety simultaneously.
The Car Ride
All children need to be entertained in the car. In our family, we only use screens in the car on trips, not around town. Over time, my kids have looked forward to traveling and picking out what games they will play or what movies they will watch. Planning their trip entertainment has become a routine all on its own. You can also use a time timer to help your child understand how long the drive is or measure the drive by how many of their favorite shows they can watch.
Airports and Flying
For plane travel, visit the airport beforehand and check out programs like TSA Cares, which offers a TSA agent to take you through security the day of your trip. Create picture social stories for each step of the journey from parking the car, going through security, waiting at the gate, boarding the plane, using the seatbelt, de-boarding the plane, and waiting at baggage claim. Once your child has mastered a certain distance in the car, experienced the airport with success, or mastered a train ride, the options are opening up!
4. Rinse and repeat.
Like every other skill your child has learned, traveling takes practice. However, due to schedules and finances, most families aren’t practicing this skill every weekend, nor should they. Being at home to rest is also important. Reflecting on the fun of vacations encourages ideas for more travel! Create photo books of your child’s trips so they can recall the fun and remember all the new things they tried.
If you find a trip your child loves yet they still need practice on the drive, the hotel stay, or trying new foods, repeating the same trip several times can be extremely helpful. Routine vacations will help your child practice the experience of travel without the stress of processing new people or places every time.
Here in North Carolina, we can drive to the beach or the mountains for the weekend. I have worked with families who teach their child to travel by visiting the same place at the beach, with the same pool, and working on eating new things or meeting new people each time they go. Another family visits the same relative in the mountains each year and goes on the same hike to practice stamina with being outside in nature, which their child loves but needed repeat experiences to master. Cousins are also the best repeat playmates. Familiar playmates can make a huge difference in lowering social anxiety on a trip. Think about changing one variable with each trip to work on a skill. Focusing on just a few skills at a time will reduce the likelihood of overwhelm and increase your child’s chances of success.
It may take years for children with anxiety or autism to master a travel schedule, but as they mature and recall what they did on their last trip, you will be amazed at what they come up with for their next adventure!
5. Destination wonder.
Once your child has the basics of travel down and is ready to explore the unknown, focus on their interests and passions to plan future destinations. For many children with a literal or anxious view of the world, traveling can ultimately be therapeutic. It expands their minds and helps them know there is a world beyond their daily routine. They begin to wonder about things they may not have thought about before.
By teaching your child to travel, you are giving them the gift of wonder. You are planting a seed for them to dream of going new places far and wide. They will start thinking about the future and wondering what they are capable of next. I cannot think of a more precious gift.
A version of this post first appeared on Dr. Emily King’s blog.
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