Especially when families have school-aged children, summers are a time for travel. It takes extra bravery, flexibility, and planning if that family includes a child with autism, and there have been some key considerations I've taken as a mom that have reduced behavioral turbulence, so to speak.
- You know that picture you have in your head of everyone doing the same thing at the same time and loving it? Do yourself a favor. Delete it (or at least be willing to Photoshop before publishing). I used to look longingly at those families who were capable of creating and maintaining an elaborate itinerary. But having tried that once, I realized that would not work for our family. Flexibility is first. Laughing at a National Lampoon's Vacation film before leaving can't hurt.
- Be reasonable in your expectations. I know all the experts talk about there being a Theory of Mind problem associated with autism, but I think Paula Kluth put it best when she insisted the perspective-taking problem lies with us neurotypicals. How much sustained attention does your child have at home or school, where, presumably, there are familiar people and environments to promote such attention? We assume that our vacation plans will be engaging, but they might just be overwhelming. Are your child's basic needs (hunger, thirst, toileting, temperature regulation) being compromised? Having favorite snacks and beverages on hand can help.
- When you notice signs of distress in your child with autism, don't "Keep Calm and Carry On". Fall back (while remaining calm). And know where your "safe" or "soothing" places are ahead of time. Believe it or not, some big theme parks have recognized the need for such spaces and will let you know where those are if you inquire. I have noticed that if I've provided a space and time for decompression, my children (even as young as age 3) have accessed their built-in coping strategies. Have a favorite stress reliever, like a comfort item, stress ball, or other fidget on hand at all times.
- Put on your thick skin. Your child with autism's coping strategies will look different than his neurotypical peers'. (My son paces and makes sound effect noises when he retreats into his creative story-writing imagination. My daughter lines up toys or draws, flapping her hands and humming as she imagines a much bigger scene than she perceives in front of her with her eyes.) And when your loved one with autism has that meltdown, you'll get some stares. This is a good time to Keep Calm and Carry On.
- Be willing to divide and conquer. I'm going to bring this concept full-circle. While you might not convince everyone in the family that an activity or venue is worth enjoying, give yourself and your family the freedom and permission to find joy in separate places or ways. If it's bringing an electronic device and headphones to a wedding, make that adaptation. If it's finding a petting zoo with dad and skipping the beach with mom, do it. Getting that happy, smiling, all-together family photo might be tough. But you'll get lots of individual photos of contentment. And that's beautiful, too.
Autism Speaks has a great list of books and web-based resources. What tips and tricks can you offer vacation-planning families that include children with autism?