Wednesday, May 29, 2019

7 Easy Ways to Help Prepare an Autistic Child for Traveling, Field Trips, or Special Events

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Tips and resources to helps autism families navigate the holiday season

Below you'll find tips for traveling with an autistic child, as well as ideas to help you prepare them for upcoming vacations, field trips, or special events like weddings, funerals, or birthday parties. You'll love these autism travel tips!

Spring and summer are filled with weddings, year-end field trips at school, attending summer camps, and maybe - hopefully - going on a little holiday with the family.

So basically, there's just lots and lots of transitions that come along with spring and summer...

And if your child struggles with transitions, then you know that you might need to do a little extra work and preparation to help support your child with these transitions.

Extra work?

Eek, don't say that!

Hey, don't panic. I promise these ideas aren't hard or complicated.

The autism travel tips and strategies that I share below are the ones that we've used with great success over the years and still use today. Yep, I'm sharing my best tips and strategies to help prepare an autistic child for traveling, field trips, or special events.

Helping an autistic child with field trips and traveling

How to Help Prepare an Autistic Child for Vacations, Traveling, Field Trips, and/or Special Events

Like I said, these strategies are the ones that we have personally implemented with great success over the years. Both of my boys find these strategies helpful and I hope you will too!

1. Break down the event or trip to help your child understand what will be happening

Fill in the free printable visual schedule planner so that your child can know all the details about the event including when it is taking place, where they are going, who will be there, and what they will be doing there. It's a useful tool for breaking down the event or trip for your child ahead of time.

2. Use a social story to help prepare your child

Social stories are a great way to help prepare an autistic child for an upcoming event or trip. You can use it to explain flying on an airplane, attending a funeral, attending a birthday party, riding a school bus, attending summer camp, etc. The possibilities are endless.

I do highly recommend writing your own social stories when possible for this purpose because then you can put specific names, places, and addresses as well as photos of family members and friends. The more detailed and personalized, the more effective, I find.

3. Show relevant videos or photos of the place or people involved

Whenever we go on a trip to somewhere new, we always show my son what the place looks like or the people involved. This strategy includes showing him maps of the places too.

For example, when J was a preschooler, we had to make a few trips to Eastern Canada for weddings. I would use Google Street View to show him what my brother's house looked like, what the wedding venue looked like, etc. Then I showed him photos of all unfamiliar relatives or friends that he would be meeting/seeing while there (Facebook is handy for this purpose!).

As another example, we recently went to the World Waterpark in West Edmonton Mall for the first time. Since it was a new experience for him, we looked at the map of the waterpark together multiple times so that he could see all the different slides, where the bathrooms were, where the pop stations were, etc. We then watched videos and looked at photos of every single waterslide that he would be able to go on. Their website had lots of helpful resources for this, but we also found some helpful videos on YouTube.

So if you are traveling, sending your child to summer camp, or something similar, then be sure to use relevant websites, social media profiles, and/or YouTube videos as needed. It is incredibly helpful!

4. Ask for itineraries ahead of time and give a copy to your child

My son recently went on an all-day out-of-town field trip that involved three hours of bus rides, being at the school an extra hour early, and ending the school day 2.5 hours later than usual. Of course, I was nervous about how it would go (for a variety of reasons that I won't share here), but one thing I did was ask for a copy of the day's itinerary.

Being able to share with him when and what he would be doing was helpful for him, especially when paired with strategy #3 above.

So this strategy may include giving your child a copy of flight itineraries, summer camp schedules for the week or each individual day, the name of your child's summer camp instructor, etc. You might also consider writing out a detailed itinerary yourself for your child.

5. Check for closures, scheduled maintenance, etc.

Okay, I learned this the hard way, unfortunately.

Every year, we take the boys to Galaxyland in West Edmonton Mall. It's one of J's favorite places to go. He loves one ride in particular (the Galaxy Orbiter, in case you are wondering) and one year, it happened to be under scheduled maintenance the day we visited. I had no idea and he was quite sad about it.

Now, every time we go somewhere new, I always check the website for information about closures, scheduled maintenance, etc. so that I can let him know ahead of time if things like his favorite ride will be closed.

6. Talk about it and discuss your child's concerns

Be open and discuss it with your child. Explain why it's important to go to your husband's cousin's wedding even though "weddings are SO boring!" (J's words, not mine as I like weddings) or why you are going to the science center on a Tuesday and not a Saturday (i.e., less busy, cheaper, or insert whatever other relevant reason for this decision).

If your child is highly anxious, then find out what their sources of anxiety about the event, field trip, or trip might be. That way you can plan and help them accordingly.

7. Consider your child's sensory needs, preferences, interests, etc. when planning a trip

Obviously, some things like weddings, birthday parties, or funerals cannot be avoided or planned out the way you'd like so this strategy is geared more towards planning a vacation or trip.

There are lots of things to consider when you are planning a trip like when you go, where you go, what you'll do there, etc. You might need to consider things like:

  • Picking a sensory friendly destination to go to
  • Picking a less busy day or even time of day to attend a museum
  • Checking if the place offers a sensory friendly time
  • Checking if the place offers disability passes
  • Planning to visit a place that aligns with your child's interests (e.g., taking them to a dinosaur museum to look at fossils if they love dinosaurs)
  • Including your child in the planning (i.e., let them help decide how to spend your days on vacation)
For example, I mentioned we like to go to Galaxyland in West Edmonton Mall every year. I usually check the Edmonton Public School's calendar first to make sure that school is in session that day because school in session mean it's less busy at the mall. 

I also use information available on Google to check for popular times and days and to find out how long people typically spend there.

Other Things to Remember

While there are lots of different ways to prepare an autistic child for these special outings and events, sometimes it just doesn't work out. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Remember, your child doesn't need to attend if it's simply too much or too uncomfortable for them. Never force your child to do anything that they don't want to do.
  • You can always come up with an alternative plan like arranging a babysitter so he/she doesn't have to attend the wedding ceremony, for instance.
  • Create an exit strategy or plan ahead of time. That way if things go wrong, you have a strategy in place to exit quickly, quietly, and/or gracefully.
  • Keep it simple and plan for lots of breaks in the itinerary, if possible.
  • Include your child in the planning.

Other Resources You'll Love

How to Help Kids with Transitions

Benefits of Visual Schedules for Autistic & Hyperlexic Kids

Free Printable Visual Calm Down Cards

Autism travel tips

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Tips and resources to helps autism families navigate the holiday season

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