Let’s get real. Going on vacation as a parent is never really a vacation. It is taking care of your kids in a different city. For Autistic kids the struggle gets even more real as a vacation means a change in environment, a change in routine, and some pretty new things to experience. Vacations can be a challenge to navigate but can be a great experience for you all if you keep a few tips in mind.
1. Bring familiar things
2. Bring extra meds
3. Be prepared for stares
4. Know your kid’s distress signals
5. Decide your top few chances for success and do those
BONUS: Pack according to outfit and only take what you need
Bring familiar things
Can your kid only sleep if there is a fan on them? Or if they listen to their favorite nighttime music? Or do they have that ratty old blanket that they love to snuggle? Whatever is familiar to them that helps them soothe at night is what needs to come on the trip with you. Sleep in an unfamiliar environment can be elusive for anyone. Autistic kids tend to have more issues with soothing themselves to sleep so bringing whatever has proven to help them will help you out. You can also get them familiar with new things a week before the trip. If you bought new sunscreen and sunglasses for the beach, test them out daily a week before the trip. This gives you time to see what the best application process is for your kid and their likes and dislikes with the new product. The more info you have, the more you can customize what they need.
They don’t like spray on sunscreen and you thought it would work out? Well now you have 5 more days to get the globby kind and make it work. This process of getting your kid familiar with some of the new sensory things they will encounter on the trip is helpful to you too so you won’t be in a panic and forcing them to use things they don’t like.
Also bring things they normally eat. A vacation may be a time you want to try new things but a hangry kid who has no familiar foods with them is no fun. Get a room with a microwave or a stove to make whatever they like to eat or map out the quickest route to McDonalds prior to picking a destination. These things are important to your kid so make them important to the trip.
Example familiars: pillow, blanket, stuffed animal, sibling, something that smells like your house, regular snacks they normally love, you, the family pet, their favorite toy.
Bring extra meds
If you have been out of town and your kid gets sick then you know how disorienting that can be for both of you. Prevent the preventable by taking plenty of pain relievers for headaches, antihistamine for bug bites and the different climate you may be going to that has different allergens than at home, and all the band aids and boo boo helpers you can think of. Kids are clumsy and when having fun, safety is usually the furthest thing from their minds. But it isn’t from yours. Give yourself peace of mind that whatever cut or scrape happens, you brought the tools for it.
For big boo boos like bone breaks and limb removal, always take everyone’s health insurance card and a list of medications with you on your trip. Heaven forbid something happens but thankfully you will be prepared for whatever your baby needs.
Example medical stuff: pain relievers, cold packs, hot packs, antihistamine, anti itch creams, band aids, Neosporin, health insurance info, list of current and past medications.
Be prepared for stares
People can be rude. People can be ignorant. People can be unaware. Wherever you are traveling, most likely you will run into people. Chances are they could be rude, ignorant, and unaware. They didn’t stop making those kinds of people when they placed the ones in your hometown.
Don’t trick yourself into believing that this getaway gets you away from the society that was not built (yet) to accept your Autistic little muffin. Just because people will stare if a meltdown occurs or if stimming gets super flappy, doesn’t give you any reason to stay stuck in the house. The secret to dealing with the stares and the comments is to let them do it.
Your focus during a meltdown is your child and their needs only. Block out the rest. I know it is easier said than done but honestly if you are focusing on everyone else’s comfort during a meltdown, you are no longer putting your child’s comfort first. Full stop. Focusing on your kid helps the meltdown end faster and more safely and it keeps you from having to witness everyone else’s reaction because you only have eyes for your baby right then.
Once you master this tip, the world opens up a little bit more to the places you will be willing to take your kid. Let them spin, clap, and stim when they are happy and let them cry and yell when upset. Handle their needs and let those other adults handle their own. That is not your responsibility.
Coping with stares: Focus on your kid and what they need and expect the staring people to take care of their needs to be comfortable around Autism as it is not your responsibility.
Know your kid’s distress signals
Now that you are focused on the fun you and your little family are having and you all are safe and happy on your trip, be prepared for when you are not. Know your kid’s distress signals that tell you it is time to pack up and go. Everyone gets beached out, sunned out, and pooled out at some point. Know what the beginning signals look like (looking around, trying to leave the event, sensory issues seeming more intense, pulling on your hand, or getting physical with you and others) and leave before they escalate.
A meltdown is communication lost in frustration and listening when the communication first begins puts you ahead of it. Check in with your child and your self often and switch locations as necessary. Decide what is more important, riding every ride or taking a break when everyone has reached their exhaustion points. Also make plans that include who will take your Autistic kid when they are struggling beforehand. If you can keep them with one specific person watching them at a time, then the likelihood that their communication gets lost is lower since the focus on them is higher.
If two adults are with you then let them know your role ahead of time as being your Autistic kid’s “person” and that they will be your priority so that someone else can watch the other kids that may be with you. If you want to switch roles with someone, let your child know who is going to be with them now and let the adult (who hopefully already knows your child well) know that you are switching out now so that they can assume their duty.
Decide your top few chances for success and do those
Don’t try to do it all.
I am super serious.
If a place has 10 attractions but your child’s people-meter will conk out after 5: Only. Go. To. 5.
In the age of the internet you can see pictures of just about anywhere. You aren’t missing out on any attraction you can see pictures of, trust me. Pick the attractions and the restaurants you want to attend wisely. A fancy shmancy place at the end of the night when your kid just wants chicken nuggets and bed doesn’t seem like the greatest idea. Instead go to a super fancy breakfast where you bring what your child eats so they are awake, alert, and curious which will keep them more engaged in sitting for the meal.
You know what your kid’s normal home routine is and which times of day are better for what activities. If nap time is normally at 4, don’t go to something at 4 that would require them to behave. Schedule a break for them at that time to do a quiet activity or allow them to take a nap at that time if they want to. Give them breaks and yourself breaks as needed.
And I mean really as needed. If you need to take a break on a bench every 5 minutes, take that break!
Pick a few things to do: Do what makes sense for the comfort of you all. There is no gold medal in the vacation Olympics.
BONUS: Pack according to outfit and only take what you need
Bonus tip involves packing. Packing cubes have saved our sanity many times on vacations. A little planning ahead saves a lot of decision fatigue later on. By the time you get where you are going, you would have already had to make many split second decisions and what to wear to dinner does not need to be one of them.
Pack each person’s clothes by outfit instead of article of clothing so all decisions have been made while packing at home. This also helps other people help your child to get dressed as you have already picked out what they want to wear and made it look good. Do this for yourself as well and pack your cubes by the days and experiences you will be participating in.
Packing for ease: Pack smarter and pre-decide on outfits so you don’t have to do it the day of.
Go forth and vacation your hearts out fellow Autism families! Let those babies experience the world from within their own world.
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