A vacation can be an adventure through an unfamiliar destination. It can also be a reprieve from everyday routines. But those very qualities can make the mere thought of travelling anxiety-inducing for a parent of a child with autism spectrum disorder.

“I know many parents who simply don’t take trips, or who leave their loved one with autism behind, out of fear of facing challenges that could be difficult to manage,” says Kristine Quinby, MEd, LBS, BCBA. founder, president, and CEO of Potential Inc. and the Springtime School. “But a trip can also be an opportunity for growth for a child with autism. It sets up different conditions for communication that might not have been present before.”

For example, Quinby was recently helping parents toilet-train their autistic son. At home, one parent always took him to the bathroom. But while they were on vacation, he initiated on his own, much to their surprise.

Every trip is going to have its obstacles, especially during the pandemic, but they shouldn’t upend your plans, or worse, keep you at home. What follows are a few tips that are meant to make the idea of taking a family vacation with a child with autism feel a little less daunting.

Talk with a travel consultant

Sure, you could probably piece together your own vacation, but travel consultants are connected to the industry in ways that very few of us are. Did you know there’s such a thing as “autism-friendly tourism?” if you didn’t, then you couldn’t know to seek out accredited resorts and cruises.

Rudi Bodensteiner, a travel consultant at Jet Set Travels in Southampton, has been professionally planning trips for the last 30 years. Since he started volunteering at Potential a few years ago, he’s been planning more and more of them for families with an autistic child, or children. He says autism-friendly tourism is still a relatively new concept and that the number of accredited resorts and cruises comprises a small fraction of the travel industry. Still, those early adopters carry the potential to reshape the way you think about vacations.

“What the resorts and cruises with this certification do is enable the parents to have a vacation too,” Bodensteiner says. “The certification means certain staff members have been specifically trained to care for autistic children. They’ll often have day camps where the kids are divided by age. The child can go there for a few hours and play games and the parents can relax. The certification also usually extends to some of the chefs, who can tend to any special dietary needs.”

The accreditation is provided by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which offers similar forms of the certification to other types of hospitality professionals. Renewal is required every two years.

Beyond directing you to accredited resorts and cruises, a travel consultant can also help you avoid some of the pitfalls that have resulted from the pandemic. For instance, the travel industry, like most others, is suffering from staff shortages, Bodensteiner says. And those shortages could impact a resort or ship’s certification status during a given period. A travel consultant can confirm the status prior to booking and alter plans relatively quickly should they be alerted to a change.

Consider what kind of trip you want to take

As for what kind of vacation you should take, a theme park is good option. An all-inclusive resort is probably a better one, though.

“For the right child, a theme park vacation is definitely doable,” Bodensteiner says, referring to the level of the child’s autism.

On the plus side, many theme parks – most notably, Disney World – have special passes or wristbands for families whose children have disabilities, including autism. They allow your family entrance at the front of every gate, bypassing long lines.

But they also tend to be less forgiving when it comes to enforcing their COVID-19 safety measures. Bodensteiner says he recently booked a trip to Disney World for a family with an autistic child. “The park’s policy is that everyone must wear a mask at all times. No exceptions,” he says. “The parents said that they couldn’t guarantee that their child would keep his mask on, so we had to cancel the trip. COVID is making travel harder for everyone, but especially autistic families.”

Autism-accredited resorts are likely to have more flexibility, particularly within their autism-specific programming.

Appealing as a sightseeing trip may be, it’s probably best left for a special anniversary with your spouse or partner. There’s just too much potential for it to feel overwhelming to your child, or children. Not to mention, those types of trips often entail long hours of travel, which can be stressful even when everything goes according to plan.

Ideally, you should minimize the time you’ll spend travelling and plan to have lots of downtime once you arrive at your destination. More activities are not always better.

Start preparing your child ASAP

Once you’ve booked your vacation, turn your attention to getting your child ready for the experience, particularly heading to a new destination, flying, and staying in a hotel. Your strategy will depend on the level of your child’s autism, Quinby says.

“For some kids, it might be sufficient to have books or simple picture stories to help them understand your expectations for them and how their routines are going to be a little different,” she says. “For others, it could be helpful just to be proactive on a daily basis about changing up their routines. By doing a little each day, it won’t be such a dramatic change for them once your vacation comes around.”

To specifically get them used to the idea of staying at a hotel, try a night at a local hotel, or plan an overnight visit to a friend’s house. Flying is trickier. Between the potential sensory assault of passing through security and the countless surprises of flying itself, like ears that need popping, it’s impossible to account for everything. But, thanks to a new program at Philadelphia International Airport, find some comfort in knowing there’s help available.

It’s a good idea to include some of their preferred items in your carry-on. These will help keep them occupied and, in the event of a meltdown, will help calm them. Quinby recommends also packing a few special surprises for later.

“Something that can help with new experiences and transitions is bringing along some of their highly preferred items, not just their usual comfort items. The kinds of things they don’t have access to regularly that could be a nice surprise,” she says. “Then, if you need to, you could say, ‘We have to leave the pool, but we’re going to do this other really fun thing.’”

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