‘Tis the season for holiday travel. While travel can be an exciting experience for the whole family, overnights in unfamiliar places, road trips and hikes through airports can also be challenging.
“For kids on the autism spectrum, changes in everyday routine can be a struggle. Holidays can be chaotic and travel to multiple locations in one day can require a big adjustment,” explains Shayla Whitt, Supervising Board Certified Behavior Analyst with Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Dearborn. Gateway Pediatric Therapy services seven locations in southeast Michigan.
With planning and flexibility, holiday travel can be successful and satisfying, says Whitt. She offers these helpful tips.
Well-organized road trips
Hours spent in the car mean a lack of access to favorite activities and routines. “Bring comfort items,” suggests Whitt. “Your child may not know or understand where they are going, so bring some items that will help them feel safe.”
Also pack games, puzzles and other activities your child enjoys. Be sure to select enough to last the whole journey, warns Whitt, and “don’t give them to your child all at once. If your child gets bored with what you offer in 15 minutes, you might very well have another 45 minutes left in the trip with nothing to do. Hide some away and when they get bored with one toy, introduce another.” If the activity involves electronics, like an iPad, bring headphones and an extra charger or battery pack.
Be creative with sensory toys. “Fill a water bottle with sand, put tiny objects in it, and make a game out of it,” Whitt says. “How fast can you find the blue marble?” Older children with verbal language can play I Spy. Challenge everyone to spot the red car or the green sign. “Make sure you have a mental suitcase of games to play because it will be hard to think of games if you are not prepared,” Whitt says.
Incorporate planned breaks. “Know where rest stops are and plan to get out and stretch your legs or visit the bathroom if your child is toilet training,” Whitt says. “You can create a visual schedule so your child will know that the trip will start at home, stop here, stop for lunch, and then get to Grandma’s house. Use pictures for kids who can’t read to offer a visual for what will happen and in what order. This really helps with routine.”
Planes and trains
Many road trip tips apply to flights, especially providing keep-busy and comfort items. But pre-exposing your child to the environment can be helpful too, says Whitt. “You might call ahead and say you have a child with autism and ask if you can do a test run to practice. They may have a room in the airport where kids can look at the planes,” she says. “You can also show your child pictures or videos of the airport or airplanes to help them know what to expect.”
If travel involves a train, get to the station early and ask an attendant to give you a tour. “Your child might be less hesitant once they’ve had a chance to explore the area,” Whitt says.
Whether you’re staying at a hotel or Grandma’s house, create some familiarity by mimicking regular bedtime routines. “Bring your child’s favorite bedding from home, and do bathtime, pajamas, book and bed at the regular time for consistency. Same routine, different place,” Whitt says. “It’s beneficial to incorporate their normal as much as you can.”
Most of all, make the trip fun. “Offer praise and tell your child you are proud of how well they did in the car and at Grandma’s,” Whitt says. “Keep them motivated with encouragement and by including activities specific to their interests.”