3 Ways to Prepare Your Child With Autism for Vacation

Get ready to bask in the joy of a well-earned summer vacation. We share tips for having the best time ever from an expert at Healing Haven.

Summer is the perfect time to take a break from everyday routines and create lasting memories. No one deserves a relaxing summer vacation more than hard-working parents and kids. Yet, for families raising a child with autism, the concept of a vacation can feel daunting. That feeling often springs from tackling the unknown, says Kate Fritz, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Clinical Manager with Healing Haven in Madison Heights.

“Children with autism tend to really thrive on routine and with clearly defined schedules, and so their parents do too. Parents haven’t necessarily been to the vacation spot, so there are a lot of unknowns for the child and also for the parents,” says Fritz.

In her role as a BCBA, Fritz supports parents as they plan for their family vacations, and she has many tips to share. She says she often starts by helping parents set realistic expectations.

“A lot of families want to jam-pack the itinerary while they’re on vacation,” she says. “But by building in wiggle room here and there, families can relax and actually enjoy themselves.” A practical way to do this is to schedule space between planned activities or scale back by 30%, Fritz suggests. That way, if one activity doesn’t stay neatly in its allotted time for whatever reason, you’re not rushing to get to the next thing.

Here, we share three additional tips for successful (and relaxing!) summer vacations for families with a child with autism:

1. Air travel tips for your child with autism

Does your vacation involve air travel? Tap into whatever resources are available at the airports you’ll be visiting, suggests Fritz. Detroit Metro Airport and more than 160 airports worldwide participate in a unique Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program. According to the airport’s site, passengers can identify themselves with a sunflower lanyard or wristband to alert airport workers that additional assistance may be needed.

Also, visit the TSA Cares program to help your child — and all family members — learn about what to expect during airport security screening. Delta’s news hub provides travelers with additional tips and information about rooms for individuals with sensory sensitivities and their families in airports across the country. “These supports exist, but you do have to dig and see what is out there,” Fritz says. Don’t be afraid to contact any transportation company you plan to use. “A lot will be willing to work with you. You might be surprised,” Fritz says.

2. Plan, prepare and pack

For any museums, gardens, amusement parks or other venues in your plan, take some time to prepare your family so you know what to expect. “Use visual images, pictures, social stories or video tours so your child can see what it’s like to go to the venue,” she suggests. “This is good for parents, too, so they can find out what additional resources are available.”

Consider any sensory input or overload that might occur. “This might include heat, crowds or noise. Be prepared for these rather than waiting until a meltdown happens and you have to guess the cause. Be proactive for your child’s sensory needs,” Fritz says. Pack sunglasses, hats, fidgets and headphones if your child is accustomed to wearing them.

Anticipate flight or train delays and extended car rides. “Bring snacks, toys and favorite items in a big bag of fun,” Fritz says. “Offer just two items at a time because kids can satiate quickly. Brainstorm toys that are appropriate for a car or other small space and think beyond the tablet. Variety is encouraged.”

3. Tap into your support team

Reach out to your BCBA as soon as your vacation is booked — or sooner, if possible. “Your BCBA can start brainstorming with you right away, so share your itinerary. For example, if you’re working toward headphone desensitization to help your child during travel, this can take time,” Fritz says.

One fundamental recommendation for all families — which can make a huge difference — is to practice remaining calm. It’s easy to get stuck in being nervous about every eventuality.

“This is a big conversation I have with parents. Consider your own behavior as you head out on a vacation. Are you stressed and anxious? Being overprepared is helpful because if you are walking into a botanical garden feeling nervous, your children will feed off your energy,” she says.

By learning some basic relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, you can relax and remain flexible throughout your vacation, no matter what happens. Call a family meeting to ask everyone how they feel about the vacation and let each member know they all have a part in making it fun.

“Think about what you can model as a parent, and if you are nervous, say it out loud and work on it together,” says Fritz. “When you can exude confidence, live in the moment and have fun, you can better enjoy your vacation, and your children will, too.”

Expertise brought to you by Healing Haven, an ABA therapy center for children and teens in Madison Heights. Learn more at thehealinghaven.net.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Metro Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.

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