Monday night at 8pm, be sure to tune in for our newest episode of Hope Saves the Day on Autism Radio Tonight's Show is with Host Paul Cimins speaks with Nancy Romanyshyn who is a super Mom who wrote a Mission statement to help others when traveling with a Child with Autism who has helped many families cope with the experience.
Traveling with a Child with Special Needs
I am at the end of another successful vacation with my 10-year-old son, Christopher, watching him relax while toggling between surfing YouTube and watching a video. He is at ease, but it was a little more than a week ago that he would suddenly start crying and pleading with one word, “Home.” Christopher is on the autism spectrum and limited verbally by apraxia. Like most children with special needs, travel is a challenge.
This is the second time we have come to Europe with our son. Christopher presents as what I would describe as “typical” autistic spectrum disorder (e.g., semi-verbal, utilizing a speech software on the iPad and one- to two-word sentences for communication, self-restricted diet, occasional outbursts, poor eye contact with people with whom he is unfamiliar, humming, desire for proprioceptive and vestibular input). We know ahead of time that travel with him requires additional research, preparation, and perseverance. Just as it takes us neurotypical folks some time to get over the disorientation and exhaustion that often accompanies travel, we know that it will take him a little more time, and we use the tools available to us to get him there.
Why do we even try?
For one, it has always been a desire of ours to travel. That desire has only blossomed with the birth of our children (Katie, our neurotypical daughter, is Christopher’s twin).
For another, as many parents of special needs know, there are so many things we simply can’t do as a family. My children attend separate schools, and that means separate sets of teachers (and in Chris’s case therapists), friends, and events. We have never attended a movie as a family. Going to church or one of my daughter’s sporting events together is even a challenge. Travel, on the other hand, is something we can do as a family. We can experience something new together.
So I am writing this in case you, too, dream of being able to travel with your “challenging” child. I want you to know that it is possible and to hopefully inspire you to take that chance.
The internet is your friend:Just as you have likely used the internet to research your child’s diagnosis, scout possible treatments, and connect with other parents, it has a wealth of information you can use to research destinations, from travel websites to Google Maps where you can get the street view to anticipate every detail of a location.
When considering mode of travel, think about the sensory input your child enjoys or tolerates best: Does your child like riding in the car? Does your child like jumping and other up-and-down motions? How does noise affect your child? What tools do you use to redirect and soothe your child, and are they the kinds of things that can be used in a car, on a train, on a plane?
Motion has always been a means of Christopher feeling organized and receiving satisfying input, so he enjoys riding in the car, on a train, bus or in a plane. We make sure the iPad is charged, but we also bring other means of entertainment/organization for Christopher that are easily transported like paper and crayons, a windmill, even Play Doh.
A trip does not have to mean a “tour”: Like most people with autism, change is a challenge with Christopher. He would not tolerate a tour with constantly-changing accommodations and strict schedules. Instead, we stick to one destination from which we can then do day trips. This gives him the opportunity to acclimate to the location as well as gives us the freedom to do it in our own time, without keeping to any schedule, as we know we may need to take an unscheduled break. We either pick a city where we can use mass transit, the beach, or somewhere we can have access to a car.
Why get a room when you can get a house? Christopher needs space to “be.” He likes to jump, to lay out all of his drawing and crayons on a table, to skip through rooms, to have tickle fights. A hotel room can be very cramped for us, so we choose instead to rent a flat or small house when we travel. This type of living arrangement is often more economical than a hotel. What we buy in groceries is nominal, and the space and privacy we are afforded are priceless. We enjoy living as locals and see what many do not when visiting a new location. Finally, Wi-Fi wherever we stay is also a requirement so both children have unlimited access to the internet during their “down time.”
Renting a flat or a house also makes it much easier to accommodate Christopher’s dietary needs and mealtime behaviors. We try to limit ourselves to one meal a day in a restaurant, and we bring along his iPad, crayons and paper so he will sit relatively quietly at the table. We have been able to eat in many fine restaurants and found that the staff often go out of their way to make us feel comfortable. And if he happens to have a particularly long or loud outburst, who cares? We’ll never see them again!
Finally, renting allows us the room to have extended family join us. My mother has been an invaluable extra set of hands and eyes when it comes to the kids, and we have made some wonderful memories together.
Choosing something everyone will enjoy: We center our interests around activities we think will work for both children. They enjoy walking around cities to hands-on destinations (monuments, castles, churches we can tour, gardens). Beaches, water parks and pools are favorites of course, too. Amusement parks may be overwhelming for Christopher, though, so we need to take care there are more than just rides where we go. We select a time of year (typically Spring or Summer) when we can spend most of our time outdoors.
Christopher will walk with the best of them, but we know he will need some breaks (and demonstrate that by sitting down on any available seat, curb or even the middle of the sidewalk). Standing still is a challenge as is being very quiet, so long lines and museum trips must be limited. Any kind of theatre entertainment is a question mark: We need a means of “escape,” as it is unknown whether Christopher will sit through it quietly.
Consider everything an experience: The children do not need to see a castle, monument or museum every day. In fact, we make sure to schedule a day or so of down time at the house or flat, typically at the beginning of the trip as we get our bearings and toward the end to avoid tourist fatigue. There is something to learn even from a trip to the local supermarket or mall, pointing out what things are the same or different from our lives back home. We think of our trips more as living temporarily in another place rather than just a vacation.
Preparation will save you perspiration: We don’t always know how much Christopher is aware of and tuned into, but we know that visual tools work best. While will verbally discuss going on a plane, we also prepare a social story for him about our trip a couple of weeks in advance. We use actual photos (Google Images is a great resource) of airplanes (outside and inside), airports, the rental car, and our destination (the house, the rooms, sites we will see). We create a calendar that highlights the days we will be away (I will use a small picture of an airplane right on the date we arrive and the date we leave). We end the story with pictures of the airplane and airport again, along with a picture of our house.
We make multiple copies of the story so that he can bring one into school, and we ask his teachers and therapists to review the story with him. We review the story at least once a day, and we bring it along on the trip. In fact, we used it to reassure him each time he asked for “Home” on this trip, pointing to the calendar and counting the days with him.
The more you do it, the easier it will be: We all get better with experience. The more times we do this with Christopher, the more past experiences he has to draw upon and know that, although he may be uncomfortable at