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Operation: Smooth Travels

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In 2013, AAA estimated that 66% of Americans planned to take a trip between Memorial Day and Labor Day (AAA Newsroom). As anyone who has ever had to endure five hours of, “Are we there yet?” knows, traveling with any child can be a challenge. Adding ASD into the mix takes these same challenges and raises them to the nth degree. Changes in schedule, foods, scenery, and senses can try the nerves of even the most adventurous explorer. For those of us with living with ASD, we can relate to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who said, “There’s no place like home”. With the right planning though, some of the stress of relaxing summer vacations can be alleviated.

Case in point: When our son was three and a half we decided to take a short trip to Plymouth, MA. I won’t even call it a vacation because we were just going overnight. We thought we’d do the three hour drive, check into a hotel, explore the town, and then visit Plymouth Plantation before leaving the next day. It would be a nice, relaxing two days, one night away.

The reality was slightly different. After a hurried morning trying to gather what we needed, we ended up leaving much later than we planned. Almost an hour into our trip, I realized I had left Taddy sitting on the bed. Without his favorite nighttime stuffed animal to help him fall asleep, our son was even more homesick. I had also neglected to factor in potty training with driving. As a result, we completed what I affectionately call, “The Great Potty Tour of the Northeast.” All the stops combined added at least an hour, if not more, to our drive; but I can tell you which rest stops have clean bathrooms through one stretch of the Massachusetts Turnpike. Since we arrived much later than planned, the first day we didn’t have any time to visit the historical sites. As a result, we visited both the Mayflower and the Plymouth Plantation the next day. Although it wasn’t a terribly hot July day, it was a bit crowded and rushed. In my mind, visiting two spots really wasn’t that bad, but I neglected to factor in crowds, temperature, and honestly, the interest a three year old would have in historical sites.

Fortunately, the trip did create some fun memories despite the potty training stops, a missed favorite bedtime stuffed animal, and the realization my son wasn’t a history buff. We took a nice stroll by the water in the coolness of the evening, had a relaxing seafood dinner, and had quiet time to ourselves outside of our regular day to day lives. Looking back, there would have been a few things I would have done differently prior to the trip to smooth out the rough edges.

Create a Plan

Let’s face it, gone are the carefree days of packing a suitcase, jumping in the car, and having a spur of the moment vacation. A carefully crafted plan can help ease some of the stress of unknown places and routing changes. One of the most important things to do is to create a pre-vacation to do list that includes a checklist of items you can’t forget to bring with you. This checklist should include favorite toys, snacks, clothes, games, and medications. Whatever you do, don’t forget chargers for handheld video games and mobile devices.

Speaking of medications, check to see if you’ll need to renew any prescriptions before you leave. Some insurance companies have a once a year vacation clause that will allow you to renew a little early if you’re afraid you’re going to run out while you’re away. Your pharmacist is an invaluable source to help you determine what is eligible for an early renewal and what isn’t.  Also, carry your medication together in a separate container that can be kept with you at all times rather than packed away in a suitcase. This helps if you need to dispense while you’re on route. Make sure to have a water bottle handy if needed to take a pill.

If your child is old enough, prepping him on the mode of transportation before leaving is a way to help dispel any travel anxiety. No matter how you’re traveling—by car, train, or plane, don’t forget to explain. Sometimes, a social story can be useful when listing out what is going to happen on a trip. Use these to help prepare the child for what to expect, especially if it’s the first time a child has flown or taken a train. It’s also helpful to work with the airline or Amtrak to let them know you’re traveling with a special needs child and to find out what accommodations they can provide. Early boarding and assistance with luggage can make traveling easier. Don’t hesitate to use a travel agent to help with the process. They know the ins and outs of travel that we laypeople don’t and can save you time in the long run.

Airlines have several programs that are available to ease pre-travel concerns. For instance, Autism Speaks and JetBlue have teamed together to offer walk-throughs to ease pre-travel flying jitters. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has a “TSA Cares Help Link” where they will work with you to ease the stress of airport security. They recommend calling 72 hours in advance of travel so that they can coordinate with the TSA customer service manager at the airport, if necessary. TSA will also provide a Passenger Support Specialist if notified in advanced of travel (U.S. Department of Homeland Security).

It’s also helpful if you’re planning on going to a theme park or tourist attraction to review their website to find out if there are any special accommodations that would be useful. For instance, Disneyland and Disney World have a Disability Access Service Card for guests who have difficulty waiting in lines. Both theme parks also have special break areas where guests who may become overstimulated can go to take a break (Disneyland & Walt Disney World). Other theme parks that offer special accommodations for ASD kids include Six Flags, Sea World, and Marineland (Friendship Circle–Special Needs Blog). Just be sure to double-check prior to making plans in case their policy has changed. If you Google the name of the theme park and autism, their special services page should near the top of the retrieval. It might also be worth a call to speak to someone in guest services for confirmation, as well as to find out when the attractions are most crowded (so you can avoid the rush). Our son is a night owl, so we once took a tour of Washington, D.C. after dark. It was phenomenal; the sites weren’t crowded and neither was the tour bus!

Eating out can be especially tricky for ASD kids who can often be very particular and sensitive to new food tastes and smells. Packing some of your own food can be a big help, but that option can be a bit impractical if you’re not driving. If your child has a favorite chain restaurant where they will eat, scope out your destination in advance to see if there’s one there. Most of the chain restaurants have allergy menus or suggestions that accommodate common food allergies.

If you can, pack ahead so you’re not rushed the day you’re leaving. I know that’s easier said than done, because kids have a way of needing what you packed before you leave. After all, if it’s important enough to pack, they’re going to want it up to the trip. But packing ahead of time can help reduce stress the night before or day of departure. I must admit, I have good intentions of packing ahead, but it is hard to do. Now that he’s older, our son packs one small bag of things he wants to bring.

Of course, when you pack also hinges on when you tell your child that you’re going on vacation. If your child tends to be anxious or overly excited, then you may want to wait until as close to the trip as possible. On the other hand, if your child is methodical and enjoys planning, then perhaps he can help in the planning process.

While Away

The big day has finally arrived and you’re ready to go! Don’t forget to review your checklist one last time to make sure that you have everything. I’d also recommend trying to keep things as calm as possible. Calmness is contagious, so if your child is like mine, staying on an even keel can keep make any process go smoother.

Try to work in rest stops along the way and throughout the trip. By rest stops I don’t necessarily mean bathroom breaks (definitely part of the equation), but time for stretching your legs or grabbing a snack. While pushing forth is often tempting, it can be tiring. If you’re sightseeing, it’s helpful to build in time to relax and recharge at the hotel. You want to see as much as possible while you’re away, but there is a fine line between making good time and losing time because tiredness has triggered a meltdown.

Have a place where your child can have a downtime with as little sensory stimulation as possible. This is not an easy task if you have suitcases cluttered around the room, so it might be worth your while to empty your suitcases for a lengthy stay. If anyone is squeamish about using strange furniture, you can always line the drawers with towels.

Homesickness can also be a travel side effect. If you’ve brought special toys, that will help, but you may also want to consider bringing a pillow or blanket from home. Leaving furry family members in boarding or with a pet sitter? Pictures can help ease missing them. If you have a very accommodating pet sitter or kennel, then perhaps Facetime or Skype can be used to say hi to the pet. As with everything, consider your own circumstance, as these suggestions could inadvertently make homesickness worse.

Facetime and Skype are great ways to for a child to connect with friends, even though they may be miles away. We find this useful when visiting family. Our son can still talk or play with his friends online. He gets to have long distance time with his friends.

Last, but certainly not least—try to keep to a regular bedtime routine. This suggestion is another one that is easier said than done, especially since your child is in a strange bed. Do whatever you normally do to help your child fall asleep, like reading, lowering the lights, insisting on quiet time. Even if your child falls asleep a bit later than normal, he’s still resting by lying down.

Vacations can leave lasting memories with your kids. A little planning can go a long way to avoid unwanted surprises and make those memories good ones. Vacations are meant to rejuvenate you, so try not to get so caught up in the process that you end up being more tired than when you started. Bon vacance!

Elizabeth Irish, MLS, AHIP, is the Assistant Director for Education and Administrative Services at the Schaffer Library of Health Sciences (Albany Medical College). Her son has a dual diagnosis of ASD and Tourette’s.


Additional Resources

The following is a list of websites and blogs that have useful travel information:

Autistic Globetrotting Blog: www.autisticglobetrotting.com

Autistic Traveler Blog: www.autistictraveler.com

Autism Society of Alabama (Travel): https://www.pinterest.com/autismsocietyal/travel

Autism Speaks. Traveling Tips for Individuals with Autism and Their Families: https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/community-connections/traveling-tips-individuals-autism-and-their-families Accessed April 1, 2015.

Harris, Meg. Top 10 Tips for Flying With Special Needs Children: www.huffingtonpost.com/meg-harris/top-ten-tips-for-flying-w_b_5569604.html?

Manuel-Logan, Ruth. Travel Tips for Children With Autism: www.parents.com/health/autism/resources/travel-tips-children-with-autism/

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Transportation Security Administration. Autism or Intellectual Disabilities: Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions: www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/autism-or-intellectual-disabilities


AAA Newsroom. AAA Survey Reveals Most Americans Plan to Travel this Summer with Value and Family Top of Mind: http://newsroom.aaa.com/2013/06/aaa-survey-reveals-most-americans-plan-to-travel-this-summer-with-value-and-family-top-of-mind/ Accessed March 31, 2015.

Autism Speaks. Autism Speaks and JetBlue Host Blue Horizons for Autism at JFK Airport: https://www.autismspeaks.org/news/news-item/autism-speaks-and-jetblue-host-blue-horizons-autism-jfk-airport Accessed March 31, 2015.

Autism Speaks. Traveling Tips for Individuals with Autism and Their Families: https://www.autismspeaks.org/family-services/community-connections/traveling-tips-individuals-autism-and-their-families Accessed April 1, 2015.

Disneyland: https://disneyland.disney.go.com/guest-services/cognitive-disabilities/ Accessed March 31, 2015.

Friendship Circle- Special Needs Blog. 39 Theme Parks With Special Needs Access Passes: www.friendshipcircle.org/blog/2013/10/10/39-theme-parks-with-access-passes-for-special-needs/ Accessed March 31, 2015.

U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Transportation Security Administration. Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions: www.tsa.gov/traveler-information/travelers-disabilities-and-medical-conditions Accessed April 1, 2015.

Walt Disney World. Services for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/cognitive-disabilities-services/ Accessed March 31, 2015.



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