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Preparing a Child on the Autism Spectrum to Travel

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Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication and behavioral challenges. Kids on the spectrum can be nervous about change. Like many children with autism, my son favors order and schedules. This can make traveling a challenge unless we prep him in advance. Preparing a child on the autism spectrum to travel is an activity many families build into the to-do list they work through to get ready for a vacation. The trick is to allow enough time to get it done.

Identify Triggers and Make Them More Routine

My husband and I begin by identifying potential triggers in a travel itinerary. Then we set out to make those triggers more routine. Some have been easy to determine, others a little more mysterious.

When we planned a trip to a dude ranch last summer, we knew horses would be an issue for him. While most youngsters gravitate toward horses and enjoy pony rides, my son had a fear of these beautiful animals. So six weeks before our departure, we made weekly visits to stables. He pet and brushed horses or simply spent time near them for almost three weeks before he was finally coaxed into a saddle and taken on a short ride.

It was a gamble. The results would not be known until we were at the ranch. We would be off the grid, out of cell phone range, and miles from civilization. Would he take to the experience or would we be in for a challenging weekend? He kept us guessing up until our first walk out to the corral where a wrangler waited to take him on ride. We held our breath. Before we knew what happened, we had ourselves a little cowboy.

Always Trust Your Instincts About Your Child

My advice to other parents is to trust your instincts, then proceed slowly and carefully. No one knows your child like you do. You know what will set off a meltdown or what can be a challenge. Then formulate a plan and allow yourself ample time to carry out whatever you determine to be your next steps.

Points to keep in mind:

  •  Autism is a spectrum disorder, which means those who live with it are affected differently. Because kids may fall on different parts of that spectrum, there is really no foolproof travel plan for preparing every child on the autism spectrum. Parents frequently must do what parents often do best: trust their gut feelings.
  • Running through the details over and over again also helps. While we parents find the idea of answering the same questions continuously to be like running in the same annoying circle, a boy like my son not only sees it as comforting but also a way to sort out the details in his head so he knows what to expect. My son does this frequently as he prepares to shed his daily routine.
  • Involve those at your destination in your plans. Going back to the dude ranch example, I let the owner know about my son in advance. This not only made it possible for the staff to design an appropriate riding experience for him, the ranch manager was able to make some staffing scheduling decisions to accommodate my son.
  • Allow yourself ample time to prepare: This cannot be stressed enough. Life can get hectic just before you go on vacation, with details like unexpected work deadlines, packing, arranging for pet care, stopping the paper and so much more. Making this preparation process part of our travel checklist can mean the difference between a successful trip and a travel disaster.

If you have a child on the autism spectrum, what special things to you do to prepare for travel? Please share your tips with us in the comments below.

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Kristine lives in Mountain View, California, where she is the mother of a gifted girl athlete and a special needs charmer. Like almost everything in her house,…

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