Reflections on Autism, Parenting, and How to Maximize Joy on Vacation

It is Autism Awareness month around the globe this month, and I thought it would be fitting to squeeze in a related blog post today. At this point in our journey with neurodiversity, things feel pretty normal at our house. We have a school schedule, consistent snack, screen time (Minecraft, duh!), homework, and play. The biggest challenges we face are when our routine is thrown out of whack. 

As a sidenote of encouragement to parents and children with new diagnoses, overall things have become easier for all of us as the years go by. We understand our son's needs. And Bryce is maturing in his ability to communicate what gives him anxiety (for example last week he told me a painting in our bathroom gave him shivers..I immediately took it out and threw it in the closet!) We know he enjoys chain restaurant food for its predictable texture, and he even has a favorite chain sit-down restaurant: Chili's, because they have game players on the table.

Okay, so back to the topic on hand. It is Spring Break season around here, and a lot of families are going to the beach, lake, or Disney World. Below I'm sharing a few things we've learned over our last few vacations as a family that could lessen your child's anxiety (a common trait for children with autism) and help everyone have an enjoyable time!

1. Show a Plan (Pictures, maps, schedule)

A few years ago we went to Wisconsin for a long weekend. We told our two kids we were going to a cabin, and when we arrived the interior planks were vertical. A child with neurotypical processing could probably quickly adapt to the change in mental picture, but for Bryce it was devastating that we were not in a traditional log cabin with horizontal planks. 

Ever since, a week or so before the trip, I sit down with him and show him on the map: how far we are going, how many sleeps, how close it is to the beach, mountains, ect., and show him photographs on the vacation rental website. I try to answer any questions he has about the trip and give him as much structure as I can predict (without over-promising.) Along the way we let him look at our google maps to see process in the journey.

Update (2017): We went to Legoland + Epcot this past Spring Break. A week before the trip I sat down with both of our kids and and watched several videos about the parks and their rides. It definitely helped ease their anxiety.

2. Keep Some Things Familiar

Vacations are designed to be relaxing, but for children with high anxiety, adhd, or can be really unsettling. New environments, smells, sounds, and lack of structure is hard on a lot of kids! Adding familiar foods and things from home can be really comforting to them.

When packing for a trip, I always bring his blankie (which is incredibly personal and special to him) and a pillow from his bed. Last vacation to the beach I brought a lot of his snacks, but after a few meals at restaurants we saw he was barely touching his food. I'm talking a bite or two of his chicken finger. So we ran to the closest grocery store and bought yogurt, lunchables (his go-to comfort food), and his favorite milk.

3. Find Play the Whole Family Can Enjoy

Our son Bryce LOVES the sand. Whether we are at the ocean or lake he will dig in it for hours. It is relaxing for him and it gives great sensory input. I also think he likes it because he can be a structural engineer: planning and directing paths for new water systems.... As a family we all enjoy the beach so its a win for all of us.

Our son also really enjoys places with maps. We visited a fort and he made sure we visited every inch of what was on the map. I am guessing it is in part because it is a concrete experience, somewhat predictable, historical, and visual. So to be sure next time we go on vacation we will pick some places with maps!

4. Grace for Reboots

If your child has meltdowns from time to time at home, he or she will likely have them on vacation too. When our little guy is struggling, we try to get him to eat a snack (because low-blood sugar can be a trigger), and we often let him have a reboot time. That might mean 10 minutes playing on our phones, going outside while waiting for food at a restaurant, swinging at a park, or getting to hold his blankie. If we are near the condo rental taking him inside for some quiet space helps too. If we are going to somewhere that might be loud like a movie theater, we bring noise canceling headphones for him.


5. Don't Loose Sleep Over What Others Think

This is coming from me, a recovering people pleaser, and I can say without a doubt that the people looking at you at the park or restaurant shouldn't impact your day. Some people will be nice, others will be ignorant. Don't loose sleep over it. Meltdowns don't have to ruin the day (and they shouldn't!). Work through the experience, show grace to your little one, and yourself. Take a deep breath, put your feet in the sand, and enjoy the sunset.

Our family vacation in Charleston SC, Spring Break 2015

Our family vacation in Charleston SC, Spring Break 2015