Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills

Basking in cascading sunlight at Hocking Hills

Nature Therapy at Hocking Hills: Unplug…unwind…breathe deep!


Tired of living in our stressful modern world?  You can find the perfect atmosphere for nature therapy at Hocking Hills State Park.


We live in fast-paced movements; loud artificial noises; concrete scenery; electronic addictions; and compartmentalized living.  No wonder people want to escape it!


These sensory-intense, disconnected environments are often “toxic” for autistic individuals, aggravating their sensitive neurological systems.


But being in nature, even for a few minutes, can have instant benefits. Studies have found that being in nature decreases cortisol (the stress hormone). Those that make longer commitments to be in nature, often on guided group adventures, have found lasting healing from chronic pain, such as PTSD.


Breathing in the forest air immediately brings peace to mind, body and soul.  It is calming and rejuvenating at the same time…which can help both sensory-seekers and sensory-avoiders.


Nature therapy through forest breathing


Being in the forests of Hocking Hills in Ohio fulfilled my need to escape daily living for a while and feel refreshed.  I felt centered, grounded, at-peace and brimming with joy among the trees.  My autistic kids absolutely loved spending time there with other family around.


Besides physical health, being in nature can also help improve sensory-integration, spatial/body-awareness, and executive functioning.


Nature therapy at Hocking Hills is ideal for autistic individuals and their families needing a calming atmosphere.


“Forest therapy”


The Japanese call it “forest bathing”.  It is the act of being attuned to the smallest of sounds and the scents of the trees. It is not fast-paced hiking. Rather, it is slow strolls or sitting quietly in nature. It is feeling the “life” of the forest.


Reading about others’ experiences with “forest bathing” gave me the sense that they were getting in touch with the “kid inside”.  You know, the one who took mud baths, ran barefoot in the grass, and spent most of the day outside with friends.



  • It’s very simple…take your time to walk along the paths. Reflect upon the beautiful scenery and try to think of nothing else for the moment. Let your child take his/her time to explore along the path.


  • As you walk or hike at a faster pace, inhale slowly and deeply. Show your child how it’s done.  Take breaks to just sit and relax.

Just being in nature has been proven to provide many benefits for kids:

  • Leads to increased collaboration, imagination, concentration and positive feelings.
  • Fuels higher levels of Vitamin D from natural sunlight, providing an immunity barrier against illnesses and protect against weight gain.
  • Teaches kids how to assess risk better than being in a “safe playground” space.


The power of nature as a healer for physical and social health is amazing.  But it also contributes to sensory wellness, perfect for those with autism.  (Don’t believe me?   Read this article.)


Sensory Integration Therapy


Autistic children can be hyper- or hypo-sensitive to the environmental input around them.  They react in different ways to make sense of it all. Determine your autistic child’s key sensory issues and use nature as a “therapy tool” to work on them.


Body awareness:  Some with autism have vestibular (balance) issues.  Others have a hard time knowing where their body is in space relative to other objects or people (called proprioception).  Some of the best things to do to improve this condition—besides working with a PT or OT in an indoor, highly-structured setting—is to practice in natural settings.


Take care of more treacherous paths


  • Those with more severe issues can stay on shorter trails that are relatively flat and/or paved in the gorges. Gradually move to more rugged paths and those with no safety rails when you feel confident your child can handle those.


  • With gentle guidance on the nature trails, you can challenge your child by slowly and carefully walking over tree roots, climbing over rocks, and wading in a stream.


  • “Show and tell” how you walk down muddy steps, then let you child follow one step at a time.


  • Consider buying a stable, well-built hiking stick or two (one for each hand). Even experienced hikers use these for stability and support. These are a great therapy tool to practice coordination.


The 5 Senses:  Nature, especially in larger state or national parks, provide a more serene atmosphere with much less sensory output.  No extreme visual, auditory, or motion-based triggers here bombarding your autistic child.  Your child can focus on receiving and processing input one aspect of nature at a time.



  • Hiking in nature can be part of your child’s sensory diet. For example, if you child needs help with auditory input, help him or her pick out the different sounds with active listening.  Or, let him or her touch plants, rocks, leaves, running water, etc. (anything non-poisonous, of course).


  • Shut out one sense to heighten the experience of another. For example, have your child close his/her eyes to feel a natural object or to hear birds. Or, apply sound-barring headphones to focus on the visual elements to play an “I-spy” game.


Executive-Functioning Therapy


Many autistic kids remember a million tiny details but cannot remember 2-step directions. Organizing information in their brain is hard.  Add all of life’s daily distractions and environmental sensory triggers and it becomes impossible to focus.  But a calm environment with “no rules” can be a good place to practice those executive-functioning skills.


Appreciating the natural beauty of Hocking HillsWHAT TO DO:

  • Practice following 2- or more-step directions with simple task along the path. For example: “first, find a rock that is round and then throw it in the creek.” Or “find two sticks and put the smaller one behind a big rock”.


  • To help with understanding sequences, take photos of places along the path. Have your child take some of his/her favorite spots as well. When you get back from your trip you can create your own social story of your memories in order you did them. (Note day and time of your photos and add them into your story.)


  • Have your child help pack the hiking bag with needed supplies. Ask what they think is necessary for the amount of time you’ll be gone of the trail. This helps with learn the process of planning.


Reconnecting with Nature


Tackling important sensory and life skills doesn’t have to happen in a lab-like, institutional clinic.  Some of the best progress happens in more natural settings having fun with one’s own family.  The truest breakthroughs for those with autism happen in joyful connection and relationship with others.


Simple fun at Hocking Hills


Hocking Hills is the perfect respite for autistic individuals to connect with self and to forge greater bonds with their families.


See for yourself why people come back to Hocking Hills in Ohio again and again…any time of the year!


Now, let’s move on to the lodging accommodations available at Hocking Hills!


Besides Hocking Hill, go out and discover “nature therapy” in any city, state or national park wherever you find an abundance of trees.

Safety Tips for Hocking Hills

Safety Tips for Hocking Hills

NOTE:  These are safety tips for Hocking Hills. They may apply to any state or national park that has a similar terrain and accessibility. 


Old Man Cave of Hocking Hills


Otherworldly.  Awe-inspiring.  Therapeutic.


Words like these cannot even begin to describe the scene that awaited our initial discovery of Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio.  Given the rocky terrain of the park, however, some parents might be worried their autistic child may not be able to handle the paths. I hope to reassure you by providing safety tips for exploring Hocking Hills and other parks like it.


Located southeast of Columbus, Ohio, this mind-blowing, beautiful place has attracted visitors from all over.  Southern Ohio is a lot like southern Indiana and Kentucky…gentle-rolling hills with caves and deep ravines carved out by waterfalls.


But Hocking Hills is totally unique.  Because its gorges are so deep, it hosts plant and animal species only seen in Canada or the Pacific Northwest.  Giant hemlock trees dominate the landscape while Canadian warblers make their home here. On the upper rims you’ll find typical Midwest oak and hickory trees.


Stair rails for safe guiding

We felt transported to particular movie settings. To me, we stepped into the “Star Wars” forest moon of Endor where the Ewoks lived. My son said it looked like Pandora from “Avatar”, since the giant rock outcroppings appeared to be “floating”. My daughter simply said it was “nature’s Disney World”.Otherwordly rock outcroppings at Hocking Hills


Hocking Hills is a sensory treat:  stunning scenery; soothing sounds; and a plethora of tactile experiences.


That said, there are some very critical safety challenges while exploring Hocking Hills.


Autism families need to take special care to prepare themselves and their children for hiking the breathtaking, but rugged, terrain.


Amazing forest beauty at Hocking Hills


Hocking Hills is a hiking park with many trails.  You will need to be able to walk, climb stairs and maneuver over rocks and tree limbs.  You will also need to have a fairly good sense of personal safety.


Here are safety tips for Hocking Hills to help you navigate and overcome these challenges:


1. Very Limited or NO WiFi

The benefit is that you get to completely unplug from the outside world. You are truly escaping from reality. The problem is that you cannot communicate with one another if you split up, contact people back home, or (in the event of an accident on a trail) call up an ambulance if you don’t have good cell phone coverage. I called park staff about this issue: Sprint has some spotty coverage and sometimes you can get signal at the town or tops of ridges. I have AT&T and had no coverage anywhere.  Park rangers are around but we didn’t see any during our visit.


  • I suggest that the entire party stays together while hiking the trails. Have a designated “runner” to get back to the car quickly in order to get help.


  • Determine a “meeting place and time” if your party gets split up; wear watches so everyone is in sync.


  • Bring a few park maps in case you get lost. Don’t leave your phone in the car—bring it along as it has a GPS function to help locate your position even without wifi.


2. Weather Forecast

If you can, find out the weather for the day. (See if your lodging accommodation has its own WiFi or DirectTV access.)  Hill top during a thunderstormA hot sunny day will not be a burden if you hike in the deep gorges. Temperatures drop at least 10-15 degrees here and shade is abundant.  Weather is very unpredictable in the summer months.

We got caught in a thunderstorm on top of the ridge.  Standing in puddles of water in a high location was not good idea, so we walked back. Our trail turned into a raging stream, so we had to be extremely cautious where we stepped. People below on the gorge trail witnessed massive trees and rocks falling after being uprooted by the heavy downpours. Water always falls to its lowest point, so the water can rise extremely fast along the lower trails.  (See the “before and after” photos of Conkle’s Hollow below.)


Before the rain…

Dry path before the rains


After the rain…

After the heavy rains


TIPS:Bad weather moving in

  • Download the AccuWeather app. Access the latest forecast online with a good signal. Then, when you don’t have wifi, you can still see the weather offline (for up to 15 without signal).


  • If you hike in the rain, be sure to be on the lookout for rising waters. If there is a chance of storms or you hear distant rumbles of thunder, I strongly urge that you do NOT hike the trails!


3. Equipment Essentials

Some trails are long and have treacherous terrain. The right shoes are critical. Depending on how you want to spend your time on the trails, you’ll need to pack for a variety of needs: hunger, thirst, first aid, and capturing those moments for your memories. We put the first aid kit to good use after my nephew (with SPD and ADHD) scraped his knee up climbing the rock stairs.


  • Wear shoes that have thick tread and won’t fall off. Do NOT wear flip-flops or Crocs without an ankle strap! Some gym-shoes are not appropriate as they can be slick on muddy, wet stone-stairs. I felt very safe wearing water shoes—never slipped at all.


  • Bring a lightweight backpack big enough to carry what you need. Include snacks and plenty of water.


  • Bring small sensory items your child may need in case the hike is overwhelming.


  • Bring a good poncho and maybe a wide-brimmed rain hat on overcast days and if you anticipate the possibility of rain.


  • And most importantly, don’t forget a small first aid kit with alcohol wipes, band-aids, gauze and bandage tape.


4. Pet friendly trails

Many people brought their dogs with them, little or large.  They were all on leashes. Most seemed incredibly friendly.  Still, it’s best to prepare for encountering a stranger’s pet.  The only trail that does not allow dogs is Conkle’s Hollow.


  • Know how your autistic child reacts around dogs. Is he or she incredibly scared or intensely fascinated with other people’s dogs? Create a social story that teach him/her the appropriate behavior about being around strange dogs, if necessary.


5. Accessibility & Body-Spatial Awareness

If I haven’t drilled in the idea enough, I’ll say it again: Hocking Hills has rough terrain.  There are only two trails that are flat and paved: Ash Cave and Conkle’s Hollow Gorge Trail.  They provide terrific access for wheelchair users to view the scenery in the gorges. BUT…they only go so far.  A large boulder is blocking a good portion of the view of the waterfall at Ash Cave, and it’s impossible to see the end of the trail at Conkle’s Hollow as the paved trail turns rugged. Many areas of the trails have no rails to protect you from falling off a steep cliff.  If you are taking a younger child or one who has bodily coordination issues, be extra careful in taking them through these trails.


Beware of time-worn stone steps



  • Download the Trails Maps before you go! Study them and decide which ones are best for your family. For each trail they indicate the number of stair-steps, how many miles, and how dangerous. You can also pick up a trail map at the Welcome Center.


  • If your child has never been hiking in natural parks before, has not developed a sense of personal safety, or has poorer balance or coordination, start with some of the paved lower gorge trails previously mentioned.  The short distance to the falls on rugged terrain would be good practice for learning how to navigate over rougher paths.


  • If your child is very coordinated on unpredictable pathways, obeys safety commands, and understands what to do around dangerous areas, then feel free to hike the rim or overlook trails where you can enjoy gorgeous, birds-eye views of the park. Old Man’s Cave trail is a terrific hiking experience with incredible natural and man-made structures.


Handicapped accessible path


If you live in the Midwest but can’t get out to visit the Northwest Cascades any time soon, then come explore Hocking Hills.  Consider staying at least three days to fully explore what it has to offer.


Simple pleasures to be found at Hocking Hills       Awe-struck wonders of Hocking Hills

Safely guiding on the path

Before you arrive…


I recommend you visit the Ohio DNR site for Hocking Hills. Here you will find photos of some of the park sites.  Explore YouTube for videos of the trails. All Ohio State Parks are free to visitors, by the way…


For a more complete vacation planning resource (including lodging and other activities besides hiking), visit the official Hocking Hills tourism website.


When you arrive….


To begin your hiking adventures, be sure to stop by the Welcome Center first. Speak with a park ranger or staff more familiar with the park trails for specific guidance and recommendations.


Hopefully I have addressed the most critical safety considerations for which autistic individuals and families prepare.


       Trail waterfall       Dark path ahead       Architectural wonders


To be continued…


Now, let’s move on to the therapeutic benefits to be discovered at Hocking Hills!  Click the link to access the article: An Autism Guide to Exploring Hocking Hills State Park (Part 2): “Nature Therapy”






Your Autism Guide to Holiday World

Your Autism Guide to Holiday World

I dare you to ride the Voyage!

Thinking of trying out an amusement park with your autistic child?


Consider Holiday World in southern Indiana. It’s the perfect family getaway, even for special needs families. Discover the accommodations available in this autism guide to Holiday World.


Some of the best things are in the middle of nowhere…literally.


Rising out of the hills of southern Indiana in the small village of Santa Claus (yes, THAT “Santa Claus”) stand gravity-defying giant steel and wooden structures.


Roller coasters, to be exact.


Like the Griswold family making a pilgrimage to their beloved Wally World in the movie “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, many residents of the surrounding Midwest states make the annual journey to Holiday World.

Meet Santa in the summer!


But it’s not just the roller coasters that draw them.  Holiday World is family-owned and designed specifically for the whole family in mind, including very small children.


Its whimsical holiday-themed lands celebrate Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Fourth of July. It’s probably the only place in the world that kids can greet Santa Claus outside of the Christmas season.  It’s a mix of old-fashioned carnival rides, world-renowned roller coasters, and one big water park—Splashin’ Safari.


We usually come to Holiday World in May before Memorial Day, so even on a Saturday the lines for the rides were not too long. For this reason, we never considered getting a “Ride Boarding Pass” before. But I wanted to conduct a bit of research into how it was used and whether it was truly helpful for those on the autism spectrum.


Holiday World is an “autism friendly” amusement park.  By my experience, hopefully you can gain some valuable insight into planning your own visit to Holiday World with your autism family.


Your Autism Guide to Holiday World Accommodations


Before I even left the house, I made sure to dig into their accommodations policy.  Considering that they have a “Calming Room” and a “Ride Boarding Pass” for those who cannot wait in long lines, I would personally designate this park as “autism friendly”.  I wanted to test that out when I arrived.


We got there early considering we live in Eastern Standard Time and Holiday World is in Central Standard Time.  They allow people into the parks 30 minutes before they “rope drop” the area to the main attractions. The kiddie rides near the entrance were actually running before official opening.


Past the ticket takers to the left is “Holiday World Services” where you can ask for the “ride boarding pass” and any other accommodation needed.  We did not have to present any evidence of diagnosis.  They were very eager to accommodate and explained how it was used.

Special needs boarding pass for attractions    Special needs accommodation pass   Boarding pass instructions and procedures


The purpose of the “ride boarding pass” is to assist guests in wheelchairs who cannot move through the queue or those who cannot wait in a typical line. No more than 4 people in the party can use this accommodation.  Guests must use the exit to access the attraction. You can only get one return-time at any given time. We were told we would either (a) be let on the ride immediately or (b) be given a return time.


For our first ride we were neither allowed immediate access nor given a return time. It took about 5 minutes for staff to acknowledge us and then another 20 minutes—standing in the hot sun—before we were permitted to ride. My autistic teens were upset with this arrangement. My son was embarrassed that we were not walking through the standard queue.  Fortunately, they gave us our first choice of seating after they apologized profusely.


I got the sense that the “boarding pass” was mostly originally designed for those with physical disabilities whose wheelchairs cannot move through the queues.  I don’t know if they really accommodate those with strictly sensory-cognitive issues.   I would have been happy to have been promptly acknowledged and then given a return time to come back later.


After that ride my kids were adamant that we stand in a regular line like everyone else. It turned out to be a 45-minute wait.  Oh well…at least we were in the shade.


Unfortunately, Holiday World does not have signs indicating how long wait times are for each attraction.  It also does not have signs indicating which rides accommodate those with autism or other disabilities and where to go (like Disney parks do).  With the “ride boarding pass” handy, however, you know exactly which attractions allow return-times.


Your autism guide to a fun-filled family adventure


1. Know your child’s time-limit for waiting.

If your child can wait up to 30 minutes or more then you will be fine without needing to use the “ride boarding pass”. If it’s less, be sure to grab it from Services.


2. Ask for a return time right away.

When you use the boarding pass, be sure to ask the ride attendant immediately and politely whether you can go right away or need a return time. Just standing there hoping they see you may not work in your favor. Flag them down if necessary.


3. Assess the wait time by observing the pace of lines.

When you get to the ride, take a few minutes to observe the speed of the queue. See how many ride operators are attending guests. The Scarecrow Scrambler did not seem to have a long queue, but it was moving very slowly with only one attendant.  Many rides seem to only have one attendant, in fact.  Be sure to ask for a return time for attractions with slow moving or long queues and with only one attendant.


4.  Take advantage of conveyor-type attractions.

Rides that are on conveyor systems and/or hold more people in the vehicle (roller/water coasters, water rides, dark rides, etc.) tend to have faster queues than those that can only get a small group of people on at one time. You may not need to use the “ride boarding pass”. On the other hand, be aware that lines for certain seats on the roller coasters will be extra-long.  If your autistic child is dead-set on riding at the very front or very back, warn him or her that it will take longer. Time the wait for middle-seat lines, then multiply by 3, if you need to use a visual timer while waiting in line.


5. On hot afternoons, head to the shady area attractions with little or no waits.

On particularly hot days most people head to the water-park. This leaves the rest of the park with little or no wait for their attractions. Head to the areas that have more shade, such as 4th of July, Halloween, and Holidog’s Funtown (for younger kids). Wait times were 20 minutes or less; for most rides we got on the next time around.


6. Take advantage of their “calming room”.

Holiday World has a “Calming Room” at the First Aid Station located at the entrance to Splashin’ Safari. If you anticipate needing a place for your child to relax after intense sensory stimulation—or gets upset if his or her favorite ride is down at the moment—this is a great amenity for families needing a break.

Autism calming room at Holiday World It is first-come, first-served but you may not be waiting at all for the space. This large room has sound-proof panels, a padded floor mat, couches, bean bags, rocking chairs, dimmed lighting, and a tent.

The only way you would know it’s here, however, is by asking Services where it’s located or finding that information on their website beforehand.  There is no sign pointing out that a “Calming Room” is available there. It’s not even in the Park Map & Information guide. Most autism families most likely don’t know it’s even available.


7.  Bring your own sensory tools.

You will need to bring personal sensory tools such as noise-cancelling headphones, fidgets, or music.  Holiday World does NOT provide these items for you to borrow, so don’t leave home without them!  The Calming Room does have a port for you to plug in for special music that soothes your child and allows them to hear it through the room speakers.


8. Take a break to see the shows or meet-and-greet some characters.

Grab a Show Guide at the entrance to what and when they are playing. Santa’s Storytime Theater and Hoosier Celebration Theater are well-shaded areas if you want to beat the heat.


9. Go to the park on  less-crowded weekdays.

For fewer crowds, I recommend going during the middle of the week during the summer as well as before Memorial Day or after Labor Day. Many seasonal passholders come during the weekend, so if you can, try to come on those less expensive “off-days”.


10. Check out the gluten-free meal options.

If you have someone on a gluten-free diet, you can visit “George’s Gluten-free Pizza and Snacks” at the 4th of July area. Here you'll find gluten free optionsCheck out the list of allergen-free and gluten-free options here at this link. Consider eating before 11am and between 2pm-5pm for less wait for special orders.


11. Before you go, download the Accessibility Guide to get a sense of what each attraction is like.

To see if your child can handle the roller coasters and other ride-based attractions at Holiday World, I highly recommend you watch the Point-of-View videos on YouTube. (Click on the links below to watch a few.).

Sensory-Intense Attractions


Here are my two favorite coasters at Holiday World…which also happen to be the most intense:

1. The Voyage

The Voyage is the #3 top-rated wooden roller coaster in the world (TripSavvy). Aptly named, it is designed to make you feel like a pilgrim crossing the Atlantic in a hurricane, complete with the ability to make even the most die-hard roller coaster enthusiasts a bit motion-sick. (The back rows may enhance that likelihood of throwing up over the side.).

I consider myself a roller-coaster aficionado, and the Voyage is the most intense roller coaster I have ever experienced.  I go on it every time I visit! Love it!

Sensory Experience: extremely intense—body-jarring/bumpy; very loud sounds from the coaster on the track; very high heights; very fast; “windy” sensation; few brief dark tunnels; may or will induce motion sickness. Anything not tied down will be lost, including noise-blocking headphones!  Terrific for those sensory-seekers that get a thrill from roller coasters.


Challenge yourself to ride this super-charged coaster

2. The Thunderbird

The Thunderbird is the first steel launch-winged coaster in the world. It explodes out of the gate to 60 mph in 3.5 seconds, immediately going into an inverted vertical loop (aka…upside-down).

To say this is “thrilling” is an understatement. With feet dangling in mid-air you feel like you are flying like a devil-bird. Unlike the wooden roller coasters, this one is a smooth ride.

My daughter would not go on the Voyage after experiencing the Raven (another wooden coaster) but this one she really liked. I can handle the left side better than the right side of the coaster with the slow inverted turn at the end (get queasy on the right side).

Sensory Experience: moderately intense—very fast launch; smooth ride; high heights; several upside-down turns; may induce motion sickness. Terrific for sensory seekers not afraid of upside-down roller coasters and heights. 


Splashin' Safari is terrific for water-lovers


3. Splashin’ Safari

There are plenty of play areas for little ones at this water park as well as a giant wave pool and some terrific water coasters like the Wildebeest and Mammoth (for which you can use the “ride boarding pass”). If your autistic child just absolutely loves waterparks, then he or she will have a blast here.

Life-jackets are available on a first- come, first-served basis at the wave pool for children and adults (with chest sizes up to 52”).  If you have an autistic adult with you and he or she is too big for their sizes, bring your own if necessary.

Unfortunately, we have always skipped Splashin’ Safari. My kids prefer the land-rides and sometimes weather has not always cooperated for being in water.

Sensory Experience: Sadly, I cannot review it from a sensory point-of-view. If you have ever been to a large waterpark like Great Wolf Lodge, then you have a sense of what it’s like…only outdoors, more to do, and in an even bigger area. Many people stay all day here and skip the land-rides.  Be sure to watch point-of-view videos out there of their water-based attractions (see previous links).


Autism Friendly?


For the most part…YES.

Holiday World does offer some nice amenities to those who can’t wait in long lines, need a sensory break, or have a special diet.  They were eager to accommodate when they could.


On the other hand…NO.

We needed to advocate a little more using our “ride boarding pass”.  In addition, their accommodations are not always apparent to the first-time guest or even those who have been coming a while like myself.

I highly recommend you check out their website for more information before you go. Hopefully, this autism guide to Holiday World has alleviated some of your concerns in that regard as well.


You'll love the old-fashioned carousel!

Why I love Holiday World

The amusement park is unique in that it provides several FREE items: free drinks, free sunscreen, free parking, and free WiFi.   It’s wonderful that they use preventative measures against sunburn and dehydration and make having fun affordable.

The price of admission depends on day of the week and month, ranging from $29.99 to $49.99 on summer weekends.

I love Holiday World! I dearly appreciate this park for trying to accommodate different needs and for the variety of attractions that will surely please everyone.


I know you will, too! 

Water Tower at Holiday World


I would love to help you plan a fun-filled getaway like this!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

Camping with Autism

An Autism Guide to Camping

The camping experience can be fun for even those with autism.

Camping with Autism: Tips for a Positive Experience

To ensure that things go smoothly on a vacation in the great outdoors for those with spectrum challenges, here is an autism guide to camping.

You will find important sensory considerations as well as advice on campsites and equipment that will help you make the best decisions when planning your trips.


Passing on a love of camping…with some “growing pains”

I loved camping as a small child.  My first family vacations were at state parks and lakes in a pop-up camper. We hiked, cooked over a campfire, and went swimming, canoeing and fishing.

I have a deep nostalgia for what camping means: family bonding, respite from home activities, and a chance to rejuvenate in the relaxing outdoors.

Wanting to pass that love onto my own children, we decided to begin with tent camping.  We chose a park about 30 minutes away. Our site was right on the edge small lake, so we could fish right off the bank.

Things went fairly well that first night…until about 5 a.m. the next morning. My daughter woke up screaming at the top of her lungs and could not be consoled.  This caused my son to panic as well.  We decided to just pack up and leave right at sunrise, fearing the wrath of our campground neighbors (hopefully) still asleep.

Extremely disappointed, we sort of…gave up for a while.

If only we were simply more realistic about camping to begin with we could have given it another go while they were young.

Now that my teenagers have successfully experienced tent-camping with the Scouts, we decided to invest in a pop-up camper.  We love it! We cook over a fire and read books in hammocks; when it rains we play games inside the camper.

Hopefully our own camping experiences over the years will serve as a guide to help you decide how you should approach camping having autism in your own family.


Practical Advice for a Positive Camping Experience

Ahh...the smell of campfire cooking!1. Consider the “5-senses” of camping.

The smell of a campfire. The sight of a fire lighting up the night. Unless you are camping by yourselves in the middle of nowhere, then be prepared to encounter lots of other campers, too.

The level of these sensory experiences depends on the location of the campground and your individual campsite as well as the people around you.

Assess how your child’s sensory needs can be accommodated on a camp-out considering the five senses:

  • Sounds: range from quietly muted to loud, such as nearby site conversations; kids yelling to one another on their bikes; loud diesel trucks going by; sounds of birds and other animals; dogs barking; etc.


  • Sights: range from minimal stimulation to moderately high, such as a private tree lined site to wide open spaces with lots of games and other social activity between people of different campsites. Some campgrounds form little communities of people of who come back year-after-year.


  • Tactile: Some camping pads are gravel rocks with some dirt or grass while others are a smooth concrete pad. Handling wood or sitting on a rough picnic table may irritate some. If your autistic child likes deep pressure, then swing hammocks are a perfect way to relax.


  • Smell: most smells are muted, but others can be strong like smoky campfires and fuels from cars driving by while others are very pungent (think “outhouse”).


  • Taste: if your child is sensitive to different waters, then bring your own water. Most full-hookup sites have water available, but you may want to use it only for external purposes (i.e. washing).


2. Choose the right location.

So much of your experience depends on the location of the campground and your site within it. Find out the level of accessibility for personal needs, safety, and recreational amenities.

Some campgrounds have websites or videos of their sites to show what it’s like. Or, call the campground for more info. (Poor Farmer’s RV campground in Ohio is one that serves both short- and long-term campers.)

Ask yourself these questions:Choose your camping location with care.

  • Is the campground and/or some sites completely in a wooded area or in full sun? This can be a critical element if someone in the family is sensitive to sun and heat.


  • Does it have natural privacy barriers and plenty of space between sites, or is there very little privacy?


  • What is the terrain like? Rough, steep, or flat?


  • Does it have access to water and electricity or will you be totally roughing it?


  • Does the campground and site fully accommodate someone who needs a wheelchair or other medical equipment?


  • Is there WiFi available in case of emergency (or can you easily reach someone at the campground office)? Many state and national parks have limited or no internet access while private campgrounds may have WiFi available for guests.


  • Is your site accessible to other activities and restaurants or is it pretty remote?


  • Are pets allowed? What rules are in place if dogs are allowed?


  • If your child is a runner, would you be able to get help right away?


  • Is the location near water if your child is not yet a swimmer?


  • Would you feel comfortable giving your child some room to explore the campground on his or her own?


3. Assess your accommodation needs.

Your camp experience can range from living like a pioneer in a makeshift tent to “glamping” like a rock star in a mini-apartment on wheels.  Consider your family’s needs and previous experience staying in places away from home.

Could they actually “rough it” or would they need a more familiar setting like your own home?  Here are some pros and cons of each type of camping accommodation:RVs have many comforts of home suitable for most autism families.


  • Pros—cheap; relatively easy to set up; can be brought on a plane; set up anywhere; ideal for getting into remote places with fewer people.


  • Cons—may not be fully weather proof (rain, wind, cold, heat); little room to move, sit, stand; may not sleep comfortably; tight quarters for a large family or older kids; may need to bring a lot of loose items to camp.



  • Pros—compact and lighter to tow (most cars); cheaper than most campers; queen or king-size beds; can sleep a whole family; often includes sink, stove and possibly a shower/toilet area.


  • Cons—smaller space than a travel trailer; takes at some time and effort to set up; canvas can tear and have holes; may not have access to some campgrounds (especially those out West if bears are a concern); not suitable to keep pets inside if you leave; may not have a toilet.



  • Pros—not much to set up; can store items inside; fits most campsites (depending on size); can take your vehicle to go places; full bathrooms and decent size kitchen areas; great for longer vacations (week or more).


  • Cons—need a larger truck or SUV to pull; new campers can be expensive; some beds actually smaller than they appear in photos; may require a lot of gas to tow.



  • Pros—very little to set up; “home-on-wheels” style comfort with nicer kitchens, beds and bathrooms (maybe even washer/dryer); large space (especially bump-outs); ideal for long-term camping (weeks to months).


  • Cons—very expensive; may not fit in some campgrounds; must tow a separate vehicle if you want to go other places; expensive to repair/can break down while traveling; various states have different restraining laws when traveling in an RV (children must still be in a car seat facing forward which can be a problem in an RV—best if they ride in a separate vehicle).


4. Be prepared.

Plan and budget well. Get to know the campground and local area well before setting off. Pack what you need and find out if you can purchase items you missed at a nearby store.Enjoy nature in beautiful state and national parks.

  • Find out about all the amenities of the campground. Do they have electric/water hookups? Pool? Bike rentals? Horseback riding? Boating? Hiking trails? Playgrounds? Campground sponsored games and activities?  Seasonal events? A nice view? A campground store?


  • What is your total budget? What is the cost of gas, food, campsite, rentals? Be sure to check out all the “extras” you’d like to do, not only at the campground but also the local area (i.e. museums, restaurants, shopping, etc.).


  • If your child wants to swim but needs assistance, take swim lessons. Learn to ride a bike before camping. Buy the necessary equipment to make sure everyone is safe.


  • Be sure to pack comforting sensory items if camping is new and strange for your autistic child.


5. Be realistic about what your family can handle.  

If you are completely new to camping (i.e. never even been inside a tent or camper), then consider renting a camper. Some campgrounds will even have their own campers available for you to rent. Others, like Fort Wilderness at Walt Disney World, will allow you to rent a camper that is brought in and set up by a local company. You get the benefits of camping without all of the work.

Some tents are a cinch to set up even for those certain challenges.

  • Buying camp gear is a big investment!  Consider how many days out of the year you’d like to camp and how much time, effort and work you want to put into setting up camp. Do you want the old-fashioned camping experience of sleeping on the ground and cooking outside or do you want to be more comfortable in a nature setting?  Are you in this for the long haul or just want to experiment with camping?  Ask yourself these questions to figure out the type of camping equipment you need.


  • Assess the skills, interests and patience of everyone in the family. What safety skills does your autistic child have? Do they need supervision while swimming, biking, walking, etc.? If you plan for certain activities but someone suddenly doesn’t want to participate, have a back-up plan. Ease into the experience if this is new for most members of the family (especially children with autism). Camping requires learning different skills, so be gentle with yourself and others.


  • If your family is miserable despite efforts to make it enjoyable, don’t be afraid to “throw in the towel”. It doesn’t mean you won’t be able to camp again—make adjustments for the next time (i.e. location, number of days, type of sleeping arrangements, etc.). Maybe staying in a cabin instead of a camper would be best.



A pop-up is an ideal "middle-ground" camping experience with autism.Successful camping experiences actually take a bit of practice.

It took our family three times of setting up and tearing down the pop-up camper to feel comfortable with the process (and not get upset with one another).  We wanted a step-up from tent sleeping without losing the more traditional camping experience.  My kids appreciate the large king-size beds. I love the heat and air conditioning.

We still tent-camp with the Scouts. But having a comfortable camper allows us to relax and sleep a little better. When we retire, I’d love to get a travel trailer for longer excursions to places on my bucket-list.

Camping is a wonderful way for families to reconnect by “unplugging” and interact with one another more.  You can relax for a little while without the burden of each person’s different daily routines and other home obligations.

Even if it’s only for a weekend, short trips are often what is needed to feel rejuvenated from everyday life.

With the right planning and attitude, camping can be a joyful, memorable experience!



National Park Access for Autism

National Park Access Pass for Autism

Explore our great national parks with the Acces Pass


America the Beautiful Access Pass

What if I told you that there was a national park access pass for those with autism?

This little secret was hidden from me for the longest time. Ten years passed from first diagnosis until we actually discovered this.  I lament the fact that if I had known about it sooner we would have taken advantage of all of the benefits that come with this Access Pass.

We would have traveled and explored the country way more than we did!

Of course, most agencies, hospitals, and schools that provide that initial diagnosis are not going to tell you about every single resource helpful for every stage of life. They may provide you a “what now?” book from an autism organization. Then you get sent on your merry way to navigate the massively complicated autistic world for yourself.

Good luck, matey!

I honestly can’t pinpoint the exact moment I found out the Access Pass.  I’m pretty sure that it came from a Medicaid waiver agency representative who mentioned it nonchalantly in conversation.  But I do distinctly remember my mind being blown.

Well, let me guide you to some clarity about this incredible governmental benefit.  See for yourself what a wonderful gift this can be for autistic individuals and their families.

If you want to witness the grandest places in America, like the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or the Smoky Mountains (for FREE!)—as well as receive deep discounts on camping and other recreational activities—apply for the America the Beautiful-National Parks & Federal Recreation Lands Access Pass today!


Stand in awe of the Grand Canyon using the Access Pass


About the National Parks Access Pass for Autism and Other Special Needs

What can you do with the Access Pass?  You can gain entrance into any associated federal recreation program for FREE that accepts it. This includes:

  • National Park Service (includes all national parks, national historic sites and others)
  • US Forest Service (includes national forests that have camping, hiking, horseman’s camps and lakes)
  • Fish and Wildlife Service (outdoor recreation plus historical and archaeological sites)
  • Bureaus of Land Management (hunting, fishing and game shooting)
  • Bureau of Reclamation (mostly water recreation in the Western states)
  • US Corp of Engineers (many manage reservoirs)

What other benefits are provided by this Access Pass?  You can get deep discounts on certain recreational activities, such as camping (50% discount), guided tours, and others such as boat launches.

Who can apply?  Anyone with a permanent developmental disability. This includes those with autism-related diagnosis well as any other cognitive-sensory disorder. Any age can get the pass.

How do you apply?  You need documentation of a diagnosis. They accept government-related documents, like proof of having the Medicaid waiver, but a doctor’s note should also do.

Where do you apply?  You can apply through the USPS mail service by downloading this paper application or you can visit a local office that is listed as a participating federal recreation site.

How long is it good for? It is good for one’s entire lifetime.

How much is it?  It’s free if you visit one of the federal offices; it’s $10 if you apply via mail.

What happens if I lose the card?  Simply reapply for another one.

How do I find a good place for our family to visit?  If you already know what type of setting or activities you’d like to do, you can explore the index page of the National Park Service. In Indiana we have the Indiana Dunes National Park near Chicago and the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial near the Ohio River in the south.

Accessing Recreational Opportunities

To access recreational opportunities at your favorite destinations, go to to reserve camping, guided tours, and more. The site also includes a trip planner. So if you know the dates you want to travel and where you want to visit, it can give you several accommodation options.  Once you have received your Access Pass, you can enter the ID number when you make reservation for the discount.

OR…if you not quite sure where and when you would like to travel, you can do some website exploration on the National Park Service site to see what ideas pop out for you.

Let’s say you and your family are really into early American history and have been studying the famous Clark family.  Here is a trip scenario based on two very important figures during and after the Revolutionary War:

  • George Rogers Clark led an expedition across icy waters to force the British to surrender their fort at present-day Vincennes, thus capturing the entire Northwest Territory for the new American government in 1779.  His memorial is a National Historical Park in Vincennes, Indiana


  • Perhaps a little more famous is his brother, William Clark.  Along with Merriweather Lewis and Sacagawea, he explored the lands west of the Mississippi River from 1804-1806.  The Lewis & Clark Full Day Pacific Coast Trip includes seeing the lands their expedition saw over 200 years ago. With driving and self-guided walking tours, you can see history and nature come alive on the Lewis & Clark Historical Park and Trail.


The possibilities are endless!  The National Park Access Pass for autism and other special needs makes it very affordable for families to have short getaways or longer vacations in some of the most stunning places on earth.


Dream Away!

Do you ever dream about taking your family to see the Grand Canyon?  Or hiking through a Sequoia forest?  Or camping in the Great Smoky Mountains?

With the Access Pass to national parks, there is no excuse for those with autism and other special needs NOT to travel!

So, start creating your “bucket list” of places you always dreamed about to begin your next adventure!



Involving Autistic Kids in Travel Planning

Involving Autistic Kids in Travel Planning

Why Plan with Your Special Needs Child

There are several reasons why it’s best to consider involving autistic kids in travel planning, especially if one or more in the family have special needs.

In this article I’ll outline the biggest things you should and should not do when you get ready for a trip in light of the challenges that autism often brings.


Have you seen those videos in which very excited parents prepare to reveal a huge surprise to their family and friends?

Actually, I am NOT talking about those gender reveal parties.

I’m talking about those videos showing parents springing the news on their unsuspecting kids that they are about to go to Walt Disney World.  And not in a few months… RIGHT NOW!

They wake their kids out of a dead-sleep, telling them to hurry up and get dressed. But they don’t tell them why just yet.

By the tone and flurry of activity you would think that a national emergency has been declared and they are forced to evacuate immediately. Some kids look dazed and scared.

When their parents finally let them in on the secret, some are very excited while others continue to look very perplexed.

It’s cute to watch their reactions, but…

If only those kids had autism…I thought.  What kind of reaction would those parents get then?

I imagine that my autistic kids would be thrilled to go to Disney. But if they were given no warning about what’s happening, things would NOT go down well.

If my parents did that to me as a kid, even if I was excited about the idea, my anxiety would probably go through the roof.

If your think your autistic loved one would NOT exhibit that “joyfully thrilled” reaction so many parents anticipate seeing on their kids’ faces when they reveal their “surprise-vacation”, then this article is for YOU!


Special Travel Planning Challenges with Autism

Grand vacation surprises the night before are often not a good idea for many on the spectrum.  When it comes to planning a vacation, families with autism would do better to involve everyone in the process from start to finish.

Here are some things to keep in mind when you start dreaming of your next vacation. Involving autistic kids in travel planning is crucial to this process.

Sudden major events, even happy ones like vacations, can trigger big feelings.

Sudden transitions involve too much information and sensory input in a very short span of time.  For many this can trigger feelings like anxiety or anger …which trigger behaviors that may be harmful to self and others.

  • DON’T neglect thinking about the potential issues that could come from throwing a surprise.


  • DO tell your child where you have been dreaming of visiting for vacation. Ask him or her where he or she would like to go.


An autistic child invested in the planning process will feel more in-control in this new environment.

Many on the spectrum like to know what the expectations are of the places they visit.

My kids watched Disney park planning films over and over.  My son poured over the park maps to find certain attractions.  We played Disney games, watched Disney films and sang Disney songs.  My kids were INVESTED in the process.  By the time we arrived, my kids could relax and enjoy themselves because they had “been there before”.

  • DON’T leave them out of the initial planning.


  • DO watch planning videos, study park maps, and get psyched-up together! Make it fun!


You can truly discover what your child can or can’t handle.

Looking back, I wish that I had showed my younger daughter point-of-view videos of the rides at Walt Disney World. We might have avoided some bad experiences at certain attractions, like the Haunted Mansion.

In the “stretching room” she begged to be picked up, and then proceeded to climb my husband like a cat. She had a meltdown in the middle of a very crowded room.

  • DON’T just guess what you think your autistic child can handle, too. Don’t just hope that things will be okay.


  • DO allow your child time to explore places through videos and to express their desire to avoid certain things before you go.


You may neglect some important accommodation considerations without your autistic child’s involvement.

Getting them involved can trigger awareness of the kinds of accommodations that are necessary.

Maybe after viewing videos of certain resorts and studying their maps you get a better sense of knowing what accommodations to ask for (for example, close to pool, away from stairs, lower level, type of bed, etc.). From park maps you can locate the quiet spots for a sensory break.

If you know your autistic child will not want to ride an attraction but everyone else does, then you can use the Rider Switch option at the Disney parks.

  • DON’T forget about creating an “accommodations plan” based on the different needs of your autistic child. This includes sensory toys and finding safe spaces on the map.


  • DO ask for help or special requests when you get there. It never hurts to ask with kindness. Most places love to go the “extra mile” to help their guests!

Read more about planning a Disney vacation with someone with autism.

You can bond over the vacation planning experience!

This is my favorite part of the whole planning process…the anticipation felt by everyone in the family! It’s exciting to choose the destination, the resort, the parks, the attractions, the dining experiences, as well as any little extras that you didn’t think about but someone else did.

When everyone’s ideas are considered, then everyone feels valued and important.

  • DON’T downplay or ignore the contributions of anyone. If the budget doesn’t allow someone’s idea to happen, perhaps encourage them to come up with a different idea.


  • DO have fun with this process!  Make it a “family night” to brainstorm ideas and vote on the best things to do.


Customize for your family

Some families might have to consider how much their autistic loved one perseverates on the upcoming vacation.  For some it can be a rewarding task to countdown the days on a calendar. But for others it can be unhealthy obsession that interferes with daily life.

If it’s better that your loved one on the spectrum knows about a vacation a week or two in advance instead of months, then by all means do that.  Still, you can involve him or her in studying the place you will visit and dreaming up some fun things to do while on vacation.

I hope that these reasons make sense for you.  It doesn’t mean that you should never have a fun “vacation reveal” party if your autistic loved one enjoys that kind of surprise.

Involving autistic kids in travel planning can be done plenty of time in advance—and not the night before travel—is best.  This will make them feel their input is cherished.

Happy Travels!

Click this article to discover another insight into the need to involve a family member with autism in helping to plan a vacation.

I would love to help you plan an unforgettable vacation!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

Adult Travel with Exceptional Getaways

One Incredible Idea…

When I first found out about the possibility of adult travel with Exceptional Getaways, I was intrigued.

There on the bulletin board of our music therapy agency was a brightly colored flyer about an upcoming vacation getaway.

I discovered that this company was dedicated to providing fun travel getaways and vacations for adults with special needs.

While my kids with autism grew up taking vacations and traveling, the thought had not yet occurred to me that they would soon be adults ready to see the world without me around.

Soon I called up Exceptional Getaways, Inc. to request a face-to-face meeting. I met both Michelle and Tim, founders of this company, curious to find out what they do.


Drumroll, Please!

Whatever future I envisioned for my kids seemed a whole lot brighter by the presence of this organization. Their mission serves a tremendous need for those with different needs to fulfill their vacation dreams and realize their goals for independence at the same time.

So, with no further ado… I am very excited to share with you what I learned about Michelle, Tim and their company Exceptional Getaways, Inc.


Adult Travel with Exceptional Getaways: An Exceptional Group Vacation Experience

Both of the founders of Exceptional Getaways, Inc. come from backgrounds serving the special needs community. Michelle Webster owns a behavior consultant company and is a behavior consultant. Tim Stout is a case manager with a Family and Community Supports Waiver case management company.

Over the years they realized the massive need for adults to have the right support to live a happy and fulfilling life.  And they believed travel was a huge part of meeting that need.

It has only been two years since they started, but it has grown “bigger than imagined,” according to Michelle.   They envisioned meeting once a month for small, local trips with an occasional larger vacation during the year.

They have gone camping for a few days at state parks.  Their strategy is to mix-in trips that are shorter or closer to home with longer trips that are farther away.

Today, they now include meet-ups every Thursday in Bloomington, Indiana, for free “Fun Day” events.  (This spring they had an Easter egg hunt with kite-flying at a local park).

Just recently they announced on their Facebook page, with great enthusiasm, that they are planning a week-long trip to Walt Disney World in 2020.


Who can Travel with Exceptional Getaways?

The key to their success is having the right support for their clients.  Given that each person needs varying degrees of assistance, they provide the right ratio of staff to go with their travelers on these trips.  A few may need 1:1 help while others may only require 3:1 assistance.

The staff are hired by Exceptional Getaways, Inc., but they are often support staff for waiver agencies also. They are trained to handle most situations that require specialized care.  Sometime a traveler’s own staff is welcomed to join them.

Exclusively-planned trips are also available in which a traveler can plan and personalize his or her own vacation destination.

Michelle and Tim make it a point to go to every trip.  (Usually both go, but sometimes one depending on the trip.) That way they can provide backup support when needed.

Because it is group travel, there is room to develop some personal independence as well as bond with others within the security of a safe environment.

When they go to Walt Disney World, for example, they rent a large house with many bedrooms as a way to maintain high levels of safety and encourage friendships to form.

Their travel clientele must be 18 and older.  The oldest traveler was in her 70’s.  Some travel with them frequently, while others pick and choose based on their availability of time and funds.

They only have to sign-up for each trip that is planned a month or so in advance.  Their weekly local “Fun Days” can include teens with their parents or support staff and no sign up is needed for those activities.

Most travelers come from the local Bloomington area or even Indianapolis.  Lately more people from as far as Chicago and Kentucky are calling them up, asking if they can join their groups.  The challenge, however, is getting travelers together into one meeting place first before they can set off to their destination as one unified group.

They have their own vehicles to transport the group, including what Michelle calls the “party bus” that can be fun times while traveling and the large SUV driven by Tim that pulls the trailer with all of the necessary equipment (i.e. wheelchairs, etc.).


How Do Travelers Pay for These Trips?

Clients can establish payment plans if they have fixed incomes; they can also use Arc Trust money. They can save money for trips that are already planned or they can build a savings for future unplanned trips.  Exceptional Getaways, Inc. can’t solicit funds from churches or other foundational-based giving associations (i.e. scholarships or grant money).  Some individuals, families or companies have raised money for individuals to go.


Who Else Do They Help?

One of the great hidden benefits of this company is for those who don’t go on their trips.  Just like many of the summer camps for those with autism or other disabilities, Exceptional Getaways, Inc. provides the opportunity for parent respite.

Considering that many may still live at home well into adulthood, this affords parents a time to bond with one another or do their own thing. Maybe parents can plan their own couple’s or friends’ getaway at the same time.

I got the strong sense that both Michelle and Tim feel very fulfilled by what they do. They are highly involved in the community, doing Buddy Walks and Autism Walks, and otherwise getting the word out about the benefit of their services.  They were continuously smiling as they were talking about the people they work with and the places they have visited.

As Michelle put it, “we just want to see people happy and enjoying themselves.”  And those who travel with them certainly are as they keep coming back for more!


Check out Exceptional Getaways, Inc. Today!

When I asked if there are other companies like this one, they said they seem to be the ONLY place in the Midwest (and definitely in Indiana) that provides supported travel for those with disabilities. (Other companies like Exceptional Getaways, Inc. are mainly on the East and West coast.)

Clearly the idea of supporting adults in realizing their vacation dreams is still quite novel.  I imagine that once word “gets out” about Exceptional Getaways, Inc. that many will flock to discover the benefits they provide.

Maybe your loved one with differential needs is still a child.  Even if you’re not yet forecasting the needs of your child as an adult, hopefully this brings some peace of mind knowing this is an option.  Many who have gone on these trips are so excited to go on more!

Exceptional Getaways, Inc. brings pure joy and wish fulfillment for so many already…discover more for yourself!

You can find them on Facebook at Exceptional Getaways, Inc. or at the web at


If you know a loved one who could benefit from this but is afraid to travel because he or she has never flown on an airline before, check out my article on “Flying with Special Needs“.

Flying with Special Needs

Flying with Special Needs

Getting ready to fly with special needs? On a “Wing and a Prayer”

It may be scary to think about the challenges of flying with special needs.

When my daughter was 8-years-old, my cousin asked her to be a flower girl in her wedding.  My daughter was thrilled about this role when I showed her pictures and videos of little girls walking down church aisles in fancy dress.

The only problem: we had to fly from Indiana to Florida for the wedding.

My daughter had never flown before and I was a bit nervous.  She has autism, and her language skills were still in an early stage of development.  Explaining through verbal reasoning was not the best way for her to understand what goes on around her.

Still, I bought airline tickets and hoped for the best possible scenarios during our travels.

Well, “wishing and hoping” is not the best way to plan for flying with an autistic child for the first time.

Meltdown on the Airline

While the flight out to Florida went fairly smoothly, the flight back was a nightmare.  First, bad weather delayed our outbound flight to our layover stop.  After boarding the second plane to go home, we sat waiting for nearly 45 minutes. Then they made us get off to plane after discovering mechanical issues.

My daughter was going ballistic.  When others around us were confused and getting upset, so did she…exponentially! That fact that I was a hot mess—frustrated, tired and hungry—only made things worse.

We finally got back on the plane but still waited again. My daughter was in the middle between me and another woman having a meltdown, crying and writhing around.

I apologized several times and explained that she had autism to her, but fortunately she was incredibly understanding, saying that she had someone in the family with autism.

Finally, the plane took off and she settled down some.

I vowed that as a family we would only travel by car whenever we decided to vacation.  Flying was out of the question.


Flying with Special Needs: Learn from My Mistakes

 “If only I knew then what I know now…”

I had flown a few times before in my life, but I was not experienced enough to anticipate all possible scenarios of what “could go wrong”.  I knew my child, but I suppose I was in denial of the need for the right preparation.

  • Did I create her a social story video of flying in an airplane or being at the airport?  No.
  • Did I read stories about flying to her?  No.  
  • Did I take her to the airport for a little “show-and-tell” outing?  No.
  • Did I prepare for the potential delays and sensory impact of such a different setting?  No.
  • Did I tell the airlines about her needs?  No.

I did not adequately prepare her for our flight. Actually, not at all.  If only I had done my homework, we might have had a better experience.  Well, I’m doing it now…for you.


5 Steps to Preparing Your Special Needs Loved Ones for Flying

My first mistake was not seeking out help.  Often, we don’t get help because we don’t know it’s available in the first place.

But now with greater awareness of organizations to help individuals and families with autism and other special needs, we can simply ask if assistance is available before “going it alone”. (Click through the links for more information.)


1. Know your rights as a passenger!

This is your first stop for getting help.  Due to passage of the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines may not discriminate based on disabilities.  The Department of Transportation has set rules defining passenger right and the obligation of airlines for flights within the United States (Title 14 CFR Part 382), including those with developmental disabilities.

One of those rules includes not limiting the number of persons with disabilities on a flight.  Another right is that airlines are required to provide assistance with boarding, deplaning, and making connections as well as within the cabin.

Armed with this knowledge, you can ask for help confidently.


2. Ask for “special assistance” from the airline when booking the flight.

Be sure to request special assistance when you buy airline tickets.

When you go online to book a flight, most airline carriers will give you an option to select special needs assistance.  American Airlines has a page with information to contact them directly via phone or online. They can contact you before your flight to confirm the type of assistance you need for your flight.

Southwest has an option to select for special assistance for passengers with “cognitive and developmental disabilities” when you select your flight (see photo).

There is a special code within the travel industry that is used to alert airlines of special needs: the DPNA code stands for “passenger with developmental or intellectual disability needing assistance”. If you are using a travel agent to book a flight, be sure to let him or her know to use that code.  For information about the DPNA code from a personal experience, watch this Facebook video by a family with autism.

If you book a flight yourself through a travel booking website like Expedia and it doesn’t give you the option to select “special assistance”, then be sure to contact the airline directly and ask for assistance for your specific flight. If you google the airline and “special assistance” you will most likely find the information you are looking for. Be clear about exactly what you need.

In some cases, this may be the need to pre-board before everyone else and/or to sit together as a family or group. Alert the gate boarding staff to the needs of your family or group.

Finally, consider booking direct flights instead of one with layovers, especially during seasons with a high chance of delays and cancellations.

Also schedule a flight time during the time of day when the airport may not be so crowded.  This may be hard to avoid (especially at busy airports like Atlanta or Chicago), but usually early morning flights may see long lines at the security checkpoint.

Call your airport to find out when it’s less crowded and then schedule your flight times around that if necessary.


3. Conduct a “practice-run” at the airport or at home.

Given that families with autism have had too many negative experiences at airports, some decided to take matters into their own hands.

With the help of advocacy organizations like the ARC and the Autism Society, these families have developed programs to practice being at the airport and boarding the plane.  These programs tend to run only a couple of times a year, with most scheduled in April during Autism Awareness Month.

If you think of ever flying with your autistic child—even if not in the immediate future—then it would be a good idea to sign up. Check with your local autism organization and airport for information on these programs.

Here are a few that are popular in the Midwest:

If participating is not an option, then consider making a social story about the entire process at your local airport.  The links above have some videos to view; the Autism Society has a link to a downloadable social story.

As a “field trip”, visit the airport yourself with those who will be flying with you.  You may not be able to get through security without a plane ticket, but you can take pictures of the process of parking, baggage check, amenities, security, important signs, seating areas, etc.

With these you can create your own social story that can be read again and again to build comfort and confidence with the process.


4. Inform TSA Cares of your need for accommodation through airport security.

Know the TSA regulations for security.


By calling TSA Cares at least 72 hours in advance of your flight, you can get someone to assist during the check-in to security process.  You will forward your itinerary to coordinate assistance by a Passenger Support Specialist so you, your family, or your group to get through the screening process with greater ease.

Carry a TSA notification card and/or provide medical documentation to communicate in a simple, non-verbal way each person’s needs to TSA officers.

Also know that just because someone has a disability does not mean that person is exempt from a pat-down.

I HIGHLY recommend thoroughly reading the TSA website about the procedures, watching videos about the screening process (including this social story and pat-down video), and even create your own social story “book” about the sensory issues as the process can be very over-stimulating in a visual, auditory and tactile way.  Consider practicing the process at home along with the social story.

If you think you’ll be flying more than once a year, consider purchasing the TSA Pre√ ($85 for 5 years) to expedite the process (no need to remove shoes, liquids, belts, jackets, etc.).

5. Packing Sensory Items for the Flight

Fidgets are great sensory tools for plane travel.

Airports and airlines are sensory-overloaded environments that have the potential to trigger meltdowns.  Start with knowing what type of triggers to which your autistic loved one is most susceptible.

If someone is hypersensitive to noise bring noise-cancelling headphones.  Some may block out sound entirely while others block background noise but allow someone to hear close conversation.

If someone is hypersensitive to visual stimuli, then wear a baseball hat that blocks out the wider panorama.

If someone is very sensitive to touch, indicate so on the TSA Notification card. If someone is hyposensitive then bring a compression shirt or other similar item.

Bring items that can be helpful distractions or soothing activities, such as coloring books; pre-downloaded music, games or movies on an iPad or iPhone; fidgets and other sensory toys; weighted lap-pads; neck pillows; chewy necklaces; soft brushes, etc. All of these items can fit into a “Sensory Bag” as a carry-on.

Don’t forget to bring an empty water bottle and healthy snacks.


Ready to Fly!

It’s the day of arrival at the airport.  As one of the most sensory stimulating places to visit, you’ll find stressed-out people rushing around.

Those with autism are very sensitive to the feelings of others around them. If you as a parent are stressed, then your autistic child may be very stressed!

Being calm and relaxed yourself is very important. Ask your airline staff if the airport has a sensory or calming room to use while you wait.  And make sure everyone in your party is well fed.

Another important tip is to … (wait for it) … HAVE FUN! Take walks around the terminal before boarding as a way to release energy. Play silly games like “I Spy”.  Read a story or watch a funny movie together while you wait.

Having the right preparation and a fun, positive attitude will ensure a more successful flight for everyone!


For help searching for and booking flights, feel free to get in touch! I would love to help you the perfect vacation!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

Finding Sensory-Friendly Movie Theaters

Finding Sensory-Friendly Movie Theaters

Here is a guide to help you find sensory-friendly film screeings.

Finding Sensory-Friendly Movie Theaters

“How do I go about finding sensory-friendly movie theaters?”

This is a question I was asked by a family member of an autistic child.  I actually had to research this one for myself as these sensory-friendly film showings are not often given enough public attention.

My autistic teens are able to watch the regular film showings now. But as younger children we rarely went to the movies in the theaters because they were so loud.

I don’t remember a lot of advertising about sensory-friendly film screenings when they were kids…but maybe it was because my son was already 6 and daughter 4 when it was first introduced by other autism parents.  Even today most people have to actively seek out the answer to this question for themselves.


Why Sensory-Friendly Movie Theaters are Popular with Autism Families

First, they appeal to those with sensory sensitivities.

Those who are sound-sensitive don’t have to wear sound-barring headphones as they normally do. Those with a fear of the dark can feel comfortable seeing others around them. Those with high-levels of energy and need for movement to experience the film can move around and not have to sit still for more than an hour.

And let’s face it, sometimes we’d just like to get up and dance to certain musicals!

Second, they appeal to parents.

An autistic child’s parents can enjoy the films with the whole family without worrying about getting dirty looks or rude comments from their neighbors.  Being surrounded by other families who “get it” feels like finally belonging to a “supportive tribe”.

This is also a great opportunity to network with other families in which to share knowledge and empathy. This is one setting a family can truly feel more relaxed with one another in public.

Third, they help acclimate the child to being in the public sphere.

The sensory-friendly film settings allow those with autism to feel more comfortable in public settings without needing to always behave “appropriately” as expected by general society.  The more times a child goes out for events like this, then parents can teach “public behavior” skills progressively, adding one new behavioral goal with each trip.

For example, they can work on how to ask for a snack from the food counter attendant.

Fourth, you can bring in your own snacks.

Yes, you read that correctly!  Since many are on restricted diets, families can bring in gluten-free, casein-free, or other diet-based foods into the theater.

Not pay an arm-and-a-leg for popcorn?  Sign me up!  (Call ahead to make sure your theater allows this.)

Many sensory-friendly movie screenings allow you to bring in your own food!



Finding Sensory-Friendly Movie Screenings Near You

While I don’t have the location of EVERY major theater that hosts sensory-friendly films, I can at least help steer you in the right direction to find a local theater that accommodates autistic individuals.

You can start with your local theater company to see if they offer this program on a regular basis.

Our town has two AMC theaters.  AMC has been instrumental in making these opportunities happen in the first place. They have developed a beneficial partnership with Autism Society to make autism families aware of their sensory-friendly film showings. They offer family-friendly movies the second and fourth Saturdays of each month and reserve Tuesday evenings for “mature” film viewers.

Regal Cinemas offer a similar program called “My Way Matinee”.  Click on each theater to find out about their sensory-friendly programs:

You can check with your local library if they offer sensory-friendly film programs.

For example, our town’s public library showed “Incredibles 2” one afternoon in November.  Choice of films will most likely be G and geared toward the young.

You’ll also have to be proactive in seeking out these scheduled films on their website.  You’ll need to make room in your schedule if you want to try to see these (mostly likely) free showings that only run one time.

If there is nothing available where you live, get involved in making those opportunities happen for yourself and others!

There are copyright laws concerning the public showing of movies without consent of the owners, of course.  Maybe you are part of a small autism support group and would like to have a private showing in your home.

If you think there are enough people in the community who would benefit from a more public event, ask your local theater, library, parks and recreation department, or even disability agencies if they would host a sensory-friendly program.

Sensory-Friendly screenings are gaining popularity in many communities.

Greater Choice for Autistic Individuals and their Families

You will need to check showtimes several weeks in advance if you want to see an autism-friendly film showing. While there is not a lot of choice in what film to see and when, the fact is that these sensory-friendly film showings are gaining popularity.

With the support of major autism organizations and large theater companies, the movement is definitely gaining ground.  Finding sensory-friendly movie theaters and film screenings should hopefully be easier to access in the future!


For more ideas of fun activities check out my article on ways to connect with your autistic child at home.

Visiting Disneyland with Autism

Visiting Disneyland with Autism

Excited to experience the original Disney park?

Visiting Disneyland with Autism and Other Special Needs

Visiting the original Disneyland park with autism can indeed be magical!  Don’t believe me?  Well, let me convince you!

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to walk where Walt Disney walked?

For die-hard Disney fans, going to Disneyland is about as close as one can get to fulfilling that dream. For those who live in Southern California and the West Coast, Disneyland represents their childhood days and happy multi-generational family memories.


Autism Strategies for Visiting Disneyland

Being a smaller, more intimate park than Walt Disney World, this park that “started it all” has some pros and cons of which individuals and families with autism should be made aware.

Their Disability Access Service (called “DAS” for short) is generally like the one for Walt Disney World but with some very notable differences in how to access return times.

Since I have not yet visited Disneyland in California myself, I asked a good friend about her experiences using the DAS at the original Disney park.

Here are 5 tips to help you meet the challenges of being at Disneyland with autism:

1. Be sure to get the DAS from Guest Relations when you first arrive.

The DAS allows autistic individuals and their guests (family or friends) to access certain attractions without waiting in incredibly long lines.  The person with autism will be the designated DAS-holder.

Cast Members will NOT ask for evidence of a diagnosis (so no need to bring documentation).  At Disneyland you can get it at City Hall or at the Chamber of Commerce in California Adventure.

  • PERSONAL TIP #1:  My friend experienced an incredibly frustrating long-line at Guest Relations in order to get the DAS.  Some people have found it better to enter the park and register for the DAS at one of the Guest Relations kiosks found throughout the park. Or, get there early before the crowds.


2. Get a “return time” for the attraction you want to visit at one of the Guest Relations kiosks.

They are listed as “I” on the park maps. Tell a cast member what attraction you want to visit. That person will scan your ticket and provide a return time based on the current wait time at the attraction.

You can only get one DAS return time at a time.

  • PERSONAL TIP #2:  My friend found getting return times a good experience. The kiosk locations were pretty convenient and visible, although some seemed farther than others. Have a physical map or the Disneyland app on your phone to find those kiosks quickly.


3. Come to the Fast Pass or disabilities exit line when it’s time to ride.

What is nice about the DAS is that there is no “window” of time in which you have to come back or else lose it. If your child has anxiety about riding the attraction right away, there is no pressure to come back at a certain time.

  • PERSONAL TIP #3:  My friend suggested bringing a sunhat to provide shade while standing in the exit lines, as many are not shaded.  Also, her daughter ended up refusing to ride many of the attractions for which she got a DAS return time.  Cast members MAY let the others ride when the DAS-holder suddenly backs out if the entire party has scanned their tickets at the entrance already and walked the queue to get on the actual ride.  Otherwise, you may need to use Rider Switch for attractions that the DAS-holder does not want to go on.


4. You can use the DAS in coordination with the Fast Pass system.

If there is a certain attraction that you know your autistic loved one will want to go on again and again, consider getting Fast Pass tickets for the entire party as well as a DAS return time. Try to coordinate the return time within the Fast Pass return time “window”.

  • PERSONAL TIP #4:   My friend did not get the Max Pass as she didn’t think it was necessary to buy in addition to using the free Fast Passes AND the DAS.  If you want the Photo Pass, the ability to get Fast Pass times through your phone, and pre-order your meals, then it would be a good idea to purchase the Max Pass for these benefits.


5. Try to avoid the most crowded days and times.

The pro about Disneyland is its small size. The con about Disneyland is…its small size. Some days at Disneyland and California Adventure are busier than others, particularly around the holidays and weekends.

Unlike the Florida parks, the California parks are considered part of the Anaheim/LA “neighborhood”. Many locals are annual pass-holders who come to the parks just for a few hours.

This makes for very crowded conditions and a potential sensory problem for those on the spectrum.

  • PERSONAL TIP #5:  My friend says the evenings became intensely crowded when locals got off work to watch the fireworks.  Losing a child in those crowds can become a parent’s worst nightmare. Avoid the “bottleneck” areas of the parks when crowds pick up.  Make sure everyone has identification on them in case someone is missing.  Use a GPS tracker for your autistic loved one if she or he is a runner.



Great Things to be Found at Disneyland for Families with Autism

Since Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure are only walking distance from one another, it makes park-hopping a good experience.

If your autistic loved one has a set plan to ride certain attractions of both parks in one day, this would be a beneficial ticket option.  Once you have the DAS, you can use it at both parks for up to 60 days.

The DAS is often a life-saver for some people, for others a very nice perk.  Be sure to rely on cast members for help in finding good locations for sensory breaks or providing the right accommodations for your autistic loved one besides the DAS.

I also recommend you download—before your trip—the Guide for Cognitive Disabilities (including ASD) as well the Attraction Details for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities found here.

Disneyland’s DAS has helped many guests, including my friend and her family, create happy and unforgettable memories. Visiting Disneyland with autism doesn’t have to be a challenge but a magical experience!

I’m sure it’s something Walt would be very proud of!

For a quote or more information about a Disneyland vacation, request a consultation through this link.