Ideal Summer Camps for Autistic Teens

In this article I explore ideal summer camps for your autistic teen.  While the thought of planning out your next summer may be way off your radar, the winter months are actually the best time to do some research.  You can discover what is available in your area as well as apply for early-bird special rates and even scholarships.

The Ideal Time to Explore Summer Camps for Autistic Teens is…WINTER!

Right now, the holiday decorations are out. People are buying last minute gifts before Christmas. Kids anticipate the jolly guy any day now.  Summer seems eons away.

But early winter is the best time to start planning for the summer months if you are toying around with the idea of a camp experience.  Even if the thought of sending your autistic child away from home for more than a day is scary, I urge you to still explore options.

Why now?

  • Summer camp registrations often open in the winter or early spring.  It’s usually a “first-come, first-served” process.  It’s best to sign-up before it fills up.
  • Many offer early-bird rates for signing up early.  For example, EasterSeals in Indiana offers $100 off if you register in the winter versus in the spring.
  • Some give scholarships. If you dependent on financial help to get your child to summer camp, it’s best to apply and know whether you got accepted before applying with a deposit.
  • If you are thinking of taking a family vacation as well, you’ll need to know dates of these summer camps.

Where to Begin Exploring Summer Camp Options

You can start with a simple Google search. But it may take a lot of time to find what you are looking for.

Explore your options through the American Camp Association.  Filter by the type of experience you are looking for and by location.  When you refine your search, be sure to scroll down to “Disability and Special Needs” and filter by “Autism” or any other criteria.

The “Very Special Camps” website lists many camps around the country. Filter your search by your state and program type to see what is available in your area for your child’s particular needs.

For those living in Indiana, the Indiana Resource for Autism has provided a terrific list of summer camp programs.  These include residential day programs as well as overnight camps.

Here are some other specific suggestions to explore for ideal summer camps for autistic teens:

Special Autism Camps

Some summer camp programs are only geared toward those with special needs, including serving those with autism in particular.

EasterSeals

Easterseals sponsors Camp Rocks in central Indiana.  Many states have Easterseals programs, so hopefully you can find something close by well-suited for your needs. They also have early-bird registration that will save you about $100 on the registration fee.

My daughter has participated in this camp for the last two summers.  It is a week-long and specially designed to provide a fun experience for autistic teens and respite for their parents.  She loves it, and I love it! She really enjoys performing impromptu skits with other campers.

Every staff at Camp Rocks is well-trained to handle behavioral situations related to autism.  Several are specifically wanting to work autistic youth in future careers, so you know they have a heart for serving your child.

Your Local Therapy Agency

Some agencies sponsor camps themselves. Some might be day camps while others are overnight experiences.  For example, my respite agency LEL provides offers special weekend getaways at a camp during the summer. Or, we can participate in their monthly meet-ups at a horseback riding stable or lake for swimming.  Ask if your therapeutic agency if it sponsors or knows of any summer camps ideal for your autistic teen.

Traditional Summer Camps

Hopefully there are some traditional programs that might be well-designed to accommodate the needs of your autistic teen.

Local City Parks and YMCA

Not all summer camps offer accessible programs for specifically for autistic teens.  But don’t also assume your local YMCA or city park will not have accommodations already in place. It may not be evident on their promotional material that they serve those with autism.

Call them up to see if they have staff trained for assist special needs. You may need to share exactly what kinds of accommodations your autistic teen needs (i.e. dietary, sensory, visual schedule, etc.). Then they can match you with the best program.  Check out this search feature through the YMCA to find a local resident day program or an overnight camp.

This article by the Indiana Resource Center for Autism may answer a few questions you have about if non-special needs organization can and should accommodate for autism.

Scouting Organizations

Scouts BSA offers a wide variety of fun summer camp activities.  If your son or daughter has joined a troop and you are unsure how he or she may handle a week-long summer camp away from home (and you) for the first time, check out my article Autism Preparations for Scout Summer Camp. I provide tips for preparing your scouter before the grand experience.

Definitely let the camp director know ahead of time what kinds of accommodations your teen or pre-teen will need while at camp.  She/He will have to alert particular staff (cook, nurse, merit badge counselors, etc.) about your child’s needs.  Here is another resource to share with your scout leader when you register for summer camp: “Preparing for Summer Camp

 

Ease Into the Camp Experience (if Necessary)

If the idea of leaving your autistic teen at a camp all week away from home gives you pause, then consider doing day-camps nearby.  Get him or her used to the idea of camp activities and interacting with others.

See about registering 1- or 2-nights for overnight camps that are within an hour from home. If something happens, you can easily pick up your child.

Scholarships

For any summer camp inquiry, always ask if there is a scholarship opportunity available.  It often is not apparent on their websites.  If they have deadlines, then they will most likely be in the winter or spring. That’s why it’s so important to start your research now.

Search NOW for Ideal Summer Camps for Autistic Teens

I urge you to take some time before spring hits to discover the perfect summer camp opportunity for your autistic teen.

Summer camp experiences last a lifetime. They are great for making memories and building relationships beyond the program. My daughter and I got together to hang out with one young girl she befriended and her mom a few times after the camp.

Summer camp gives teens confidence that they can manage their own lives without mom and dad around.   My son took his summer camp experience to a new level when he started working living there for 6 weeks (only coming home on weekends).

You never know the kinds of growth that can come with taking a leap into a new supportive environment with new faces.  I’m so glad we took a chance on our summer camp experiences!

 

Accessing Accommodations in Scouts BSA

Special Needs Accommodations in Scouts BSA

Serving Scouts with Disabilities

It wasn’t too long ago that those with disabilities were actively excluded from life of mainstream society.  If they didn’t automatically look, think, act or speak like everyone else, they were often shunned. If they were given similar opportunities, they were segregated away from others. Accommodations for special needs Scouts were rare.

Fortunately, thanks to some fiercely passionate parents and other advocates, things have changed.  Those who are physically, intellectually, and neurologically different are now encouraged to participate alongside everyone else in school, sports, band, and other social clubs.

Likewise, Boy Scouts of America encourages its units to welcome youth of all abilities into their troops.

But the journey to full inclusion and rank achievement is not always clear and easy for those with disabilities.

 

Feeling Included

In the past many troops did not feel they had the adequate resources to properly accommodate some potential members.

The issue today is not necessarily the lack of accommodations provided by BSA, but the lack of awareness that they exist, both by troop leadership and parents of special needs Scouts.

Another potential problem could be the lack of willingness of the troop leadership, its members and/or the Scouts parents to push for assistance despite knowing help exists.

It’s for all of these reasons, both past and present, that the Boy Scouts of America created the National Disability Awareness Committee for Special Needs Scouts. It’s mission is to to help all youth who joins its ranks for feel welcomed and included.

Yes, there are some troops that are specifically designed for special-needs Scouts only.  But the organization would argue that those scouts are best served in regular patrols. Everyone benefits by including those with differences.

I heartily agree. That is why my autistic daughter has joined a regular inaugural girls BSA troop.

 

All in the Family

My husband is a Boy Scout “lifer”.  He earned his Eagle Scout rank and received the Vigil Honor of Order of the Arrow. He worked at a few Scout camps and now serves as a troop Scoutmaster and Wood Badge staff.  To say he’s deeply committed to Scouts is an understatement.

 

 

My son also earned his Eagle Scout.  Like his sister he also has autism.  But he started right at age 11 and had a lot of support from leadership. We did not request any special needs accommodations as we felt he was progressing through the ranks well-enough.

My daughter entered Scouts at age 15.  She has greater difficulty understanding auditory information and memorizing the Scout Oath and Law. Due to these conditions, we are seeking accommodations that will enable her to progress at her own comfortable pace and in her learning style.

 

 

I became an Assistant Scoutmaster both to help her and other leaders best serve her. Because our entire family is so involved in Scouts, we are heavily networked to people who will help my daughter succeed.

Despite her challenges, we are committed to helping her forge her own path in Scout as far as she is willing to go. I believe firmly in the power of Scouting to build solid life skills and self-confidence, as we have witnessed with her brother.

(Read my article HERE on why I believe Scouts is the one of the best organizations for those on the spectrum.)

 

A Special Needs Parent’s Role in Scouts

I understand many parents won’t involve themselves at this level, and that’s okay.

But to ensure the success of a youth in Scouts, it’s vital that the parent be a vigilant advocate for his/her child’s entire Scouting lifetime.  

To help me better understand how Scouts BSA accommodates special needs families, not only for myself but other families, I reached out to Julie Hadley.  She is the Disabilities Awareness Committee Chair for our council (Hoosier Trails).

I consider Julie a special education expert not only in Scouts but personally and professionally as well.  She is mom of three, all of whom had a range of educational challenges.  She has also served as a special education teacher since 2007. As she put it, “I have been on both sides of the table for IEP meetings. The good, the bad, and the ugly.”

I asked Julie a range of questions related to special needs accommodations in Scouting programs. I believe her answers will help any new Scout and Scouting parent start off on the right foot.

 

Scouts BSA Accommodations Q & A

1. How do parents go about asking for accommodations with their own scout troop?

Parents need to talk to the scoutmaster and troop leadership as soon as their child joins a troop or pack. The way things have been in recent history, parents are not asking for accommodations until almost time for the youth to age-out. Parents are talking to the scoutmaster a month or a few weeks before the youth turns 18, when they see that he is not going to make Eagle (Scout).

 

2. What kinds of accommodations can they ask for?

This absolutely depends on the needs of the scout. What accommodations do they receive at school?  No two scouts are the same, so accommodations are absolutely individualized. My guidance is that parents talk to the scoutmaster and discuss what accommodations the school is using.*

*Side note: Later on, the parents and scout leaders will work on formulating the right accommodations using the Individual Scout Advancement Plan ( BSA-ISP-form.pdf (1389 downloads) ).  Bring along your child’s IEP to help figure out the right accommodations with troop leadership.

 

3. How can scouts with disabilities get an extension on the age-requirement to achieve the Eagle Scout rank?

There is a common confusion: an “extension” is not what special needs scouts need.

Special needs Scouts need to complete the form REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY. That registration stays with the council and we approve it as a committee.

Extensions are specific for only extra time and are approved by National. They are difficult to get and the youth has to have some life changing event that they have had no control over. National does not approve many of these.

 

4. How might a special needs parent role be different from a non-special needs parent role in a scout troop?

Special needs parents know all too well that their child is going to need extra support. Like every parent, we volunteer to support what our children get involved with.

Possible roles for special needs parents include: educating troop leaders on what their child needs and educating other youth on those special needs. I have seen parents jump in with both feet and become part of troop leadership.

 

5. What should the leadership of a troop do to ensure full inclusion of the special needs child into a regular troop?

Start with open honest conversations with the parents, asking some of the tough questions. Learn about the disability, and learn what the youth needs or doesn’t need. Troop leadership needs to know what parent expectations are. Troop leadership needs to ask the youth what they want to accomplish in scouts.

 

6. Is training providing for troop leadership to better understand the special needs of their scouts? Who does that training and how do they go about asking for it?

University of Scouting offers special needs training.  University of Scouting happens at various times of the year in our neighboring councils. Classes are taught by volunteers with a lot of experience in that area.

 Training Expo in our council hold special needs classes that are taught every year on various topics. Training Expo occurs every February and class topics are suggested by individuals who volunteer to teach the class.

Troop Leadership and parents are free to contact me and I will help with educating leadership or directing them to someone in their area that have a lot of experience.

Training is always a hot topic when everyone is a volunteer.

 

7. What should be considered when joining a special needs troop (if available)? Is there a link to find them in someone’s local area?

When joining a special needs troop or forming a special needs troop, figure out the primary goal for your child. What experiences do you want for your child?

The best way to find out if we have special needs troops is to call council.

 

8. What are the ways the family of a special needs child can advocate for him/her beyond the troop level?

That’s an interesting question that I’ve never been asked. The best answer I have is to contact our committee and work with the committee.*

*Side note: Those on a Council Disability Committee can serve as an intermediary between the special needs scout and his/her family and troop leadership if a problem arises.  The committee member can assess the situation from all sides including the Scout’s, helping everyone come to a resolution. Sometimes that resolution can be positive if a plan-of-action is put into place long before he/she ages out. But if the Request for Registration Beyond the Age of Eligibility form was not completed, the process can be much harder.

Sometimes if troop leadership is not willing or able to accommodate the requests of the special needs Scout, often he or she moves on to another troop and/or is not able to achieve the highest rank desired.

 

9. Is there a troop assessment instrument to measure how inclusive a troop is of a special needs scout?

There is, not to my knowledge, an assessment like this. This would be interesting and something that would have to be re-evaluated with every change in leadership. For some troops that happens every couple of years…and some troops it is MANY years between changes.

 

10. Where can special needs families go to get more resources to help meet their needs?

There are several special needs and scouts webpages. National (Scouts BSA) has resources listed. There are special needs trainings with the national committee at Philmont (New Mexico) every summer.

 

How to Access this Important Accommodation

The most important lesson is that it’s best to file the REQUEST FOR REGISTRATION BEYOND THE AGE OF ELIGIBILITY form as soon as a special-needs Scout joins a troop.  For my daughter, I plan to do this very soon.

To get the process started, be sure to follow these steps:

1. Contact your council’s disability committee to start the paperwork: registration-beyond-the-age-of-eligibility-1.pdf (1134 downloads)

2. Schedule a meeting with parents, Scoutmaster, committee member and Scout.

3. Parents and Scoutmaster(s) work together to complete the paperwork.

4. Submit the paperwork to the committee member.

5. Decision will be made by the committee to accept the form.

 

Rely on the expertise and guidance of those in the Disability Committee of your council throughout the years your child will be in Scouts.  They represent the best of Scouting because they are committed to making sure your special needs Scout has the opportunity to grow and achieve great things among those who care.

 

For more information, visit the Disabilities Awareness page on the Scouts BSA website.

For disability assistance with the Hoosier Trails Council, visit their Facebook page “Hoosier Trails-Disability Awareness”.

 

Overcoming Fears of Traveling with Autism

Overcoming Fears of Traveling with Autism

Nervous to Travel?

Do you worry about traveling with your child who has autism?

Maybe you’re thinking, My child can barely handle being in a local public space, let alone somewhere far away.

Don’t worry…you’re definitely not alone.  I was in the same place when my kids were young.  I was hesitant to take the leap into a major, week-long vacation.

Here’s me:

What if my kids have a terrible time?  What if we spend all of this time and money but our trip ends up a disaster?  What if….? What if…? 

I realized that this kind of irrational, excessive worry lead me feeling locked up in a self-made prison of fear.  If you ruminate on the “what ifs” and never take the leap into the wider world, you’ll never experience true joy.

But it doesn’t have to be that way!  You can learn to overcome those fears about traveling with special needs.

Did you know…?

A “worry experiment” was conducted to see if what people were afraid of actually came true.

What 85% of test subjects worried about actually never came true!  And with the remaining 15% whose worries came true, they realized they misperceived or exaggerated their problems.  They viewed those “bad events” as a good life lesson in becoming better problem-solvers and less worriers.

When I catch myself worrying too much, I often reflect upon the self-fulfilling prophesy phenomenon:

Did I make something come true just because I was afraid of it to begin with?   Did my kids sense my apprehensions and then react to my behavior with their own fears? 

For some families, though, the sense of fear is founded on something that has happened over and over again.

Like running away from home.  Like being attracted to water but unable to swim.  Like harming oneself and others in the family during a meltdown. 

THAT is their REALITY.

Overcoming Fears of Traveling with Autism: Important Tips

You probably know the “Serenity Prayer.”  It is often used in AA for recovering addicts. But in case you don’t know it or need a reminder, here is my interpretation:

Grant me the serenity of mind to accept what can’t be changed; the courage to change what can be changed, and wisdom to know the difference.

This little bit of truth has gotten me through some pretty “rough seas” in my life, especially when coming to terms with both of my children’s diagnosis of autism.  Maybe you feel the same.

It’s good to be reminded of that in every facet of life…even when taking major vacations or little getaways.

Learn what CAN be changed

  1. Is there something YOU can change before planning a trip? Maybe it’s an adjustment of expectations of what a vacation means to you. Or your expectations of your child. Or maybe you can assess the things you need to do to prepare your child for the trip. Or…maybe it’s identifying the root of your fears and understanding how they can managed.  Simply adopting a “let’s have fun no matter what” attitude goes a long way!

 

  1. Are there things that YOUR CHILD can change before a trip? Is there something you can work on a home to prepare your child for a trip?  Recruit the help of people who know and care about your child. Rely on their expertise to draft social stories for the trip, for example. And remember, if you plan a trip a year or more in advance, just know that your child WILL mature in a way you may not quite see yet!

 

  1. What can YOUR VACATION DESTINATION do for your family? Are there certain days that are better to visit than others? If the accommodations needed for your child don’t appear on listed on the website, give them a call.  Maybe they can provide those things simply because you ASKED!  And don’t forget you can rely on a travel agent (like yours truly) to give you advice about certain destinations.

 

Learn what CAN’T be changed

Autism therapies are designed to alleviate meltdowns or sensory overload or language difficulties.  They help the child, the parents, teachers and others who interact with your child in various ways.

But can they actually “cure” autism?

Personally, I don’t believe that is possible to ever change the genetic predisposition of a person with autism.   But, I’m not getting into THAT debate…

I bring that up to say that it’s important to recognize that despite good effort, some issues related to your loved one’s autism may not change.

At least at the present moment.

Some therapies may not produce desired results.  Some environments may not be conducive to making your child feel safe or you feel at ease. Forcing massive change on your child in order to go on that dream vacation may just not be prudent.

Certain vacation destinations will be more accommodating than others.  Some hotels and theme parks are more “autism friendly” than others.  Camping is an experience that may require some brief experimentation before an “all-in” investment in equipment.

If your destination does not provide what you need, bring it from home.  For example, try out eloping technology at home first to see how it works with your child before using it on vacation.

It helps to know not only how “adaptable” your child is to different environments but also how flexible certain destinations are to the needs of your child.

Wisdom to know the difference

How do you know exactly what you can change and what you cannot?

I recommend talking to other parents with autistic kids.

Pick their brains: Where did they travel? How was the experience? What did they do to plan for their trip?  What accommodations did they create at home versus need at the destination?

Their experiences may spark inspiration. Their advice will give you direction and encouragement.  While their experiences are their experiences, you can still glean some nugget of insight to help make better decisions.

You can always start a conversation with me!  Now that my kids are nearly adults I have become a little wiser along the way.  I can never pay back those who helped me through this journey when I started.  But I can “pay it forward” to others!

Think “happy thoughts” to overcome your fears

I was just stubborn enough to make sure we traveled as a family despite the fears.  I adopted the “do or die” attitude whenever we went somewhere…to the children’s museum, to the outdoor historical park, the movies, to the local playground, to the amusement rides at the county fair, etc.

While my kids were young we weaned them into travel experiences. We took mini-vacations or local staycations so they got used to different routines and environments. They developed the skill of “adaptability”. Slowly we overcame our fears of traveling considering their special needs.

But after a while, I learned to just “let go” and “jump all in”.  I was SO ready to behold the castle at Walt Disney World! After a year of watching park planning videos, so were my kids. They were just as excited as I was. And the trip ended up blowing my worries out of the water!

 

Overcoming Fears of Traveling with Autism through “life lessons”

Will you be part of that 85% that worries over nothing? Or are you that 15% in which what you worry about happens, but the experience made you or your child a better person?

Failure will happen.  But you, your child and family will come out braver and stronger than before.  If those “big, bad worries” happen on your trip…well, consider it a valuable life lesson.

The more you travel the more you’ll reach those “mountain top” experiences of achievement (maybe even accomplish those skills your child been working on for months in therapy).

I have NEVER regretted the time traveling with my autistic kids, not even when they had meltdowns and I was at my wits-end.

I recommend viewing any trip outside the home as an adventure to explore the world and learn new and fascinating things. Life is a journey filled with experiential learning.

Consider making your vacation decisions and planning in light of the wisdom of the “serenity prayer”.

And…a joyful, positive attitude goes a long way!

 

If you need someone to rely on for special needs travel guidance, please consider me.  I would love to help you!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

 

Packing as a “Teachable Moment”

Packing as a “Teachable Moment”

Packing as a “Teachable Moment”

 

I regret I didn’t always see vacation packing as a “teachable moment” for my autistic kids.

 

I was in full charge of packing all of their items they would need for our trips.  I packed their clothes, shoes, toiletries, and other essentials while I let them choose a couple of their favorite items to bring along.

 

Eventually I let them pack their own bags. Only problem…I would sift through their luggage and start throwing out unnecessary items. I raided their dresser drawers to find the more important stuff they didn’t include.  Sometimes the result was frustration, anger and even a meltdown—by everyone—because they didn’t “pack right” the first time and I was taking out their beloved possessions.

 

On one occasion I let my daughter pack her own things without any preliminary checking before the trip.  Upon arrival of our destination I discovered she was missing some very important essentials (like enough underwear and socks). She had also over-packed non-essential items. She packed 15 stuffed animals in one big bag and brought along another bag stuffed with loose-leaf papers. I understood her need for comfort, but no wonder we could barely get everything in our trunk!

 

I was fully aware then that packing is a learning process that takes time to learn.  Looking back, though, I wish I could have done things very differently.

 

Not truly helping them…

 

By packing for them, I didn’t help them.  I enabled them.  I lost out on the opportunity to use packing as a “teachable moment” to help foster self-help skills.

 

I was also sending them very mixed messages: I told them to pack their own things…believing I was empowering them to be self-sufficient.  And then, I turned around to “undo” their efforts by taking things out or adding them in…not empowering at all! 

 

I lost out on a very BIG “teachable moment”.

 

I was not teaching them in a positive, hands-on way HOW to pack.

 

Sometimes I think we as parents lose sight of how our “means” of interacting with our autistic children might actually be more important than the end-goals.  Every little “teachable moment” has the capacity to help our child develop important life skills.

 

Packing for any trip is indeed a very important “teachable moment” for autistic children. It’s not just arriving at the destination that matters…it’s the act of preparing for it that can set up the attitude for the entire vacation.

 

In addition, there is so much potential skills-building in the act of packing, especially those critical executive functioning skills needed for a self-sufficient, happy life.

 

Don’t make the same mistakes I made! 

 

 

 

If I had to “do it all over again”, I would teach my kids not only how to prepare for a good travel experience but important skills learned in the process of packing.

 

 

 

Here are 5 tips to make packing a “teachable moment”:

 

1. Have your autistic child create his/her own packing list…with your guidance.

 

Once your destination and date of visit has been decided, figure out—with your child—what you need to take. Use apps, destination websites, and videos for help. Have him/her write down, type out, point to, or verbally record two (2) lists of items for (1) larger suitcase; and (2) a personal travel bag.  Help your child figure out what is necessary based on certain conditions:

  • Are you going to the beach or a theme park? Will you visit the desert or mountains?
  • What will the weather be like? Will you be visiting during the summer or winter months?
  • What are activities you plan to do there?
  • How long will you be gone from home? How will you be traveling?
  • What sensory, comfort, or interest-based items would your child like to bring along in a personal bag while traveling to the destination?

 

RECOMMEND: Download important planning apps like The Weather Channel, Waze, and those associated with your destination (like those for the cruise lines and Disney parks). Try to encourage your child do as much of his/her own research and planning as possible.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Research and problem-solving; dressing appropriately for weather and seasons; self-advocacy and social-communication of personal needs and wants. 

 

2. Create a finalized “picture list” of the items in each bag…if necessary.

 

Have your child (or you, if necessary) take pictures of the items on the lists. Using a Word document, put those pictures in one column and then include space to check off the items packed in another column.  Consider laminating this picture list for future travel; use a dry-erase marker for checking off packed items.

 

RECOMMEND: Provide help only if necessary; use this process as a “teachable moment”.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Technical skills with camera and computer (if he/she can’t use these then have your child observe the process); translating written/audio to a visual element to self-advocate; organizational skills and self-confidence.

 

3. Have your autistic child to pack his/her own bags…with supervision.

 

Using the packing list your child created, have him or her start gathering the necessary items together. Pack one larger suitcase for clothes (stored in the trunk or cargo hold) and the other for personal use while traveling in the car or plane (preferably a book-bag). They must be light enough for your child to carry; otherwise, just have him/her carry at least a personal travel bag. Do a final check with your child: make sure that what they are putting in those bags are “reasonable items” for travel.

 

RECOMMEND: Use a sturdy book-bag comfortable on the shoulders and a lightweight rolling suitcase to pull behind. Start packing at least a few days before the trip, in case anything you need or want is missing.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Accountability and responsibility for taking care of personal items during travel and on vacation; organization; understand the process of making realistic choices for travel.

 

4. Have your child transport his/her own bags while traveling…with some reminders.

 

Being responsible for your own possessions at all times is actually not an easy skill for kids to learn.  Many adults can barely do it! Some autistic kids have a harder time keeping track of everything than others. My older son often loses things, so we have him “practice” carrying around a bag with non-expensive/non-critical items.  You may need to gently remind your child (maybe quite often) not to forget his/her bags during transport. That includes carrying a day-bag into a theme park.

 

RECOMMEND: Consider putting a tracker device (like Tile) on your child’s personal bag and suitcase, if necessary. If they want to take their own money and phone everywhere, consider having them wear a fanny-pack or something similar that won’t easily be lost.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Executive functioning and self-help skills; care-taking and responsibility for personal belongings; pride of ownership.

 

5. Have your autistic child re-pack his/her own bags during and after the trip.

 

It’s not enough just to pack your bag before you leave for your trip.  Encourage your child to be accountable for his/her own possessions during the entire trip.  For example:

  • Designate a special place in your resort room to put their own things (i.e. their own drawer, own hanger in the closet, etc.)
  • Help them pack a day bag when you do outings (i.e. swim/beach items; sensory kit; music, books or games, phone, etc.).
  • Take the “pictures lists” with you while you travel. Use this as a visual checklist for all items when leaving your destination. This will be especially important if you have planned several hotel-stays during your trip.

 

RECOMMEND: Consider creating a “picture list” of items for different planned activities.

 

LEARNED SKILLS: Organization; self-help skills; care-taking and responsibility for personal belongings; independence and self-confidence.

 

Packing for a “lifetime”

 

It’s hard—especially for us moms—to take a step back and let our kids figure things out for themselves. Often, we intervene for the wrong reasons: to stay on schedule, to avoid a meltdown, because it makes us feel good to help…

 

But they don’t learn when we do everything for them.  This is not leading them toward self-empowerment.

 

Instead of doing things FOR them, we can GUIDE them using a structured framework.   If we really want to empower our autistic kids to become self-reliant, self-sufficient, and self-advocates, we as parents need to “do less” and “guide more”.

 

Despite the challenges of autism, travel can actually be a therapeutic growth experience. By using the process of packing as a “teachable moment”, your child will reap the benefits of gaining valuable life skills long after your trip is over.

 

From travel tips to destination ideas, I would love to help you plan a memorable getaway!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

SENSORY TIPS FOR A ZOO VISIT

 

Does your child love animals but you are unsure about taking him or her to the zoo?  In this article you will find important sensory trips for a zoo visit that will be hopefully help you and your whole family have fun there!

 

My autistic kids have always loved animals. Farm animals. Zoo animals. Neighborhood animals.  Zoos are naturally attractive to young kids and more so for those kids who have an intense fascination with animals.  But it’s very important to consider the impact of the all the noises, sights, smells, and sounds of the zoo on a child with autism.

 

 

AREN’T ANIMALS THE BEST?

 

They are loyal and love on us. They ease our fears and keep us grounded. They connect with us despite the communication gap.

 

Many autistic individuals find comfort in the presence of animals. Whether it’s a pet at home, livestock on a farm, or a service-dog, animals bring amazing benefits to the lives of those who often feel frustrated by a lack of understanding from other humans.

 

So, visiting a zoo seems like the most natural place to go for an autistic child, teen or adult.

 

Except that not all zoos are created equal.

 

Just because a zoo has animals doesn’t mean it’s automatically going to be a great experience.  Other people will be there, too…LOTS of people!  The potential for sensory overload can be high, depending on the level of crowds and the type of sensory environment zoo architects have designed.

 

To date (summer 2019), only three zoos in the entire country are certified autism centers.  Several may be “autism friendly” by having some sensory kits available or special “autism awareness” days.

 

Our nearby zoo is not deemed a “certified autism center”. In fact, the Indianapolis Zoo had ZERO assistance for anyone with sensory-cognitive issues. No sensory guidelines, no sensory kits, no calming room, no wait-assistance…nothing.  Even one staff member expressed her concern about having to leave the zoo early because her autistic nephews were having sensory meltdowns. (Sounded like my kids’ first zoo trip!)  Needless to say, I was disappointed with their lack of autism accommodations.

 

Even so, we still made up our minds to go.

 

And that is exactly what most autism families do.  Despite a lack of accommodations, they will still visit their favorite places!

 

My autistic daughter and I visited the Indianapolis Zoo on a day that was dry and sunny with low-crowd level predicted.  We ended up having a fantastic time.

 

However, the last time we went—when my kids were toddlers—the trip to the zoo was just about a disaster.

 

Through lessons of my past and most recent trips, I hope to provide some guidelines that will ensure a more fun and worthwhile trip to the zoo.

I will also provide tips to empower you to advocate for your autistic loved one.

 

SENSORY TIPS TO CONSIDER BEFORE MAKING A ZOO VISIT

 

You have picked the date.  A zoo trip is now in the works!

 

Before you think about “winging” a visit to a zoo, consider all potential scenarios during your time there.  In other words, at what point will you and your autistic loved one be tired? Hungry? How will a sensory-overload episode be handled? What happens if you lose sight of your loved one?  Here are some sensory tips for a zoo visit:

 

1. First check the zoo website for accommodation information.

Is the zoo you are visiting at least “autism friendly”?  The Indianapolis Zoo website had no link or any mention at all of having accommodations for those on the spectrum. They did host an autism awareness day with a local agency.  (But one day is clearly not enough).  You may need to call the zoo directly if they have anything at all to assist those with autism. Knowing this will determine next steps to prepare.

 

2. Decide how much time and money you will spend at the zoo.

To save some money, I recommend you buy tickets in advance, which are often cheaper.  There may be some coupons at given times, but no deep discounts were available by having the Medicaid-based Access Pass. We entered the parking lot 15 minutes before opening.  No parking lot attendant was at the booth to take the parking fee, so we saved money by getting there early.  Other questions to ask yourself: How tired does your autistic child get walking around for several hours?  How often do you eat?  Are you wanting to save money and bring your own food in?

 

3. Download the zoo map.

You may want to study the amenities, exhibits and other accommodations in order to plan out a visit-strategy. What are your child’s favorite animals? If he or she loves giraffes, then don’t miss out on the feeding opportunities. Often this requires a separate ticket and designated feeding times at most zoos (including the Indianapolis Zoo).  Is he or she crazy about dolphins? Don’t forget to get a separate free ticket at the entrance for the show. Plan your visit around those important feeding or show times.

 

4. Figure out if it’s worth spending extra for the attractions.

Most zoo admissions include some limited animal interaction and shows.  But they don’t include rides and other things like animal feedings.  Indianapolis Zoo has the TAP (Total Adventure Package), which is an extra $12. We found it worth purchasing it in advance.  Instead of buying one-time-access tickets we had a wristband. It allowed us unlimited access to those extras, so we could go on rides again and again. We got more than our money’s worth out of it!

 

5. Research or inquire about the dietary offerings at the zoo.

Most snacks, I noticed, were not gluten-free or casein-free. If your child is not a big salad-eater, then perhaps consider bringing in your own snacks and meals.

 

6. Pack a sensory kit.

Some zoos may have sensory kits to offer families. But a safe bet is to assume they don’t. I highly recommend headphones for those with sound-sensitivities.  It was at the dolphin show years ago that we realized our autistic son’s limits to loud music and noise. He had a complete meltdown during the show, so we left early.

 

7. Bring someone along to assist.

If you have more than one autistic child and/or a child that is a toddler, preschooler or elementary-age, it may be helpful to have an extra pair of hands. Having a 1-to-1 ratio is best. My kids are almost adults, so that ratio is not necessary. Having another responsible adult is beneficial for other reasons (which I’ll get into later in this article).

 

8. Check the weather forecast.

Plan your trip accordingly.  How much cold or heat can your child tolerate?  What about rain?  Most zoos I know have the majority of their exhibits outdoors. The Indianapolis Zoo has two large indoor areas—Oceans and Orangutan Center—but would be crowded during a rainstorm.  Also, animals tend to be more active on cooler days and early in the morning, especially because zookeepers are feeding them.  The park is also less crowded then.

 

            

 

SENSORY TIPS DURING YOUR ZOO VISIT

 

Finally…a perfect day to visit the zoo has come! You feel prepared enough, maybe pre-purchased tickets.  Here are some sensory tips for a visit to the Indianapolis Zoo—although many other zoos have similar exhibits which you may find relevant.

 

1. Animal experiences…

Besides passively viewing the animals you can also actively interact with them in a more meaningful way.  The experiences vary in intensity.

Calming:

  • Petting a shark. No, REALLY! The Indianapolis Zoo has very large shallow shark touch pool in an indoor atmosphere that is very peaceful. It’s relaxing watching their graceful movements in water. The Oceans exhibits are by far the most calming.

 

  • Animals in the Plains and Forest areas—elephants, bears, giraffes and tigers—are slow-moving but fascinating to watch.

 

  • The orangutans are altogether special, often leaning their heads against the windows for a very up-close-and-personal encounter.

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits    

 

Intense:

  • Feeding the lorikeets. This was our favorite animal encounter, so much we did it twice. Using our TAP access we fed them a liquid solution out of a little cup, which they licked.  One moved up my daughter’s arm to top of her safari hat in search of food.  We couldn’t stop smiling and laughing!  On the other hand, they can be very loud, especially when they perch on your shoulder and chirp right in your ear!

 

  • We also hand-fed a giraffe and flamingoes.

 

  • In terms of animal observations, the most active were the lemurs. They proved to be very amusing to watch, thwarting the zookeeper’s efforts to corral them back inside by constantly escaping.

 

  • The dog show was lively. There was enough space for seating and it was shaded. It was hard to discern what the presenters were saying with loud music playing in the background.  (Headphones recommended)

 

  • The dolphin show, while very enjoyable, was perhaps the most intense experience with music that was a bit loud and very crowded with spectators. (Headphones recommended)

 

Sensory Tips for Zoo Visits        

 

2.  Rides…

Slow-moving rides—like gondola systems and boat rides—tend to be relaxing experiences. Train rides can be both relaxing and intense at the same time. The greatest difficulty would be waiting in lines.

Calming:

  • The Skyline is the most relaxing, as long as everyone in the party can handle gliding 50 feet in the air. Although it was intended to observe the orangutans swing from massive heights, we didn’t see any outside. It is mostly to be enjoyed as a slow-moving ride above the zoo and skyline of downtown Indianapolis.

 

  • The train was relaxing but a bit more intense. A voice on a loudspeaker provided a “backstage tour” of the zoo. Sit in the back of the train to avoid the loud whistle in the front.

 

  • Compared to those at amusement parks, the Kombo Coaster would be considered a “kiddie coaster” (so not THAT intense). There were no lines for the ride during the entire time of our visit. So, if your child is a sensory-seeker and meets the height requirement, this would be a perfect attraction to ride again and again with the TAP.

 

  • The carousel appeared to be more intense than calming, considering it was placed in a more visible place in the zoo with higher crowds. (We did not ride this attraction, so I cannot comment on the volume of the music.)

 

 

ADVOCATE FOR YOUR LOVED ONE’S SENSORY NEEDS

 

If the zoo you visit has NO special accommodations for those with cognitive-sensory needs, then you’ll have to advocate for your autistic child or other family member.

Here are some suggestions that might work for you:

 

1. Consider having someone to be a “line placeholder” if necessary.

The Indianapolis Zoo does not have a “wait outside the line” accommodations. We waited 40 minutes for both the train and Skyliner rides.  That may be entirely too long for some on the spectrum.  Some zoos might have line accommodations—check in advance.  I suggest you let someone at the ticket booth know you will have a placeholder in line (that extra person you bring along) while you wait nearby with your child.  Or…you could always ask a stranger if they can hold your place.  (Never hurts to ask.). Ask guest services at the zoo entrance what they can do to help you.

 

2. Create a small laminated card that explains your autistic child’s needs and maybe how they can help.

Sometimes it’s necessary to convey your needs in a non-verbal way with staff.

 

3. Make staff aware if your child is a “runner”.

If your child has a lack of personal safety and runs off, be sure to alert zoo staff at guest services as well as at each exhibit. They usually have personal radios to communicate with one another in the event your child goes missing. Have your child wear identification with your phone number.

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit       

 

PRECIOUS MEMORIES MADE AT THE ZOO

 

Some zoos have a very spacious feel and are better designed to handle more crowds, especially if they have very wide walking paths. The Indianapolis Zoo is one such place that can accommodate many people without making you feel claustrophobic.

 

The Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo, while one of my favorites, has very narrow walking paths which can create bottlenecks and tight spaces. Recognize your child’s ability to handle crowds. Watch videos of the zoo you want to see to get a better sense of space.  This may affect your choice in which zoo you do end up visiting.

 

Zoos can be both peaceful and thrilling experiences all at once.  Sensory-seekers love the hands-on interactions with the animals and the rides, while sensory-avoiders can just observe them play.  Just be sure to do your research before you go.  And if your autistic loved one has had enough, try again another time.

 

Our family has continued to go to a zoo year-after-year despite meltdowns. Every trip to has been better than the one before it. I loved watching their progress on outings like this.

 

It takes time to become acclimated after recognizing how your autistic loved one reacts to the sensory environment of a zoo.  I encourage you to just appreciate the smiles and joy felt by your kids watching and playing with their favorite animals!

 

Sensory Tips for a Zoo Visit

 

Consider planning a weekend getaway to Indianapolis. Check out my article on making the most of a trip to the Indianapolis Children’s Museum! 

Respite Vacation at Home

Respite Vacation at Home

Have you ever considered having a solitary respite vacation at home? 

Seems like an oxymoron concept, right? Vacations are supposed to be AWAY from home to be a real vacation.  How can you truly take a respite vacation at home when it reminds you of all you need to do?

Well, that depends on your definition of “vacation”.

If it’s defined as a chance to explore new places and seek thrills, then yes, that makes sense.

But if “vacation” means gaining a new perspective and just relax, then you don’t have to seek it elsewhere.

For five whole days, my entire family was gone.  While they were at different camps, I was by myself at home.  As in…alonewith no one around…to need me.

It was amazing to find solace in my entire house for more than a day. And not just in a bathroom locked away to escape the kids for a few seconds!

In other words, I experienced the pure bliss of SOLITUDE!

For me, that describes a respite vacation at home perfectly.  When you get to a point in your life when you actually fantasize being a jail for a little while just to escape the pressures of home-life, then you NEED a respite away from others!

Respite doesn’t have to be expensive or far from where you live.

In fact, I encourage you to consider taking some time to be by yourself in the comforts of your own home.

 

Take nature walks during your respite vacation

Why a “solitude vacation” is “what the doctor ordered”

Have you ever wondered what daily life would be without someone else needing you every second of the day?

I can’t describe how lighter I feel by not having to worry about the demands of anyone else but my own.  At least just for a little while.

Well, that’s not entirely true…

I still maintained a semi-normal routine: I still had dogs, cats and chickens to feed.  And I did do laundry and dishes… only ONCE this week! I did cook…a few times.

BUT…I didn’t have to pick up and put away loose articles of papers, clothing, or shoes that weren’t mine.  I didn’t have to run errands for someone else. I didn’t have to take someone to therapy or scouts or band or piano lesson.

I visited places I wanted to go, when I wanted to go.  I could drive to another city and visit a friend. I could stay up and sleep in. Or, go to bed early and rise early…all because I could.

To a person without kids, the idea of staying at home but still having to work in the yard doesn’t sound like a vacation.

But to any parent of children, no matter how many, no matter what age and size, no matter their abilities or disabilities…BEING ALONE IS A VACATION!

 

Relax with a book during your vacation at home

Get into the “respite mindset” at home

Since you don’t have the distractions of serving and caring for others, you have more free time.  How you want to use that free time is now your own choice. You don’t have to fit it into your schedule around others’ needs.

You do need to adopt the attitude that your home-space can be a vacation-space.  That means letting go of obligations that haunt you into feeling guilt if you don’t do them. It may take a day or two to unwind to figure out how to take a respite vacation at home. Be kind to yourself!

First, what are your end-goals for respite? 

  • Figure out what you want to get out of your time in blissful solitary confinement at home. How do you want to feel by the end of the week? Do you want to feel calm and at peace? Do you want to feel more energy and alive?  Do you want to gain a greater appreciation and gratitude for the blessings in your life? Do you want to feel more spiritually centered?

 

  • Be aware of how you feel when doing certain things. If the act of performing a certain task itself brings you joy, then by all means do it. If the process only adds to your stress, forget it! For example, putting clutter away and doing some light cleaning at the start of my respite brings me to joy and peace to see order out of chaos. But I am not about to spend a whole day or week doing that.  Blah!

Second, what are the means to achieve your respite goals?

  • Create two different lists: “Tasks to NOT do” as well as “Tasks you want to do”. Drop certain task your normally do (like laundry) or at least minimize the time you spend on them if they stress you out. Maximize your time for things you always wanted to do but normally can’t with life’s constant distractions (like taking a whole day for reading your favorite novel or journaling).

 

  • If you have some long-term “bucket list” goals, consider using this time to start working on those. Do you want to create new healthier habits? Do you want to reconnect with others you hardly get to see?  Do you want to organize the mass of family photos in shoeboxes? This period of respite could enable you to gain the momentum to form new habits that will carry you through the more hectic days.  Just as long as you have JOY in doing those things!

 

  • Here are some specific things I did with my time: (Feel free to steal ideas…)
    • Visiting with close friends without rushing back home
    • Jumping on my son’s trampoline
    • Laying outside and daydreaming as I watch the clouds go by
    • Mowing the lawn (no joke, I actually enjoyed this)
    • Sipping on a Frappacino at Starbucks while working on my blog
    • Doing DVD exercises in which the instructor is in a gorgeous tropical setting
    • Organizing my computer desk while watching Netflix comedians
    • Hearing a political figure discuss foreign policy at my local university
    • Participating in webinars that teach about cool vacation destinations
    • Dealing with a thieving racoon at 3 am (okay…that was not on my to-do list)

 

Invite a friend over for tea during your respite

Recruit others to “lift your load”

Let me guess.  You’re probably thinking, Just exactly how am I supposed to get alone-time?

All I can say is…find ways to MAKE IT HAPPEN!

If we as autism parents don’t ask for help in the first place, it’s never going to come.

1. Take advantage of respite camps!

For me, it has become a lot easier now that my kids are teens. We can take advantage of opportunities built for this purpose.  My daughter attended an autism camp about an hour away.  Not only does it help her build self-confidence and independence skills, but it is designed to provide respite for special-needs parents.

2. Find local special needs day camps.

I urge you to contact local or state autism or special-needs advocacy groups for more information on opportunities like this.   Some YMCAs even offer day-camps for special needs kids. If you can’t get an overnight break, then at least a day-long respite would suffice.

3. Get respite help through the Medicaid Waiver.

The Medicaid waiver provides respite as a service for parents.  Find an agency that hires skilled workers you trust.  Some agencies may even permit you to use allotted respite hours over a few days instead of a couple hours per week. If you trust your respite worker with your child overnight, then try at least a day or two away to see how that arrangement works.

4. Ask family or friends!  By all means bribe them if you have to!

For one week my parents took care of our two kids when they toddlers. I went with my husband to the Walt Disney World area for a couples-respite. I didn’t even step foot in the parks. I de-stressed in solitude at the resort while my husband was at work conference.  In the evenings we had fun and reconnected after the last few years of 24-hour baby care.

Since then, I have asked family, maybe once or twice a year, to take my kids overnight for a few days.  They get to enjoy their grandkids more, and we get a much-needed parenting break.

5. Hire special needs caregivers.

Other avenues include hiring caregivers from companies located on the internet.  An Indiana mom started a company called Synapsesitters after she had a hard time locating someone knowledgeable about autism.   Another company to consider is Care.com, in which you can hire sitters and nannies who have experience with special needs.

Ask your therapy agencies for help in locating good help.  Undoubtedly, they have clients who have probably requested the same thing. They may be able to recommend certain websites or local services over others.

 

Treat yourself to a spa day during your respite vacation

Drop the “parent guilt”…and GO FOR IT!

I love, love, LOVE my respite!  I feel refreshed and de-stressed.  The daily routine doesn’t feel like a heavy burden. When I see my husband and kids again, I appreciate them more because I missed them. This time also helps me recognize unhealthy parenting habits that I need to change.

Too many autism parents neglect their personal need for respite. The excuses?

No one understands my child’s needs. I don’t have money or time for that.  No one is around to help me. My child absolutely needs me all the time.

Guess what? Your child will survive without you for a little while! The compounding stress of daily life without a break over weeks, months, or even years may make you resentful or make interacting with your autistic child more frustrating.

Recognize when you need to take a step back to renew your mind, body and perspective on life.  Plan respite time far out in advance like a real vacation.

Do EVERYONE a favor, but especially yourself:  take advantage of a respite vacation at home and all the benefits it will bring to you and your family!

For a wonderful therapeutic getaway in an ethereal setting, visit Hocking Hills State Park in Ohio. Perfect for a family or friends vacation…but also great for taking time for yourself!

 

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.

 

WHAT TO DO:

  • 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

WHAT TO DO:

  • 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.

 

WHAT TO DO:

  • 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.

TIPS:

  • 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.

TIPS:

  • 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.

TIPS:

  • 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

 

TIPS:

  • 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
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.

TENTS…

  • 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.

 

POP-UP CAMPERS…

  • 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.

 

TRAVEL TRAILERS…

  • 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.

 

RVs….

  • 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.

 

Unwind…

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!