Why Plan with Your Special Needs Child
There are several reasons why it’s best to consider involving autistic kids in travel planning, especially if one or more in the family have special needs.
In this article I’ll outline the biggest things you should and should not do when you get ready for a trip in light of the challenges that autism often brings.
Have you seen those videos in which very excited parents prepare to reveal a huge surprise to their family and friends?
Actually, I am NOT talking about those gender reveal parties.
I’m talking about those videos showing parents springing the news on their unsuspecting kids that they are about to go to Walt Disney World. And not in a few months… RIGHT NOW!
They wake their kids out of a dead-sleep, telling them to hurry up and get dressed. But they don’t tell them why just yet.
By the tone and flurry of activity you would think that a national emergency has been declared and they are forced to evacuate immediately. Some kids look dazed and scared.
When their parents finally let them in on the secret, some are very excited while others continue to look very perplexed.
It’s cute to watch their reactions, but…
If only those kids had autism…I thought. What kind of reaction would those parents get then?
I imagine that my autistic kids would be thrilled to go to Disney. But if they were given no warning about what’s happening, things would NOT go down well.
If my parents did that to me as a kid, even if I was excited about the idea, my anxiety would probably go through the roof.
If your think your autistic loved one would NOT exhibit that “joyfully thrilled” reaction so many parents anticipate seeing on their kids’ faces when they reveal their “surprise-vacation”, then this article is for YOU!
Special Travel Planning Challenges with Autism
Grand vacation surprises the night before are often not a good idea for many on the spectrum. When it comes to planning a vacation, families with autism would do better to involve everyone in the process from start to finish.
Here are some things to keep in mind when you start dreaming of your next vacation. Involving autistic kids in travel planning is crucial to this process.
Sudden major events, even happy ones like vacations, can trigger big feelings.
Sudden transitions involve too much information and sensory input in a very short span of time. For many this can trigger feelings like anxiety or anger …which trigger behaviors that may be harmful to self and others.
- DON’T neglect thinking about the potential issues that could come from throwing a surprise.
- DO tell your child where you have been dreaming of visiting for vacation. Ask him or her where he or she would like to go.
An autistic child invested in the planning process will feel more in-control in this new environment.
Many on the spectrum like to know what the expectations are of the places they visit.
My kids watched Disney park planning films over and over. My son poured over the park maps to find certain attractions. We played Disney games, watched Disney films and sang Disney songs. My kids were INVESTED in the process. By the time we arrived, my kids could relax and enjoy themselves because they had “been there before”.
- DON’T leave them out of the initial planning.
- DO watch planning videos, study park maps, and get psyched-up together! Make it fun!
You can truly discover what your child can or can’t handle.
Looking back, I wish that I had showed my younger daughter point-of-view videos of the rides at Walt Disney World. We might have avoided some bad experiences at certain attractions, like the Haunted Mansion.
In the “stretching room” she begged to be picked up, and then proceeded to climb my husband like a cat. She had a meltdown in the middle of a very crowded room.
- DON’T just guess what you think your autistic child can handle, too. Don’t just hope that things will be okay.
- DO allow your child time to explore places through videos and to express their desire to avoid certain things before you go.
You may neglect some important accommodation considerations without your autistic child’s involvement.
Getting them involved can trigger awareness of the kinds of accommodations that are necessary.
Maybe after viewing videos of certain resorts and studying their maps you get a better sense of knowing what accommodations to ask for (for example, close to pool, away from stairs, lower level, type of bed, etc.). From park maps you can locate the quiet spots for a sensory break.
If you know your autistic child will not want to ride an attraction but everyone else does, then you can use the Rider Switch option at the Disney parks.
- DON’T forget about creating an “accommodations plan” based on the different needs of your autistic child. This includes sensory toys and finding safe spaces on the map.
- DO ask for help or special requests when you get there. It never hurts to ask with kindness. Most places love to go the “extra mile” to help their guests!
Read more about planning a Disney vacation with someone with autism.
You can bond over the vacation planning experience!
This is my favorite part of the whole planning process…the anticipation felt by everyone in the family! It’s exciting to choose the destination, the resort, the parks, the attractions, the dining experiences, as well as any little extras that you didn’t think about but someone else did.
When everyone’s ideas are considered, then everyone feels valued and important.
- DON’T downplay or ignore the contributions of anyone. If the budget doesn’t allow someone’s idea to happen, perhaps encourage them to come up with a different idea.
- DO have fun with this process! Make it a “family night” to brainstorm ideas and vote on the best things to do.
Customize for your family
Some families might have to consider how much their autistic loved one perseverates on the upcoming vacation. For some it can be a rewarding task to countdown the days on a calendar. But for others it can be unhealthy obsession that interferes with daily life.
If it’s better that your loved one on the spectrum knows about a vacation a week or two in advance instead of months, then by all means do that. Still, you can involve him or her in studying the place you will visit and dreaming up some fun things to do while on vacation.
I hope that these reasons make sense for you. It doesn’t mean that you should never have a fun “vacation reveal” party if your autistic loved one enjoys that kind of surprise.
Involving autistic kids in travel planning can be done plenty of time in advance—and not the night before travel—is best. This will make them feel their input is cherished.
Click this article to discover another insight into the need to involve a family member with autism in helping to plan a vacation.