Autism and Travel
Travel fills my life with stories to tell. This world is big and our lives are short. I want to see what I can before I can see no more.
This was supposed to be our family’s year of travel. I had my destinations mapped out, my budgets were formed, our itinerary for each spot was meticulously planned…I was ready. But 2020 had other plans. I wasn’t ready for this year. I had just gotten our family to a point where travel was not only possible but doable. I didn’t think of traveling much in the past, but deep down, I dreamed of seeing new places and experiencing new things.
I wanted to see the world and take my little family along for the ride.
Like many families that have Autistic loved ones, you worry about traveling…so much so that y’all don’t even do it. We were one of those families. Never going anywhere. Never doing anything.
But that’s not living. It’s existing. And you deserve to live. As does your family.
Let me start off by saying that every outing won’t be successful, know this. Accept this. Also know that it’s okay if your time outside the house was less than ideal. It’ll get better, focus on the good days, think about future good days, but don’t dwell in the not so good outings. Use those days as guides for the next time you go out.
The boys and I (Hammy was at work) went to Houston one day because of a dream I had that we had such a great time there. I just woke them up, fed them, got them ready, and we hit the highway. I dreamed this would be a good day, so it should have been a good day.
It rained. We were roughly 6 minutes into our first museum and one child had a meltdown and the other ran away. Every single museum we visited did not go well for us. I spent way too much money, our clothes were soaked, we spent less than 20 minutes at each museum, and we didn’t even make it to the zoo. I only got two pictures. I was EXHAUSTED.
This little getaway was not good at all. And that’s okay. I choose to focus on the good, and learn from my mistakes.
The good: I got out of the house. I traveled. While I didn’t see all of what I would have liked to have seen, I saw many things I hadn’t before. And I did get two pictures of the experience. I showed myself that I can leave the house and survive.
The not-so-good: I didn’t plan. I just woke up and left…driven by a dream. Our family doesn’t work that way, and chances are, your family doesn’t either.
What does Autism and Travel look like?
It looks like a lot of preparation, but it is soooooo worth it.
How can you teach your children how to live in this world if you don’t expose them to it? And that is what I think about when I am trying to decide on whether to leave the house. And then I decide to leave the house.
But first, PLAN. AND THEN PLAN SOME MORE!
Think of a trip that you really want to do as a family but you were worried about not being able to do it. Maybe it’s Disney or a cruise (probably shouldn’t take those trips right now anyway due to Covid). But jot it down at the bottom of your paper. Every space above this one will be smaller trips that prepare you and your family for the big one. Each outing will grow in in length of stay, experiences, distance from home, etc. Sometimes you might have to go backwards on your list if you feel your family needs to revisit one of those trips to help them prepare for the next one up.
My goal at the time I first started my “travel journey” was a Washington D.C. trip. I had two years to get prepare myself and the boys for this trip. I was graduating with my Master’s Degree in Virginia and not only did I want to attend my graduation, I wanted to make a trip out of it.
This couldn’t be another Houston.
How we made Autism and Travel possible:
Mood journaling. I kept track of everything. I don’t know that I would actually call this a “mood” journal as I documented everything from mood to behavior to weather patterns to medication, etc. But in this journal I would chart the boys’ moods, behaviors, medicines, potential side effects, food, favorite activities at the time, weather. This helped my husband and I see what times of the day were best for introducing new experiences to the boys, also to identify any triggers that may induce overwhelm or meltdowns. We were also able to note what activities the boys loved to do the most. You don’t want to spend a lot of money on a vacation and there is nothing there your child engages with.
We planned and we started small. So my list leading up to the big D.C. trip consisted of smaller outings around town in the beginning. I started outdoors first. Parks, walks around downtown, etc. we did this several times per week to get the boys used to the idea that we were leaving the house and going into the community. Some days we stayed out an hour or so, others only 20 minutes. But we got out there. We switched the time of day we would go so we could see if this would change their moods. Also, did any medication they were taking at the time have an effect on them? Then consider structuring any outings around the administration of medication and definitely think about any side effects and how they would play a role in your family outings. Chart this in your log.
Research. Once we felt comfortable with outdoor community visits, we moved to indoor spaces in the community. This wasn’t always museums or other attractions, this was often the grocery store or Walmart too. These are good places to practice being indoors and around people and bright lights lots of distracting objects. I made to sure to visit any stores or museums or zoos, etc. during their least busiest hours. You can find this information out on Google or you can call and inquire about it.
Leaving town. I was incredibly nervous about us leaving town, but I felt after 7 or 8 months of small town outings, we were finally ready. So I planned a weekend trip. And by plan, I planned EVERYTHING. I researched everything. This was going to be the best way to make sure we all had fun and enjoyed ourselves. I consulted my charts and notes. And I decided on a trip that included lot so outdoor activities, free and low cost things to do, and was within driving distance.
I knew the time of day the boys were the most active and when they were most engaged and I scheduled our activities around those times. Our weekend getaways are rarely ever on the weekends. We travel during the week a lot. Weekdays are when you are most likely to find the least busy times for new experiences. I also made sure to not schedule something too soon after medication because they would be cranky if tired and to not overcrowd our day with activities. We do no more than 2 experiences per day. This allows for us to have the time to take breaks if need be, to return to the car or hotel and go back if we are ready to.
When planning attractions, I call ahead to make sure that I know of any of their disability accommodations. Some places have wheelchairs for rental (or free), others have headphones or even some iPads to help those who need them fully experience what they have to offer. So be sure to ask what kind of accommodations they have. Also, I ask for a map of their facilities and what spaces they find to be the least noisy and crowded. This is where I note potential spaces to “escape” to for overwhelm and meltdowns.
Be prepared. Every single time we leave for just 2-3 days I wonder if we are moving. We have so much stuff. But it’s necessary for the success of our trip. It helps that we have multiples of all the kids favorite sensory items. We are able to keep a bag of them in the car. So less things to pack. Spare chargers, communication boards, etc. we also keep in the car as well. Always carry a bag of their favorite items with them to keep them company when out and about, just in case they need something familiar and safe to help them through this unfamiliar experience.
Have a Backup Plan.
Have a plan for what you are going to do should things not….go so well. Are you going to head to the safe space where you are visiting? The space you found on your map? Are you going to head to your car and wait it out? Head back to the hotel? What is your backup plan should your day not go as planned? Do you have some alternative things planned or are you going to ride it out in the hotel room?
I was really looking forward to getting out there and traveling more this year but 2020 is just doing whatever the hell it wants right now. We have been sticking to state parks, mostly. I have plans to visit Big Bend and Guadalupe National Parks soon. I don’t know when but they are definitely on my list.
If you have any suggestions on how you make Autism and travel work, let me know. I am always looking for new things to try out.
Covid has really changed things for most of us this year, including the way we travel. We decided that we weren’t going to travel as much as we would have liked, but we still find ways to get away from home. We are mostly sticking to state and national parks, as well as other outdoor attractions. Recently, we took a roadtrip to Round Rock and explored most of the city’s outdoor offerings. A trip to IKEA and Bass Pro Shops (both must see destinations, btw) was done safely social distancing and wearing masks.
I would definitely plan extra hard when traveling this year and up until we have the Coronavirus under control. Stick to outdoor spaces mostly, choose the least crowded times for indoor spaces, social distance, wear your masks, and practice good hygiene. Our family has also decided to hold off on plans to fly or ride the train for now. We know our family’s Covid status so it feels safer for us to be in car with each other than it does to be in a tight space with strangers. Our boys won’t be able to wear a mask for the amount of time it would take for us to fly or ride the train.
Be safe out there, but definitely do try to get out there.