Planning Autism-Friendly Vacations

For individuals who find comfort in routines, including many within the autistic community, vacations have the potential to be highly stressful events despite the goals of fun and relaxation. With Summer approaching, it’s a great time to start planning a trip that will meet those goals for everyone in the family!

Some people may certainly prefer to stay home when push comes to shove, but just because someone struggles with travelling, it shouldn’t be assumed that they don’t want to vacation away from home. Thinking ahead to help prepare for an autism-friendly trip can open the door to innumerable new and enriching experiences in the future.

A child laughing while on vacation and playing in the water

The Journey

  • Airports – Airports are overwhelming for everyone! To someone with a predisposition to sensory overstimulation, they can be downright nightmarish. Organizations like The Arc provide opportunities to practice and become comfortable with the steps required at airports without time pressure or as many high-intensity distractions. Participants can go through the motions of checking in and receiving their boarding pass, completing TSA security checkpoint procedures, waiting in boarding areas, and actually boarding an aircraft. Check out The Arc’s Wings for Autism program or contact your local airport or favorite airline to see if there are any similar events planned! (Incidentally, The Arc also provides educational outreach to teach airport personnel to be more accommodating of neurodiverse guests’ needs, an angle that is invaluable in reducing ableism in our society.)
  • Security Checkpoints – While covered in the bullet point above, TSA procedures deserve their own highlight given how intimidating they can be. Uncertainty with new rules such as what items of clothing to remove and where to put them, being rushed by other travelers and airport employees alike, and getting touched unexpectedly during pat-downs can really ramp up the anxiety. Practicing and becoming familiar with these expectations can help but may not completely eliminate concerns. If accommodations are needed, the TSA provides a notification card that can be printed out and presented. This is especially helpful for travelers who don’t communicate vocally or lose vocal capabilities when stressed out.
  • In the Air – The experience of one’s ears popping when changing altitudes is in no way unique to autism, but the discomfort can be exacerbated for people who have trouble pinpointing what exactly is causing pain or communicating verbally in general. This can be planned for in advance by using special ear plugs or having gum or another object ready to chew on.
  • Carsickness – Autistic people may experience a higher prevalence of nausea caused by motion such as that experienced when driving or riding in a car, possibly due to differences in the vestibular system. Medications like Dramamine can help, but common side effects like agitation or drowsiness can be disruptive and distressing, especially if the road trip is intended to be part of the vacation! Other techniques to avoid and relieve carsickness include looking out the window rather than at things inside the car, avoiding reading or looking at screens, staying hydrated, and sitting in the front of the vehicle and facing forward.
  • Cabin Fever – Air and car travel alike require long periods of sitting motionless with relatively little in the way of entertainment. Getting in some vigorous physical activity right before a trip can help to increase tolerance to being stationary. If TV shows, movies, and video games are usually rationed activities, this is the time to embrace the screens and let them distract from the monotony! Fidget toys like stress balls and pop-it squares can also be comforting.

The Destination

  • Autism Travel Directory – The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) provides a search engine allowing travelers to find destinations that explicitly provide accommodations for neurodiverse guests based on their location or their category, including art centers, restaurants, theme parks, sports arenas, and even entire cities. While the directory only consists of locations certified by the IBCCES, and as such isn’t yet terribly extensive, it’s a great place to start!
  • Confirming Accommodations – While finding locations and activities that accommodate travelers’ needs used to often require hiring a travel agent or buying a guidebook, it has thankfully become much easier in the age of the Internet. We’ve put together such a list for our neck of the woods in Ottawa and Kent Counties, Michigan, and many other such resources are just a few clicks away!
  • Familiar Comforts – Unfamiliar routines can be difficult to adjust to but having small reminders of home and even sticking with some usual daily habits can help. If supports like a visual schedule or communication devices are used at home, those should absolutely be brought along on vacation! Packing familiar foods and favorite items of clothing is also a good idea.

No one kind of location or activity makes for the best autism-friendly vacation – that is dependent upon the specific autistic person’s interests and preferences! One person might be overwhelmed by the intense sights and sounds of a theme park, while another craves the adrenaline rush. One might love the quiet contemplation of an art gallery or museum, while another can’t stand the requirement to speak quietly and move slowly. Consider what you or your loved one wants to get out of the vacation and go from there. Any kind of trip can be enjoyed with the right planning and accommodations.

Let Waypoints Help!

One of the most important goals of ABA services is generalization – skills that are learned and practiced at home and intended to be applied in the world at large, so that our clients can thrive and gain independence in day-to-day life. If we can help with the growth of skills that help to make travel and vacationing easier for you or your family, please check out the services we offer or contact us at!

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