Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

10 Tips for Vacationing with a Child with Autism
Why Pre-Planning is Imperative

by Carrie Bishop

June 01, 2010

Sometimes all you wish for is a vacation. If only you had a vacation ahead of you, all of this stress may seem less. Sometimes it’s not that simple, especially for families with children who have autism. These families—and kids—have a right to a great vacation. It may just take a bit more planning.

Following are a few tips for families who fall among these ranks.

Do your homework ahead of time. In other words, figure out what destination is most suitable for a family with a special needs child. Call hotels in advance of booking and ask about special accommodations for your family.

“A lot of parks now are becoming more autism friendly,” says Mary Rosswurm, executive director of Little Star Center in Carmel. Disney World and Universal Studios are two examples of popular vacation spots that are also friendly toward the autism community. Families who provide a letter from the doctor will get fast passes that will keep your child from waiting in impossibly long lines that literally are not possible.

Write a social story. Rosswurm recommends parents use written words or pictures to create a simple storybook for your child that details what is going to happen on the vacation. An example may be a book about the airport that includes going through security, getting on the airplane, wearing a seatbelt and the like.

Provide a calendar. Put some work into your itinerary up front so there are as few surprises as possible. Use a calendar to help your child understand what day the family will go on vacation, when you will arrive at the destination, what will occur during the days and when you will return home.

Anticipate needs. If your child is on a restricted diet, bring along snacks he can eat. If you will be traveling through airports, be prepared to inform security staff that your child has autism, especially if he or she will be patted down. Should you or your child be uncomfortable saying this aloud, create cards in advance that inform others of your child’s disorder to hand out as needed.

Dr. Breanne Hartley, Clinical Director of the Verbal Behavior Center for Autism in Indianapolis, also recommends parents expose their child to a modified version of the activities ahead of time. If the family will be going to a beach, yet your child has never been in the water, take a few trips to a local swimming pool. “In general, gradual exposure to a new activity or experience will increase a family’s success on vacations,” she says.

Encourage sibling help. Rosswurm acknowledges that kids sometimes get embarrassed when their siblings act up. Ask the sibling to go ahead of your child with autism to demonstrate what is going to happen. For instance, the sibling can go through security just ahead of your child with autism so he or she knows what to expect. “Make the other sibling part of it so they feel helpful and valued,” she says.

Delegate who is in charge. You are on vacation and will be out of sync with your usual routines. Make sure someone in your family is always watching your child with autism. If you need a bathroom break for instance, make sure someone in your family or travel party is aware that they are responsible for your child in your absence.

Handle meltdowns your way. Sometimes meltdowns are just a fact. Of course, try to get the meltdown over with as soon as you can, but hold your head high and let passersby stare if they must. “You know your child best and you know what will get them out of a meltdown the fastest,” says Rosswurm. She also says to be comfortable keeping people away and to not let strangers come in and try to touch your child or pick your child up.

Give your child a way out. Hartley recommends giving your child simple phrases like “all done” that will give your child a way to tell you that he needs a break from any situation while on vacation. This way if the pool gets too crowded with other children, your child can simply indicate “all done” rather than demonstrate through other disruptive behaviors.

Bring along comforts of home. Bring along things that your child enjoys at home, like a favorite blanket or book. If it’s an electronic item, bring back-up batteries. “As with any other child, these items will act as a comfort for your child during a time that is out of the usual routine while on vacation,” says Hartley.

Have fun. You’re on vacation. Your child is on vacation. Your family is on vacation. Everyone deserves to kick back and have fun. Happy trails!

Carrie Bishop is a freelance writer and mother of two young sons, whose daily antics inspire her work and her life. Contact her at