We may do different things to celebrate the multitude of holidays in December with our families, but we all tend have one thing in common — typically we have to travel some amount of distance to get to them! Any amount of travel can be challenging, but if you have a child with autism it can be even more daunting. Whether you are traveling by plane, train, or automobile, here are some tips to make your trip go a little smoother!
- Prepare your child ahead of time for the trip – Children on the spectrum often have a difficult time adapting to change in their schedule. Keep a calendar and mark the days as they pass and discuss that you will be going someplace new. Change is a lot easier to handle if you are able to anticipate it.
- Think about your child’s current schedule – When planning departures and arrivals, think about the things that are already established in your child’s routines such as meal times and nap times. Traveling can be unpredictable, but if you are able to line up long lengths of the trip with nap time, breaks for gas and snacks, and meal time, the overall experience may be more positive for everyone. Pay attention to when you eat because shortly afterwards your child will likely need to use the bathroom. Build in extra time to your travel plans to accommodate these needs.
- Bring items that make your child feel more comfortable – Does your child have a favorite blanket, pillow, or toy? As long as it can fit into the space reasonably, bring it along! Items that your child is familiar with can make the new experience a little bit more comfortable. Make a rule to keep the item in a special place when not in use so it doesn’t get lost.
- Practice waiting – In the weeks leading up to your trip, practice waiting with your child. Start with small amounts of time (10 seconds) and gradually increase how long you are having your child wait. Provide a lot of praise for waiting appropriately. This will help you when your child wants a snack but you need to find it in the bottom of your bag first.
- Have a variety of activities – For me as a child, the hardest part about traveling was being bored during the trip. You can get a lot of inexpensive toys at a bargain store that are exciting and new because your child has never seen them before. In the days leading up to the trip, practice playing with the toys that are easiest to pack for a trip. For example, your child’s favorite toy may be a large easel where they can draw big pictures, and you probably cannot pack that for a trip. So instead, practice coloring with a small coloring book or board since that is more practical to pack. I had many toys with magnets on them that would stay inside a metal box or cookie sheet. You can easily turn a puzzle into a car activity by putting magnets on the back of puzzle pieces and laying them out on a small baking tray!
- Charge your devices – As much as we may dislike relying on electronics, they do have their place in our modern world. There are many free apps that you can download on your tablet or phone that are both fun and educational. You can put your child’s favorite television shows or movies on them as well. There are even apps that are specific to children with Autism and ABA. Practice wearing headphones so that everyone does not have to hear the audio (especially if you are using public transportation). Make sure to have plenty of chargers for when the devices are running low on battery as well. Purchase portable chargers if you think that you will need them so you can charge your devices even if you are not near an outlet. This can be particularly helpful in airports or train stations.
- Make a social story – A lot of kids like to look at books, and this is an easy activity to bring in the car as well. Use pictures of your child and simple language to describe what is happening. These are pretty easy to make yourself using your own pictures (you can also find some online and put them into a Word document). Title the book something like, “Susie’s trip to Grandma’s house!” On the first page take a picture of your child sitting in the car and underneath write something similar to, “Susie is all ready for the trip. She is very excited!” If you have activities planned, include pictures of those as well. This will give your child something tangible to hold on to in the car and to anticipate what is going on with very relevant pictures and descriptions.
- Practice basic coping skills – Holidays often mean being around a lot of people that may be unfamiliar to your child. When you notice them becoming overstimulated, encourage them to engage in basic coping skills such as taking deep breaths or counting to ten. If you are able, establish a special sign between you and your child to signify that they need to have some time by themselves for a little while.
- Don’t forget to plan in some down time – Traveling is stressful for everyone. Anytime we are away from our routine, we can get restless and tired. Make sure that you plan breaks and times to just relax. These “re-charge” moments can usually make things a lot easier.
Good luck and happy holidays!
by Margaret Hatteberg, BCBA Specialist, AHSS