Traveling with your autistic child can be a burden but to us, it’s not. Before her diagnosis, we treated Zoe like she’s just going to have to deal with it.
In retrospect, that was probably not the best option.
But we managed, and are actually taking two vacations this year! Will it be troublesome? Maybe, but this year I have some sage advice from Marguerite Elisofon, who sent me a copy of her book, “My Picture Perfect Family: What Happens When One Twin Has Autism,” which you can also buy on Amazon We talked about some of the challenges she’s faced raising her autistic daughter, Samantha, who is now 25, and why she considers travel and family vacations so important.
Because her son and daughter were so different, that presented special challenges for their family. Marguerite shared, “Samantha was intensely aware that her brother, Matthew, she could not,” like having friends at an early age. Sometimes Sam resented her brother for being better at things. She was also fiercely independent and didn’t want help, which presented other problems. “It’s difficult. I had to try to find all the common ground for them that I could.”
That was challenging, even for vacations. Like so many children with autism, Sam hated too much stimuli and large crowds that were enjoyed by her brother. So Marguerite and her husband did their best in terms of family outings to make both children see that being a family was important, especially in building memories and positive experiences. She would point out the strengths of each child to the other and could use that to create great vacations. For example, Sam loved the water. In response, Marguerite and her husband, Howard, gave her lots of swim to lessons and taught her to respect the pool and the ocean.
Travel Tips For Traveling with Your Autistic Child
I interviewed Marguerite for more tips on how to create a happy family vacation when one of your children has autism.
1. Get lots of swim lessons
“Of course, it goes without saying that if your ASD child is a water baby like mine, it’s best if he or she learns to swim competently as early as possible,” Marguerite writes. “There must be a life-guard, and you should be confident your child will follow your instructions not to venture out further than you allow. If your ASD child wants to remain in the water for hours in a tropical climate, it’s super important that she understands the necessity of wearing a tee shirt over her bathing suit and smearing on heavy sunblock which must be re-applied at your discretion. With these ground rules gradually established, our family was able to enjoy the beach (mostly).”
2. Consider the climate before booking.
If possible, try to find an island or resort where the weather is guaranteed, especially if you are taking a water lover. One year when Sam was 7 or 8, we drove to a lake resort that we’d been to before. She had a meltdown for hours. The weather was not good enough for swimming. So we aborted the trip and drove home after one day.
3. Make a first time trip familiar.
Traveling with an autistic child means you might be in for some meltdowns. Be proactive by having a plan to tackle them and other negative behaviors by making the trip more familiar. Show them what the hotel or resort is like. You can use brochures or online images too. Tempt them into it and give them a little push to try it. Kids with autism want to cling to the familiar so the more you can show that the vacation will be full of their favorite activities – horseback riding, swimming, water parks – the easier the trip can be. Get them caught up in the good memories and then use them when you go back: “Remember how fun it was?”
4. Work with what your kid wants.
Sam wanted to be in the water 100% of the time so we gave her the rule that she had to wear sunblock. After she agreed, she wanted to put on her own sunblock. Of course, we knew she’d miss spots so we both shared the activity. It wasn’t perfect but it worked. We taught her the rules she needed to follow if she wanted to be independent.
5. Be flexible.
Kids can be very resilient too. They may have a meltdown and then be fine the morning. Offer comfort, rewards, whatever you think will make your trip possible. There is no “one thing” that always worked. We have different strategies for different situations. You must find what works and fine tune it. And if nothing is working, going back home early is an option. And don’t give your child too much advice -leave yourself an out so you can be flexible when required.
6. Get them involved.
Your child should be helping with the packing. Have them take a turn picking what restaurant they’ll go to. Let them feel like they are in control of something.
7. Make it fun for everyone.
Don’t just placate your autistic child. Do what’s best for the whole family. Don’t be afraid for your child to try new things – they will stop screaming! Load up on whatever they enjoy.
8. Prepare for security checks.
Shortly after 9/11, we took a flight. Sam would be occupied on the flight with knitting. I forgot that knitting needles were a no-no so they took them away. It’s really important today for parents to explain to their children what they can expect from airline security – long lines, bag check, etc. When Sam was 17, they pulled her out for a pat down for some unknown reasons. We had to quickly tell her, “You must listen to them like you listen to your teachers at school. Be polite or else we cannot go on vacation.” Tell them these are the rules to keep everyone safe and do them yourself.
9. Teach them manners.
Not only should they know how to be polite to authority, it’s important to teach your child table manners, how to politely respond and how to ask for what you want properly. This is the beginning of teaching self-advocacy, too.
Thanks, Marguerite! I love these tips and have used some of them for when I travel with Zoe, but there were a few I hadn’t thought of yet.
My Picture Perfect Family
Want to learn more about raising a child with autism to adulthood? Marguerite shares more of her stories of raising her children in her book, “My Picture Perfect Family.” This book shares her passion for helping her daughter succeed in spite of all the challenges…including many stories about traveling with an autistic child!
Today, Samantha is 25 years old and graduated college 2 years ago. She has friends and a boyfriend, and using her talent for singing to perform in cabarets and plays. She wants to break the stereotype that higher functioning autistic people have and hopes it opens doors for her and for others like her. She wants to be an actress and will be in a film coming out soon.
Marguerite’s dream for her daughter is to be the “Marlee Matlin of autism.” Says mom, “Let everyone go for their dream in their own way.”
This mama of an autistic girl couldn’t agree more!