The thought of traveling with my Asperger's child can break me out into a cold sweat. I love her, don't misunderstand. Sometimes I feel like the only person in the world who has an anxiety attack the moment my husband suggests it’s time for a vacation. He’s thinking about how much fun it will be to take the family somewhere, while I’m plagued with the possibility of meltdowns, bursts of anger, and frantically searching for the said lost child. Vacation? No thank you!
I have collected snippets of advice from my beloved neuropsychiatrist about how to handle these situations over the years. There are no guarantees, but here’s how to help transform the nightmare of traveling into a more pleasant vacation for everyone.
1. Plant Seeds of Anticipation
I begin to prepare my child a few weeks before the upcoming trip by carefully scattering seeds of anticipation. How does this happen? To start, my sentences begin with, “I wonder….” and then I fill in the blank with a small piece of information of things we might be seeing or doing on our adventure. For example:
“I wonder if Disneyland still has a parade at night time?”
“I wonder if we will see any squirrels when we go camping?”
“I wonder if the water park has a large slide?”
“I wonder what kinds of things we’ll do in the car?”
“I wonder how many times we’ll stop on the way to Grandma’s?”
You get the picture. ASD children live in the concrete world, and as parents, we can be their guide into the known future. It’s like leading a blind man, except that our is small, angry, and may bite!
When our family arrives at our “relaxation” destination, I spend the first few minutes or hours acclimating my ASD child to her new environment. Remember, travel is very disorienting! They have to deal with new stuff, when all they really like is the old (darn restrictive patterns of behavior) predictable ways. This causes A LOT of anxiety, which can an may trigger a melt down. Here’s what to do:
Walk, walk, walk! Walk around the room, around the inside of the hotel or property where you are staying as well as the outside areas. If it’s the wilderness, help them orient themselves to home base. I casually point out all of the things that will make her more comfortable in her new environment. I’m trying to make the unknown known.
“Here’s the bathroom, just like ours at home. See this one has a tub too.”
“Look, there’s a map of the hotel on this door. Let’s see if we can walk around all of it!”
“See how our cabin has a bed for you, just like at home?”
3. Harvest Those Seeds
Once again, all throughout the first day is a great time to begin harvesting those seeds! I’m helping her get oriented, as well as preparing her for what will be happening over the next few days. All those seeds I planted earlier? I take them out, one by one, and give her some concrete answers.
“Hey, still has a parade at night!”
“Yeah, we’ll get to see lots of animals while camping!”
“Wow, the waterpark has two waterslides!”
4. Keep bedtimes as structured as possible
I have to remember, my child has had to negotiate a huge amount of information and sensory input all day. It’s exhausting for them, AND WE ARE STILL ON THE FIRST DAY! I may get a meltdown, and it’s ok. I want to get it over with the first night, so we can enjoy the rest of our vacation.