Unlike the ubiquitous “Winter is Coming”, for many, summer vacation is a time of relaxation, fun and an opportunity to enjoy all that the season offers. For parents of children on the autism spectrum, summer can come with many challenges. Children often find transitions of any kind to be extremely difficult, leaving a parent confused, frustrated, and unsure of how to plan.
Sadly, for many years, my children did not enjoy a summer vacation. In my case, whether it was from a lack of funds or a lack of interest from my abusive husband, there were no days at the beach for me and my children. I was relegated to finding something close to home, and in some cases a brief respite for my son and myself at a summer camp. I was fortunate enough to find a camp for him that catered specifically to children on the autism spectrum. Completely unaffordable otherwise, I was able to secure a grant that paid for the week of his stay. Many parents and families do not have access to this type of respite or the funding to go along with it, but I would suggest at least checking resources in your state, or calling local agencies that work with individuals with disabilities to seek out opportunities. Do not wait! Grants and camp spots go very quickly.
During the summer of 2016, I had the amazing opportunity to take my children on a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico. In the early stages of my planning, frankly I was terrified about sharing a cabin with both children, as well as attempting (surviving) and making the vacation fun and as stress-free as possible. While there were some challenges, the vacation went off without a hitch and we had a wonderful time. Considering all of the planning and travel related events that had to happen, I was pretty surprised at how well it went. My son does not have the same level of social openness that my daughter has, so it was a huge concern with the large crowds and unpredictable climate on a cruise ship.
One tip that I would share is that you must accept the possibility that one or both of your children will be with you the entire time. As a widow, currently single, I didn’t have the opportunity to share the vacation with a partner allowing me some respite. Most vacations, autistic children in tow or not, involve our parenting to be switched on 100% of the time. All hope is not lost! With some good planning skills, and a whole lot of patience, you can get through vacation. How often have we heard the phrase, “I need a vacation after my vacation!”
Creating a thorough list well in advance of the vacation is the hallmark of my planning stage. Besides the normal items that we pack, thinking ahead by writing down interesting activities to keep children occupied during the boring times will go a long way towards helping you. For me, it was ensuring that the children had entertainment for the flight, the waiting times that will try everyone’s patience, and the regular downtime involved in every vacation. Also, don’t forget the snacks! Sometimes all you will find around you are ridiculously expensive items that are easily packed in your carry-on in advance.
Another issue to strongly consider is the length of your vacation. I recently went on a solo vacation for eight days and seven nights and found the trip to be too long. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the amazing opportunity I had; it’s just that I missed the kids and would probably decrease the length to 4 or 5 days at the most if THAT ever happens again! Thinking about the number of days you will be with your children, the activities that will be going on, and the price are all things you need to consider before looking your vacation. Some children might become overstimulated after three days while others are fine on a seven-day jaunt.
Depending on the severity of your child’s challenges, you will need to tailor all of your considerations and decisions based on their individual levels of ability, your finances, work schedules, and other common issues. Don’t forget to include your children in the planning! Share your vacation ideas with them, and allow them to give their input. While I loved my day long excursion to a rainforest in Puerto Rico, the kids might be completely disinterested and want to take a trip to the beach instead. Making them a part of the planning process will help them and you get excited for the upcoming trip.
Years ago, I booked us on a day trip while at our local beach. It was learning all about the wildlife and waterways and they were bored beyond words. Also, a surprise visit from a horseshoe crab invoked terror in my youngest and she did not enjoy the rest of the trip because she was terrified. Prepare for the unexpected and cope as best as you can is how I handled it.
While traveling with children with autism, it won’t always be easy. As any family will tell you, there will always be bumps along the road. Whether it’s a breakout of sibling rivalry, a meltdown due to being overtired, bored or overstimulated, not every moment of the vacation will be a treasured memory. But with enough planning, you can have a wonderful, successful family vacation without losing your sanity in the process.