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How To Plan a Family Vacation with Your Autistic Loved One


Updated May 01, 2009

Yes, you can have a relaxing vacation with your autistic family member, even if that family member is you! It does take some planning and preparation, but the result can be a pleasant, relatively stress-free experience.
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: About three months

Here's How:

  1. Choose Your Destination Wisely. You have an autistic spouse with sensory issues - and yet you choose a NASCAR convention as your destination. Your child with autism can't stand the feeling of sand between her toes - and you choose to go to the beach. Maybe there are quieter options that are still lots of fun, or destinations (like a lake) that take into account your desire for water and your child's dislike of sandy feet.
  2. Check into the Possibilities. You may have decided against Disneyland based on noise level or food issues. But think again. Disneyland, like many destinations, offers a variety of options for different kinds of visitors. Before you decide that a place will not suit your family, ask about special services and amenities. We've had good luck in surprising locations, because we've researched the options and found services that suited our special needs.
  3. Select Your Accomodations Carefully. Hotel? Motel? Camp site? Or rental? Of course, a lot depends upon budget and preference. But consider this: you may wind up spending a lot of time in your accomodation of choice, giving your autistic loved one time away from family, preparing special foods, or escaping from [link http://autism.about.com/od/treatmentoptions/a/allaboutsi.htm]sensory overloads. If it's uncomfortable, loud or lacking in amenities, it might be a problem. Many prefer a vacation rental for all those reasons.
  4. Prepare for The Experience Tools like visual planners and social stories can make all the difference to your child's experience. If you're going back to a place you've been before, make a memory book from last year's photos. If not, use the Web to find images from Google or tourism websites. You can also create a personalized "social story," describing the whats, wheres, whos and whens of your planned vacation.
  5. Plan the Trip Whether you're traveling by plane, car or bus, there are ways to ease the experience. Use some of the preparation techniques described above to prepare for travel itself. Think ahead about possible problems. Bring earplugs and snacks for plane trips, music and picnic food for car trips, and portable music and video for all long-distance travel.
  6. Structure Your Days. It's true that vacations are supposed to be opportunities to kick back and take things as they come. For a person with autism, however, unplanned time can be extremely stressful. That doesn't mean a planned activity for every hour of the day, but it does mean a daily structure. For us, a lazy morning followed by a morning outing, an afternoon siesta, and a late day activity, every single day, works well for everyone.
  7. Choose "Off" Times for Fun. Most autistic people do better with quiet, low-key experiences. If it's summer and you're at the beach, hit the waves early or late in the day or year. If you're considering a theme park, wait until fall or early spring. Early Sunday morning is a great time to explore popular museums.
  8. Be Flexible Even the best laid plans can go awry, especially with an autistic person as part of the group. You were going to have a great family reunion, and then your autistic child melted down or your autistic spouse refused to talk with nasty Aunt Milly. That's ok; just tell the family "Joe isn't feeling well, and we'll need to take off early." Head back to HQ, put on a video, and kick back. After all, it's your vacation, right?
  9. Don't Let the Jerks Get You Down Chances are, sometime during your vacation you'll run into someone who will make a judgmental comment about you, your family, and your autistic loved one. That someone should not be allowed to spoil your vacation. Consider using a response from one of these Snappy Answers to Annoying Comments Made to Parents of Autistic Children.


  1. Preparation is key. That means sweating the details at least a few months ahead of time.
  2. Communication is important. That means communication with your immediate family, significant people at your destination, and anyone in between.
  3. Always travel with comfort food and toys. Toys is a broad ranging term, meaning anything from stuffed animals for your child to an iPod for your spouse.
  4. Keep it simple. Don't plan too much for any one day or vacation. And remember that this is vacation; try not to make plans that can't be changed if your autistic loved one has a tough day.
  5. Keep your sense of humor!
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