Everyone needs a holiday, and families of children with autism in particular can benefit from some time to relax. That said, actually going on a holiday is generally more complicated when one or more of you have autism.
If you do feel up to the challenge – though nobody should blame you if you don’t – planning and preparation are the key elements here.
Why can it be difficult?
Holidays involve a lot of things that tap into the core challenges of autism. For instance:
- People with autism tend to struggle with routine change. The whole point of a holiday is to change the routine.
- Autism can make it hard to communicate. Taking on board what a holiday means and what the point of it is can be really tough if language is difficult for you.
- People with autism often have difficulty with ‘flexibility of imagination’ – that is, they have a hard time picturing how things might be different. A holiday is, by definition, different. If you have problems with picturing it, it’s hard to be prepared for it and it can come as a shock.
- People with autism often have problems with time, especially children. Waiting is often difficult for them: it’s hard to be patient, and the longer you wait, the more time there is to get anxious.
- People with autism tend to have difficulties with social interaction. If you go to a ‘family friendly’ place, that means new children to play with – which may be daunting for your son or daughter. Even if they want to join in, they may not know how.
- Autism often involves sensory issues. Airports, train stations and holiday resorts can have a lot of background noise, and the crowds can be overwhelming.
- Some people with autism also have other conditions, and those can complicate things further. You can stop a car for regular breaks, but you can’t stop a train or a plane, and the stress levels can just build up.
Autism affects our experience of nearly everything in life, and holidays – in which everything around you changes – can be difficult.
On the other hand, if you can survive a holiday and manage to have a good time, it is a good way to open up your son or daughter’s horizons. An imagination that struggles with flexibility can be fed by new experiences; a person afraid of new things can benefit from some practice encountering new things and finding they aren’t actually that bad.
What can you do about it?
To begin with, there are a few things that you can do in preparation for the holiday.
Pick the right place
If you’re used to dealing with autism this may sound like stating the obvious, but it’s better to choose somewhere you know you can manage. Some points to consider:
- See if an internet search on the words ‘autism friendly’ turns up any locations you’d like to visit. Some companies make a point of being understanding, and that can take a big weight off your shoulders.
- Be picky about accommodation – including being aware of noise. A child with hyper-sensitive hearing may find it hard to relax in a hotel near a main road, or in a hotel room near the elevator or public bathroom. Call in advance and explain you need somewhere quiet – and if the staff don’t react supportively, consider it an early warning and book somewhere else.
- Email the hotel staff in advance to explain your circumstances and your child’s needs. Ask what facilities they have and how they accommodate special needs. Inexperience isn’t necessarily a problem – a B&B that hasn’t encountered this situation before but has a thoughtful manager should be fine.
- Anywhere you visit, get a map and check out potential trouble spots and chill-out zones. If you know where the quiet areas are, you can head straight for them if something goes wrong.
Visual schedules are often your friend when dealing with autism. You can cross off ‘days until the holiday’ on the calendar, show pictures of what each place will look like, and perhaps pictures of treats or rewards your son or daughter might get if they cope well with difficult situations.
When it comes to the holiday itself, you can also create a ‘holiday information’ pack that includes visual timetables. If your son or daughter is old enough you might work these out together; otherwise, plan things out that you’re fairly confident will be manageable. You might also bring along a ‘now and next’ board, and make a list of rules for behaviour.
Be careful about starting the countdown too early. Kids with autism are prone to anxiety, and too much anticipation can lead to them obsessing and getting too stressed about it – which may end up disrupting the non-holiday time.
Social stories are simple, first-person accounts that explain to your son or daughter what’s going to happen and how they might deal with it. Ideas to raise in this instance would include:
- What ‘going on holiday’ means.
- When and where you’ll go.
- How you’ll travel (including any sensory issues, for instance, explaining why an airplane engine is loud).
- Where you’ll stay.
- Who else will be there, and how to interact if they want to play with other children.
- What will happen at the end of the holiday.
- What will be considered ‘good behaviour’.
- What to do if they feel stressed.
Things can be practised in advance, such as travelling to the airport or packing and unpacking suitcases. Go through the routines a few times; it might make them more familiar and reduce the anxiety levels when you have to do them for real.
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst
Obviously it’d be best if challenging behaviours and meltdowns didn’t happen on holiday, but, however well you plan, you can’t guarantee they won’t. That can be an extra strain: at home you have rules established and disciplinary routines set up, but in a strange place, you can feel a bit lost. Social stories and lists of rules can help, but it’s a good idea to have an emergency pack as well. Consider changes of clothes, snacks, music or noise-cancelling headphones, games and tablets.
You want things you can use to encourage good behaviour, to distract your son or daughter during long waits and to help them keep calm.
At the airport
Few people enjoy airport queues and cramped plane seats even if they don’t have autism; for your son or daughter, it might seem impossible. However, there are some useful ways to keep the stress levels to a minimum:
Some airports in the UK may have autism specific pages on their website that can provide you and your child with visual information or videos of the process for getting onto the aircraft. In preparation for the airport, you can ask the disability service at the airport if they will allow your son or daughter to practice the process of going through security and experiencing the departure lounge. Some airports have an Autism Access programme. If this isn’t possible, you might ask the airport marketing or communications department if they have photos of key locations. These will enable you to build a picture story of the airport process can help your child feel less anxious about a new environment, for example:
- Walking in through the Departures entrance.
- Check in desks: Self-service kiosk or airline desk.
- Presenting passports and checking in luggage.
- Going through to security.
- Walking through to the departures lounge.
- Going through to the departure gate.
- Getting onto the aircraft.
Talk to the airport about your son or daughter’s particular difficulties. Some examples would be:
- Access to a quiet waiting room.
- Getting fast tracked through security.
- Priority boarding to reduce waiting times.
- Specific seats on the plane (for instance, if you sit in the bulkhead seats there’s more room and nobody’s seat in front to kick).
- The plane either providing a special meal your son or daughter will eat (on a plane is not the moment to insist on variety) or letting you bring on your own food.
Plan for sensory issues
If your son or daughter finds it hard to sit still, make sure that they’ll be allowed to walk around the aircraft after take-off.
Look into aids such as weighted jackets, which make it a lot easier for some kids with autism – though again, if you’re going to try that, try it well in advance so it won’t be scary and new come travel day. If you do bring a weighted item, check with the airport whether it’ll be counted towards the weight of your luggage.
Bring extra clothes in your hand luggage; airplanes can change temperature throughout the flight and if your son or daughter is sensitive to that, make sure you’ve got enough clothing to deal with it.
If your son or daughter struggles with hearing issues, look into ‘flight earplugs’, which help reduce the effect of pressure changes. They’ll need to keep them in all through the flight, so practice in advance and try social stories to reinforce the idea, and do make sure that the earplugs themselves don’t set off a sensory sensitivity. If all else fails, see if your doctor or an occupational therapist might be able to recommend something.
Are there any resources available that might help?
Manchester Airport has an autism awareness page that contains a booklet and videos on navigating through their airport.
The following two fact sheets contain additional information about flying with a child with autism:
An airport in America has offered families with autistic children the chance to experience a ‘mock flight’ which includes checking in and going through security.
A realistic and informative article on the Telegraph website about Travelling with an autistic child.
Going on holiday is supposed to be a chance to rest and enjoy yourself, but there’s no doubt about it: going on holiday with a child dealing with autism can be a challenge. If you’d rather have a staycation, there’s no need to feel like bad about it – you’re the best judge of what you and your family can manage and you’ve every right to do what feels most like an actual break.
If you do feel up to braving the challenges of travel, though, then you might just expand your child’s horizons while getting a breath of air from the wider world for yourself – which can mean a lot to both of you. It may be testing at times, but if you can look back and reflect that you’re fairly satisfied with how you handled most of the difficult moments, and that the good moments were truly good, then you’ll have done really well.