Baseball, barbeques, and bathing suits. Summer has arrived bringing all of these and for many, family vacation time. While vacation is meant to be a time to change things up and recharge, some family members may find shaking off the everyday a challenge. Just as financial planning helps you work toward your life goals, preparation for a vacation with your family can make a difference in everyone’s enjoyment and relaxation level. While many elements impacting a vacation are out of your control, planning ahead can smooth over the bumps and help keep all the fireworks limited to the 4th of July.
It’s all about banishing the meltdowns.
Traveling to a totally new environment is very exciting but disrupted schedules and complex logistics can make any person anxious and irritable. For families of children with “invisible needs” the stress of travel can be a barrier to even thinking about a vacation. Thankfully, author Dawn M. Barclay has written Traveling Different, a book specifically oriented to families of neurodiverse/neurodivergent children, offering strategies and tools to help ward off sensory meltdowns during travel. While many of the resources cited specialize in travel planning as well as venues for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and bipolar/mood disorders, the preparatory tips and strategies offered can be helpful to every family.
We spoke with Dawn, and she has shared a few tips from Traveling Different with us.
Planning tip: Try mini-experiences.
The goal of a mini-experience is to take an unfamiliar experience and make it feel familiar and predictable in the child’s eyes. A mini-experience will also allow you to identify possible triggers and create alternative/back-up plans to address them.
Preparing for a hotel, vacation rental or other stay
Schedule a sleepover at a friend or relative’s home. Many people find sleeping in a new environment requires some adjustment. Having a one-night trial run close to home is a low-risk way to identify sensitivities and strategize about ways to make your child more comfortable. This may mean bringing along items to help ease the adjustment: bedding or towels from home, special lighting, or a fan/white noise machine.
Preparing for air travel
Many major airports host Wings for Autism programs. Massport hosts this event at Boston’s Logan airport twice /year and the program benefits not only the families who participate but provide airline, airport, TSA, and other personnel with valuable experience in dealing with people with special needs.
And a tip to prepare for light turbulence: Take your child for a ride on a bumpy road and ask them to close their eyes. This helps communicate the idea that the bumps will end, and your journey will come to a safe conclusion.
Similar to the sleepover concept above, pitching a tent in your backyard is a low-risk way to test children’s capacity for living in the great outdoors.
Take a local experience and frame it as a tour or adventure. This could include a visit to a museum, aquarium, zoo, or even a garage sale or flea market. Observe your child’s reactions to crowds and sensory exposures.
Planning tip: Vet destinations, tours, and programs beyond booking on the web.
Call to be sure the programs/services you will be counting on, e.g. a kids club, specific program on a specific topic, will be offered on your vacation dates.
You may choose to have a specialized travel agent or agency make your arrangements. They can act on your behalf to help with any issues and if needed, rebook venues or cruises. Certified Autism Travel Professionals (CATPs) and additional helpful information may be found at https://ibcces.org/certified-autism-travel-professional/ .
Planning tip: Pace both your travel and your vacation.
If possible, avoid tight connections/long layovers and bring a carry-on bag with noise-cancelling headphones, snacks, and activities to fill wait times.
It may be best to keep scheduling to one activity each day and leave plenty of time to decompress and blow off steam between activities. One idea: time at the hotel pool between daytime activities and dinner with the family.
Planning tip: Plan an individual sports vacation.
Take a sports vacation that focuses on individual participation such as skiing, horseback riding, or golf. Everyone can have a great time without the social pressure of being part of or keeping up with a group.
For more information
Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for the Anxious, the Inflexible, and the Neurodiverse contains additional tips and information and a meticulously researched resource guide to travel agents, organizations, and other professionals credentialed to work with families of people with special needs. You may buy a copy on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and through the publisher, Rowman and Littlefield.
In addition, Dawn Barclay's blog, TravelingDifferent.com, offers updates, videos, and additional helpful information for families, as well as links to her fiction publications as D.M. Barr.