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CAR Autism Roadmap
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CAR Autism Roadmap
Roberts Center for Pediatric Research
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Planning a Family Vacation or Outing


We all need time to refresh ourselves, to have fun, relax, and laugh. Recreation is a part of every family’s life, whether it means a quick stop off at the neighborhood play ground or an elaborate trip to Disneyland. Planned, scheduled rest and relation is a must! For each of us and for each of our families, how we refresh ourselves will look quite different. There are fun things we do as a family, there are things we do as a couple, and things we do for ourselves.

Yet for families with a child on the autism spectrum, sometimes the thought of a family vacation – or even a community excursion – can be overwhelming. Children on the autism spectrum thrive on predictability and routine – two things that are sometimes hard to come by when you are out of your home environment. Yet traveling, whether near or far, can be a valuable learning experience for all family members, and particularly your loved one on the spectrum. The trick to a successful venture is all in the planning.

What will we do?

Plan a trip where there is something for everyone! Sally enjoys physical activity, Sam is a couch potato, Dad likes to see new things, and Mom likes to shop. Plan so everyone will be able to have some time with their favorite activity. Perhaps everyone doesn’t have to take part in every activity. Will your 12 year old son be happy accompanying his 4 year old brother on the kiddy rides on the boardwalk in Wildwood? Maybe Mom can take the 12 year old to age appropriate rides and Dad can take the younger child on his favorites. Have realistic expectations and plan accordingly. Consider bringing extra hands with you; invite grandparents who get along well with the children or even favorite sitters (if you have been fortunate enough to find them).

Ideas for fun things to do as a family:

  • Visits to the neighborhood playground
  • Autism Society of America Saturday morning movies
  • Autism Access days at local museums or amusement parks (most amusement parks have accommodations for families with children with special needs)
  • Visit a pet store
  • Visit local attractions (historical sites, museums, aquariums, factories which are open to the public)

Where will we go & how will we get there?

Think how the family travels. Is everyone a good traveler? Who does well in a long car ride? How are road trips for your family? If you are going to be exhausted before you arrive, consider another mode of transportation, or plan a “Staycation.”

How about a train or airplane ride? Often the travel is part of the fun – especially if your child particularly enjoys trains. Certainly include a type of transportation that will work. If travel is not fun for anyone in your family, maybe your family can stay at a nearby hotel, enjoy the indoor swimming pool, and visit the sites in the area. Packing, staying overnight, and going out for meals will be a change of routine that will still feel like a vacation.

Work with your child’s strengths

When you know your child’s weaknesses, you also know your child’s strengths. Play to your child’s strengths when you plan your itinerary. If your child responds well to physical activity, plan to spend a lot of time in park areas that give kids a place to run around and climb. If he or she prefers quiet areas and learning, visit educational areas, museums and quiet attractions that focus on teaching. Schedule activities that might be more difficult for the times of the day when you know your child is the most rested and focused and most likely to cope well.

Bring a bag of tricks

Sure fire winners include special electronic games that the child may not always be allowed access to, favorite snacks, drinks, sensory toys, a CD/DVD player, and headphones to control noises that may bother your child and to save everyone else from listening to the game, music, or video! Be sure to include favorite CDs and DVDs!!

PLAN and involve the children in the planning process

First try a short trip. Take your children to the playground. Do the prep work, talk about what you will do, what you will see, when you will go, and most importantly when you will leave. (Be sure to plan an exit strategy, include lots of warnings before leaving, and have something inviting to look forward to when you arrive home, perhaps a favorite movie before dinner.) This will help you get used to figuring out all the details that you will need to explain for a longer trip.

When planning a major vacation involve your child in the planning process. Use your child’s strengths to participate in the planning. Perhaps he likes maps. Show him where you will be going and where it is in relation to your home. Talk with your child about where you are going, and plan the route and where you may stop along the way together. Talk about how long it will take to get to your destination, what your child can do during the ride, and of course what you will see and do once you arrive. Include a discussion of parts of the trip that may not be so comfortable, such as dealing with traffic, heat (in the summer), and crowds. Include information about how long you will be away (mark it on a calendar), when you will leave, and how you will spend your time on the ride home. Photos generally help children on the spectrum anticipate what they will see and do.

Plan what will work best for you and your family. If your family is not great in the morning, plan on leaving the house when it will work best for you. So what if the tickets are only good for one 8-hour period of time? Arrive late in the afternoon and stay only as long as it will be a good time for you. Remember to leave when everyone is still happy. It is never a good idea to push limits to have fun. Crying and tantrums are never enjoyable, not for those in the tantrum and certainly not for those trying to control the behavior! A half hour of fun is much better than 2 ½ hours of misery when the first ½ hour was the best part of the day!

Any trip from home can be considered a “vacation,” whether it is an afternoon at the park or a week-long trip to Disneyland. These and everything in between can be a vacation!

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The Center for Autism Research and The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia do not endorse or recommend any specific person or organization or form of treatment. The information included within the CAR Autism Roadmap™ and CAR Resource Directory™ should not be considered medical advice and should serve only as a guide to resources publicly and privately available. Choosing a treatment, course of action, and/or a resource is a personal decision, which should take into account each individual's and family's particular circumstances.