Family travel with autism can be difficult. With a diagnosis of autism – or many other similar ones – you may find the radius of your family’s life starts to shrink dramatically, often overnight. Between an individual’s desire for routine, a full schedule of therapy, and an unprecedented level of exhaustion, it can be daunting to even think about travel, let alone plan a trip anywhere.
Over the since diagnosis years, we have taken trips ranging from 24-hour road trips to week-long vacations. Here are some things to keep in mind for thoughtful family travel with autism: choose destinations that make sense, travel at times that are less crowded, in weather that is not extreme, and for not too long a time. Be thoughtful about where you stay and make allowances for everyone’s needs. In other words, take your complexly balanced system that works at home, and take it on the road.
Most recently, we applied these guidelines to a trip to Denver, Colorado, during Thanksgiving week. Overall, the trip was a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family and catch up with friends there.
Family Travel with Autism: Here’s what worked for us (and here is what didn’t)
A non-stop flight from the Bay Area to Denver is easy to come by, so we took advantage of just needing to board, take off, and land once to accomplish the trip.
Our experience was a bit uneven, but overall the TSA Cares support system worked. In San Jose, the treatment was white glove- a direct phone number, an experienced individual who escorted us through security and settled us at our gate. In Denver, a much larger airport, it was harder to connect with the correct person, but once we did, we made it through security in a special lane, with special consideration for our odd carry-on items (like the weighted lizard).
Southwest Airlines does not offer reserved seating, but it does offer pre-boarding. On our outbound flight, this was seamless, though we chose the second row, not the first. On the return flight, we decided the first row or bulkhead provided even more room and flexibility for Mr. Diggy.
We usually rent houses, in order to have access to a full kitchen and sufficient separate rooms for our complicated family. (No two kids in a pull-out sofa bed like when I was growing up!). Being as most of our meals would be eaten with family this week, we had a little more flexibility and chose a family-oriented suite hotel.
We placed Mr. Diggy in one of the bedrooms, which we cleared of any small items (free pens, tubes of lotion, a desk chair on wheels). Brother B exuded the flexibility that is a hallmark of his special-needs-sibling life and slept on the slightly-small pull out couch. Additionally, we had called ahead to request a corner suite, in order to have fewer neighbors. By doing this, we also put our autism on their radar – and generally avoided a longer-than-necessary check-in process or any comments about how “active” and “energetic” Mr. Diggy is.
The hotel offered an indoor pool. Since outdoor swimming in California typically ends in September, a chance to swim in November for our self-taught swimmer and water-lover was not something we wanted to pass up. We scoped the pool for a quiet time when his antics wouldn’t disturb others and ended up spending several mornings in the pool before heading out to meet up with the rest of the family.
We were fortunate to eat most meals with family – either home-cooked or take out, but we always like to participate in the food-and-beverage culture of a place if we can. So a brewery with a food truck and a huge indoor-outdoor seating area seemed to be a perfect fit. And some French fries didn’t hurt either.
Red Rocks Amphitheatre is an iconic Denver-area performance space, but also offers family-friendly trails and a chance to explore the stage. Our day spent there happened to be beautifully sunny, and there was plenty of open space to run around. In general, the trails were well-maintained, only mildly-strenuous and did not have steep edges. In other words, it was autism-friendly. We also spent time in several other local parks to stay active.
Are you ready to try family travel with autism? Let me know in the comments where you plan to go next!
Autism Vacation Planning: Do You Need a Break? via the Piece of Mind Retreat