Autism and Vacation
For many families the words "autism" and "vacation" never go together. But we've discovered how to combine the two in a way that's helped us all!
Problems with autism and vacation
In too many family situations, autism and vacation are an impossible idea.
There are many reasons for this:
Need for familiar - A person with autism does best when there are no surprises, a steady routine, and an environment that's familiar, all of which can be a challenge while on vacation.
Visits aren't relaxing - "Visiting", whether with family or friends, can create an exhausting situation for the parents or caregivers of the autistic person, because they can end up spending virtually ALL their time keeping things from getting broken and keeping track of their child, instead of enjoying a "visit".
Lack of understanding - Many "standard" vacation spots (like theme parks), don't understand about autism. They won't bend the rules or try to be accomodating about a parent riding with the child (so the child doesn't try to climb out of the helicopter ride while it's moving, for instance), or allow the family to "hold" a place in line because the autistic child cannot comprehend "waiting".
Nothing to do - Hotels and motels have very little space, and basically just a television for something to do, because a family dealing with autism hesitates to expose everyone at the swimming pool to their child (you can't believe the issues here). They are also, as a rule, located by busy roads, creating yet another hazard for a child who may not recognize danger.
Expensive - Oh yeah, hotels, motels, theme parks and air fare are ALL EXPENSIVE!
But what if you found a way to give your child a space away from busy roads, with their own "yard" or play space, and enough fun for the whole family to relax?
Solving the autism and vacation dilemma
We put autism and vacation together in our lives with a camper, which allows Lucas to be in a familiar space every, single night, no matter where we are. He's even learned to help set it up:
We pull a little pop-up camper behind our mini-van, camping our way to our vacation destination. We started taking these camping vacations when Lucas was only 5, and we've never taken TV's, computers or electronics except for the kids' CD players. We wanted to see if the absence of them would force Lucas to interact more with the family, and it worked!
It took some patience, but Lucas learned to enjoy these vacations, from back when he would bring his mini-Tonka toys and dig at our camp site, to now, when he's able to better enjoy sight seeing and hanging out around the camp fire.
He's always seems to benefit from these times without a TV or video machine, and we highly recommend trying it for any autistic child. We're convinced that being without a TV, etc. has really stimulated Lucas' ability and desire to communicate and participate with us on these trips!
At first we didn't go too far, and we would only go for a weekend at a time until Lucas became comfortable with the idea. We would stop a lot on the way to look around, get a drink, etc.
Over the years, those stops have become less frequent, while Lucas' involvement in the experience has become more frequent! The last 3 trips, he helped set up and take down the camper, helped tell ghost stories around the camp fire, and thoroughly enjoyed playing Uno and Go Fish with us.
We've discovered so many GOOD things about this type of vacation when it comes to autism:
Just like regular people - My husband and I get to sit next to each other and have entire conversations while we're driving down the road, without having to worry about Lucas! We know he's in the back of the van, listening to his CD's, looking out the window for trains, or playing with the little car he got at the last gas station.
Total flexibility - Since we control the pace of the trip, we can stop when and where we want, which is a great help when combining autism and vacation.
Plenty of things to do - All over the country there are wonderful campgrounds run by friendly people. We've stayed at places that have water slides, mini golf, nightly family entertainment, pizza delivery, Saturday farm markets, bingo nights, hayrides and so much more right there at the campground! Of course, they all have the usual, playgrounds and your very own campsite, complete with "yard".
TRUE family time - We get to enjoy some REAL family time on these trips, which is a huge accomplishment in a family with autism.
Familiar surroundings every night - Perhaps most important of all when combining autism and vacation, no matter where we go, Lucas will sleep in the same bed, in the same "room" at night. It doesn't matter whether we're camping in Virginia, Texas, or anywhere else, he feels safe and secure, knowing he's somewhere familiar.
Go anywhere - We've toured the battlefields of Gettysburg, seen the Grand Canyon, the lights of Las Vegas, and even tracked down the radar array from the movie "Contact":
Our favorite place to visit is the Black Hills of South Dakota, where we've met some wonderful people who have a camp for people with disabilities called Meeting The Need. We visited them again on our summer vacation last year.
More importantly, we've actually gotten to RELAX and enjoy ourselves. How many people can say that when talking about autism and vacation?!
Tips for combining autism and vacation.
Try it out first - Campers can be rented (or borrowed if you're lucky enough to have a friend with one), and can be bought used in the want ads. If you decide to try a tent, find one that sets up quickly (they have them now), because you don't want to add "set-up stress" to your first camping experience.
Practice using equipment- Whatever you decide to camp in, practice setting it up and taking it down before you leave for that first vacation! Read whatever information comes with your unit, and while your child is at school or watching tv, get the hang of setting up and tearing down, using the stove, rolling sleeping bags, and whatever else you're new at BEFORE you combine autism and vacation for the first time.
Leave the TV at home - I cannot stress enough that without TV, video, DVD, etc., we truly did see Lucas make much more effort to be part of our family, instead of wanting to be off by himself. This is one of the greatest things about autism and vacation if done right.
PLEASE give it a try; don't take a television or other "movie watching" aids, even in the car. Take a deck of cards, bubbles and other things to help your child interact with the family (of course, you'll also have the playground and other things at the campground.)
Start locally - Plan to start by camping somewhere fairly close to home, so if you need to get back quickly you can. We "camped" our backyard until we were sure autism and vacation concepts could work together. The first two or three "real" camping trips were within two hours of our home, just in case.
Make sure your child has some SMALL, favorite toys with them to play with at the campsite. Lucas took his tiny Tonka toys to dig with when he was very little. As he got older, he took my small garden spade so he could dig for "dinosaur bones" and cool rocks. He also enjoys using our binoculars when we go walking or sight seeing.
Limit purchases - We set a limit on how much we would let each boy buy at the various gas stations, etc. we would stop at. For Lucas in the beginning, we would give him a picture of, "just one car, gun, train, etc. today", but remind him that IF he was good today, he could get another one tomorrow.
Be prepared - Of course, take bug spray and a flash light (for those trips to the bathroom after dark), along with the usual safety kit that we all carry in our cars.
We found that duffel bags work so much better than suitcases, because we could line them up across the back of our van, and the zipper was right on top (so much easier than having to lay down the suitcase to get to the zipper!)
DON'T let your child learn things that they'll need to "un-learn" at home, and DO help your child to learn things they can USE at home. Lucas' brother taught him to play "Go Fish" one night, and we still play it.
Keep some form of ID on ALL your children, and keep one for each child on you! A Child ID Kit that can be worn on the child, and carried in YOUR wallet ensure fast action if your child becomes lost.
Stay flexible - Most of all, remember to be flexible!! Once you get used to that idea, you'll find that autism and vacation can exist together, and the time away from those electronic devices can help your autistic child relate better you and others in their lives.
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