Inclusive Vacations for Autistic Children & Teens

Planning a vacation can be challenging for any family, with so many variances in personal schedules, ages and interests among family members. However, when you have a child on the autism spectrum, the challenges multiply.

Parents have to address which destinations will be the most autism-friendly from the child’s perspective as well as those from new people the family may encounter. They also must reconcile the needs of the autistic child with those of their “typical” siblings and themselves with the right mix of activities. Thankfully, with greater public awareness and empathy toward autistic children and their families, there are more resources and destinations available to help parents accomplish this perfect balancing act.

Several resorts are committed to training their staff and getting their properties designated as an official “Autism Friendly” resort. TradeWinds Resort in St. Petersberg Beach, Fla., for example, received designation in November 2010 by the Center for Autism and Related Disabilities after having employees undergo its thorough training program to better meet the needs of guests who have autism and their families. TradeWinds also provides a Safety Kit, which includes outlet covers, corner cushions for tables and a hanging door alarm.

Kids playing at the Beaches Resorts Kids camp

© Beaches Resorts

Beaches is the first resort group in the Caribbean to offer autism-friendly kids’ camps. Members of its staff received initial and recurring training in a partnership arrangement with The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. Royal Caribbean, meanwhile, became the first cruise line to be certified as autism friendly in 2014.

Families interested in an alternative to beach vacations will find dedicated programs within several Rocky Mountain destinations such as Crested Butte, and Aspen, Colo. (Challenge Autism) and Park City, Utah, (National Ability Center) have programs for autistic children and their families looking to enjoy thrills on the slopes or the hiking trails.

There are a handful of travel agents, such as ASD Vacations that specialize in vacation planning for autism families. However, if you have a local travel agent you know and trust, be upfront with that agent about your child’s unique needs and behaviors when he or she is taken out of a familiar environment along with any strategies you’ve used to keep your child calm.

“Be sure to inquire about outdoor activities at a destination, such as camping opportunities, since that typically presents fewer distractions,” says Cheryl Smith, Money Crashers. “If traveling to a busier metropolis such as New York City, ask the agent for tips on quieter areas or activities that might not be as potentially upsetting as others.”

Smith also recommends investing in a personal locator device or a portable GPS system that help parents keep track of a child. She also recommends budgeting extra money for taxi or ride share services instead of public transportation as stops and stations tend to be hotbeds for loud noises or crowds.

Regardless of how many trips the family has taken, it is always a good idea to get siblings involved in making the child feel safe and included before the trip.

“You should clearly explain to other kids in the family that there might be a few extra steps involved in certain activities, and they may be called upon for supervisory roles in a minor fashion,” she says. “They should also understand that at times, no matter the location, absolute quiet might be necessary, even in the family’s hotel room.”

The ARC coordinates airport “flight rehearsals” through its Wings for Autism and Wings for All programs. These events, also on video and presented on ARC’s website, prepare autistic children for the experience of flying, from the TSA lines to the flight to landing and collecting baggage. Smith adds creative parents can plan their own “test flights” using the videos on ARC’s site as a reference. This can also help other siblings prepare themselves for what to do before and during a flight.

Another handy tool offered by United Airlines, meanwhile, is a free Personal Device Entertainment app allowing parents to plan a flight of fun with kid-friendly movies ahead of time.

A road trip, on the other hand, might be a valid alternative for traveling with other autistic children, considering the stresses of airport security, delays and large crowds.

“All things considered, driving with an autistic child does present its own set of challenges,” says Smith. “Consider putting together activity bags for each child in your family, but especially the one with autism. A portable DVD player could be a good idea as well, as is a tablet with favorite shows and movies from Netflix or another service loaded in advance.”