AS ALL PARENTS of children on the autism spectrum know, consistency and structure are mainstays toward success. Travel, on the other hand, is full of inconsistency and free-flowing schedules, causing many moms and dads to remain at home. Compounding the issue is the characteristics of such “hidden disabilities” like autism; children do not appear, at least from outward appearances, to be disabled, and many, many trips have been tainted by thoughtless comments or unwillingness to accommodate.
Times are changing, however. Parents who used to sit on their hands in frustration are now creating their own criteria for travel with autistic children, and they’re winning the hearts of travel industry professionals and businesses the world over. While Alaska isn’t quite ready to pull out all the stops from a travel industry perspective, I will say the state as a whole is accepting, loving and generally willing to help whenever possible. That said, parents who choose to visit or explore the Last Frontier with their youngster should heed a few guidelines, since Alaska, for its awesome vistas and charming cultural experiences, is remote, rugged and sometimes not fully-equipped to handle every situation. Our suggestions?
1. Plan ahead, way, way ahead. If your child is on a higher-functioning level, engage their interest through maps, DVD’s, visitor bureau information and interactive websites (our oldest adores computer time, and we’ve finally found a way to use it in a positive manner). Let he or she be the one to request information and receive it in the mail (in the parents’ names, of course) and allow your child’s interests to drive the planning process.
2. Pack wisely. Allow your child to bring familiar items, from comfortable clothing (children on the autism spectrum often resist new clothes, or the itchy, scratchy fabrics of outdoor duds) to the same soap, toothpaste and toothbrush they use at home. We also threw in the pillow from our son’s bed, and added a sleeping bag to the packing list; the cozy softness helped our son feel secure and warm, all the time. In our rented RV, he stayed in it all day.
Exploring the treasures of the gift shop
3. Practice traveling. Before jetting across the country, start by exploring your own community, using the above strategies. Reserve a hotel room in your city, and show your child how people act when away from home. Explain there can be lots of noises, strange textures, and different foods (but do bring some familiar favorites from home). Talk about how someone may assist with bags and parking, and that some people from other cultures may not appreciate an open-mouthed stare from a curious kid. Take along a map and walk around the city, discovering what types of attractions appeal to your child, and which ones are a pass. Typically, history museums, hands-on exhibits (the El Dorado Gold Mine in Fairbanks was hit with our son), and the like are big winners. Each child on the spectrum has a different level of tolerance, so knowing what scenarios trigger meltdowns or anxiety is crucial to future travel expectations. Also consider regular routines of sleeping and eating, two very important aspects of traveling with children, never mind those on the autism spectrum.
4. Be purposeful. You are the parent and you know your child best. If, for instance, you are certain your son or daughter will not tolerate a 9-hour day cruise, speak to staff ahead of time for shorter experiences that may bring more smiles and less frustration. Ask for pre-boarding of airplanes, cruise boats, and motorcoaches. Consider printing information cards (business cards) to hand silently to naysayers, stating your child’s disability and your appreciation of their patience. Remember, you are your child’s best advocate (as you’ve heard over and over), and people can’t assist you if you don’t assist them, first.
5. Probe with Questions. Want to be sure you’re choosing the right experience for your child? Ask for clarification, reinforcement, and above all, understanding. It is a good idea to speak to a company representative in person rather than relying upon websites or email. Connecting names to voices or, in the best of circumstances, faces, can garner a whole lot more support.
Travel is not only possible for families with autism, it’s the perfect way to help prepare your child for their future.
For more resources and some excellent testimonies from other parents, visit Autistic Globetrotters or Aspie Travel. Authored by mothers of sons with autism, these two sites are a treasure trove of information.