Many parents to kids with autism cringe at the mere thought of traveling with their kids. They focus on how the kids’ routine will be altered which will lead to heightened anxiety and meltdowns. However, that may not always be the case. Traveling could also not only help educate kids but assist them in many unforeseen ways. For our son with autism, we found regular travel has benefited him with his sensory challenges as well as life skills. To encourage other parents to try traveling with their kids we decided to share some of the ways travel helped our son with autism.
Walking on the Beach
Our son dealt with many sensory issues when it came to beach trips. We decided to take a compulsory beach vacation every year to get him acclimated to swimming. It wasn’t easy the first time he had to walk on the sand! It was in Tulum, Mexico. Initially, he cursed, screamed, and stopped every minute to clean his shoes of sand and debris. We slowly worked on his sensory issues and eventually the persistence paid off for him and us.
Feeling Confident to Swim
Our son reacted similarly to water every time we encouraged him to swim. Though our son knew how to swim, he had to be thrown into the pool every year to re-familiarize him with water.
The breakthrough came in Ixtapa, Mexico when he had to swim in a deep pool to play with dolphins during a dolphin experience. He first panicked and held on to the side rails not wanting to let go at any cost. We pointed out that he could try holding on to his life jacket instead (just to give him some confidence) and it worked well. Soon he played with the dolphins and forgot he was in deep water.
Masks on His Face
Like many other kids with autism or sensory integration disorder problems, our son did not agree to wear anything on his face for a long time. This fact finally changed when we started visiting the Caribbean Islands, and he saw his dad and brother snorkeling.
The first year he opted not to wear any mask on his face and therefore he couldn’t go snorkeling. The following year he asked to try and go snorkeling in the open sea. This year, after experiencing Seatrek, he asked if he could take scuba diving lessons. So over time we gained a lot of ground, but it did take a lot of time and patience.
Wearing Hats and Mittens
Our son is particularly temperature sensitive and for many years refused to wear any jacket or even long sleeves. It was quite a challenge to travel with him during winter months. On some trips when the temperature frequently dropped below zero, it was especially difficult.
We’re glad to say that nowadays he has gotten used to wearing coats, hats, and even mittens. This fact makes it easier for all of us to travel to many places with colder climates.
Tolerating New Smells
Tolerating smells was exceptionally hard for our son in Asia since many of the dishes use pungent spices that our son had never smelled before. Like everything else, we focused on exposure and desensitization in small increments. So now when he experienced a new odor, he wants to explore and discover what it is rather than try to avoid it.
Tolerating noises has been one of our top issues while traveling. It was especially challenging whenever we stayed in hotels or on cruise ships. After a decade of traveling it is only recently that he has gotten better about falling asleep even if he hears minor noises that he’s not used to.
Touched by Strangers
As frequent travelers, we pass through airports at least once a month, so the TSA was an ongoing issue for our son. Even though we always explained his diagnosis to the agents, it became exceedingly difficult. We ended up getting the Global Entry pass to help him with his anxiety. This year the breakthrough we were waiting for came.Our son now reacts better to strangers touching him, if necessary, not only at the TSA but in other public places where crowds are typical. These areas include theme parks, museums, malls, and in particular countries where proximity between people is the norm.
As a rule of thumb, we have tried the best we could to avoid going to places that have crowds. However, sometimes it is unavoidable. We’re happy to say that although our son is far from being comfortable in a group, he is now handling it much better.
When we first started traveling as a family, standing in a line, even a short one, was pretty much an impossibility. With time this has become a little bit better. Nowadays we can stay in line for up to twenty minutes, especially if it is for an item or attraction in which our son has an interest.He sat in the sweltering sun for over half an hour to get the coveted autograph of a character in Hogsmeade.
Trying New Foods and Textures
Like many other kids growing up, our son preferred fast food items to regular food. However, all that changed once we started traveling and he got introduced to new dishes in the various countries we visited. Now our son is probably the most adventurous eater out of the entire family. Our son always wants to sample new items that even we, his parents, and other seasoned travelers might find a bit unappealing.
Travel is a great way for kids with autism to get exposed to new sensations. It is also a great way for parents to help teach kids how to handle certain situations. Parents need to focus on the big picture without short-term setbacks discouraging them. Bottom line, persistence pays for both parents and their children, particularly when they have special needs.