From recent conversations I’ve had with parents to kids with autism, it seems that most focus too much on travel logistics and forget the actual benefits it might bring to their family as a whole and their child as an individual.
Having traveled with my son with special- needs for almost a decade, I can personally attest that the advantages outweigh the hardships by far.
Traveling introduces multiple school disciplines like math, geography, history, and literature into your child’s life through hands-on experience.
Suddenly everything comes to life, and History is no longer some dates in a thick book, but meetings with enthusiastic docents and significant event reenactments.
Math changes from boring homework exercises to calculating tips, money exchange rates, and even daily budgets for different items. Geography is transformed from glossy pictures in a school textbook to rock climbing mountain ranges or hiking volcanic parks.
Last but not least, your child is introduced to literature through visiting the towns and homes of famed authors.
In our case, spatial perception and map reading were especially difficult for my son, until he decided he was going to learn to negotiate the Parisian Metro System one summer.
As the saying goes, the rest was history.
Art and Music Appreciation
Still in their infancy, our kids were introduced to the beautiful world of art.
We used to take them to every museum in our area as well as galleries and street craft fairs.
Whether it was the masters, modern, cubism or anime, art was anywhere they could experience it.
As we started traveling, we continued and expanded on that concept to include not only world renowned famed museums but local artists studios, beach sand art festivals, and even sidewalk chalk demonstrations.
While traveling, look for free musical performances, Sunday organ concerts at churches, and charity events as well as operas and Broadway musicals. Like art, any exposure to different styles of music will help broaden and expand your child’s horizons.
With travel comes the continuous exposure to diverse cultures.
All of a sudden, your child can compare and contrast people’s daily lives and customs in different parts of the world.
As a youngster, our son was eager to find similarities between the new places and his hometown, so he kept insisting on checking out McDonald’s, Starbucks, Subway, and other American fast food giants wherever we went.
He was surprised to discover that these fast food chains offer different menus than in the United States, according to local demand. Hence by visiting seemingly ‘unlikely touristy places,’ he still got to be introduced to the differences.
Introducing your child to different religions in today’s global community can help shape him or her into becoming a more accepting and tolerant future member of society.
Start by visiting traditional churches, temples and mosques and learning about their unique features and architecture.
If you have the time and opportunity, stay for a community event to witness at first hand a holiday celebration. Over the years, we have visited many different places of worship, and it promoted better understanding in our kids and reinforcing their observation of how similar people and religions truly are.
Compassion and Empathy
As we started traveling to poorer countries, our sons witnessed poverty, homelessness, and suffering on a global scale. The actual visualization of needy persons made my children realize how they were not the center of the world and how even in small ways they can contribute and influence the outcome of certain events. As our sons grew older, they started coming up with better ideas to help their community and charities. Over the years, they have been active in collecting toys and school supplies for orphanages in Mexico, glasses for kids in South Africa, the Katrina cleanup, as well as money to save the marine life in the oil-soaked Gulf of Mexico after the BP spill.
Enhancement of Social and Language Skill
One of the things that still fascinate me about travel is the way it helps travelers with autism to adapt and learn to become more flexible.
Even though most parents try to arrange for accommodations for their kids; the truth is that sooner or later they are bound to face some situation that will have no accommodations which will force him or her to deal with day to day challenges like waiting in a queue, facing crowds or practicing manners.
Parents should embrace these incidents and use them as positive teaching stepping stones instead of looking for reasons not to travel with their kids.
Moreover, traveling, also increases opportunities for interacting with other people, which, in turn, help children with autism improve their language and self-advocating skills.
Experiencing the World in Different Ways
Even though my family and I are not outdoors people, traveling has helped us become more adventurous and try activities we would have never imagined ever considering.
We have successfully tried swimming with dolphins, manatees, and stingrays as well as rock climbing, snorkeling, sea trekking, skydiving, zip-lining, and paragliding.
From starting off as a teen that screamed every time he was dunked into a shallow pool or walked on sand, he has come a very long way. Our experience isn’t unique in any way, it just proves that persistence in exposure can make a huge difference.
Another great example of successful continuous exposure lies in the food department.
As a preschooler, my son (like many others) restricted his diet to either Burger King or McDonald’s. With time and perseverance (and quite a bit of bribery) we succeeded in introducing him to global cuisines such as European, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern.
On cruises, we would encourage him to at least take one bite of any food that had a strange texture, odor or looked visually incorrect to him.
One bite progressed to two, then three, and soon the whole dish.
Today he enjoys sampling foods from around the world on weekly basis and is even attempting to cook some of his favorite dishes at home
Spreading Autism Awareness
Everywhere we go, we tell people about autism and answer questions about how our son copes with on his day-to-day life.
We describe the ups and downs of the spectrum and most important of all, how others can help kids like our son.
This kind of exposure gives the world a glimpse into the life of someone with autism and helps people with autism understand the complexities of the world and how their behaviors, especially meltdowns, are judged in reality.
During an average day, everyone is preoccupied with daily chores, and it is hard for parents to find adequate time to bond with their kids. That all changes during travel when parents are free of daily chores like driving to activities, cleaning, and cooking, so they can spend RELAXING time with their kids and get to know them better.
Vacation time is also an excellent opportunity to integrate the child with autism in family activities and create lasting family memories.
Travel can lay the groundworks for new experiences; hearing different sounds, tasting different foods, seeing new sites, and touching various textures for kids with autism.
However, it is equally important for parents to help continue the learning process at home.
Parents should take their kids to visit local museums, beaches, pools, dine in ethnic neighborhood venues, and listen to different concerts on a regular basis to enhance exposure and combat existing sensory challenges.