Be Smarter Than Mama: 5 Things to Consider When Travelling With a Child with Autism
It’s been a while since my last post; but settling down after a month away from home has taken most of mama’s time and energy.
Last December, we had our first family vacation in Colombia with Alejandro and Emily. It was quite an experience! We not only traveled to different places but traveled back and forth through different feelings… but that will be something I’ll elaborate in future posts. For now, I just want to concentrate on some particular things I have learnt, which definitely are worth to consider next time we travel:
- Plan ahead: with or without Autism, this is the golden key to open many doors during a trip.
Last summer when we decided to spend Xmas with our family in Colombia, we started to introduce the idea of flying and airplanes to Alejandro. It turned out that he was scared of planes so we had to create a plan to help him to overcome his fear. We started with bike rides to the Aviation museum to have some snacks while we watched small planes landing and taking off the airstrip. Once he got used to them, and the weather was not good for pic-nicks anymore, we started regular visits to the airport, which were changing gradually into actual rehearsals for the trip. Initially we just went to watch the big planes and walk around the airport; then, closer to the day of the trip; we included suitcases and even waiting in line. We approached the counters and tried to have small talks with the airline’s staff. I have to admit that not everybody was kind and responsive with our cause, but we also found very nice people who gave us tips especially regarding the security process.
Everybody needs to be prepared! It is different for the kids with autism and sometimes boring for the siblings, but it is definitely necessary. Traveling should be fun for all the family!
- Social stories: Videos, books, pictures and toys are very useful. It is impossible to cover everything, but at least they present a general idea to the kids on what to expect. Kids will find comfort and you will have some resources to use in case of a meltdown.
With the support of the IBI therapists, we developed a social story for Alejandro about our trip to Colombia. During one month before the trip, this book was used every day as part of his training to make him feel comfortable. At home, Emily also read the story and recorded it on Sammy’s Ipod, so he could listen to it as well. We used some pictures taken during our rehearsal trips to the airport and some images from Google; especially the ones related to customs screening processes, which we couldn’t take ourselves due to security reasons.
- Pack enough food: Identify the preferred food and research about the availability of those particular products in the places you are going to visit. If you are travelling abroad it is likely that you cannot find them. If you are unable to pack enough for the duration of the trip, try to introduce in advance some of the products that you may find in local stores and which you know are available where you are going to travel. I know this is complicated! Our kids don’t want to try new foods, but it is worth to make an attempt.
I didn’t think that food was going to taste different to Alejandro, but it did. He has like a detector in his mouth, capable of distinguishing tiny changes in flavor and texture. Sometimes he didn’t even want to eat his regular favorites. Food was a real challenge during our trip. Alejandro spent many days only eating bananas and oreos. He likes food with particular colors and flavors, and for example green grapes of the same variety found here were very difficult to find during the holiday season there (grapes of other colors were available, but not the right green ones… lucky me!) Milk, apple sauce and some soups tasted different to him. Anyway, something good came out of this situation, he left the bottle! Actually, he is now drinking only water, but we are starting to work on re-introducing the milk but in a cup. Overall, he ate, not much but enough to survive the vacation. He enjoyed good treats such bananas, cake, and off course chocolates and ice cream; but he didn’t starved and now he is happily back following his regular (although restricted) diet.
- One place at a time: If the idea of travelling to one place is overwhelming for some people; imagine travelling to six different cities in one month: several planes, many different cars, toilets and showers with different shapes and sounds, different weather which means different shoes and clothes to wear, as well as many different people, noises, music, and so on.
It was exciting and fun for papo, Emily and mama; and despite the difficulties, I am sure Alejandro enjoyed some of it as well. For sure however, whether it was too much for him, somehow I cannot avoid feeling a little bit guilty. It was our first trip to Colombia after five years away from our homeland. We wanted to show him the place we call home and at the same time, we wanted our people to meet him and enjoy his company. Everybody wanted to meet Alejandro! I am sure some of them were just curious because of the autism, but most of them for sure were moved because of their love to our family. I am grateful for all the efforts they did to make Alejandro feel happy and comfortable; but this is something I have learnt for next time: plan to visit one place or may be two at a time. Take it slowly, there is no rush; we always can come back!
- Prepare for everything, to be ready for anything: You don’t have superpowers, you cannot keep the kids in a bubble and life is unpredictable by nature. You can plan ahead but there will be always a reason for a meltdown, so you have to be ready!
For example: no seatbelt available in the back seats of the taxi, or no bathtubs and instead a simple bathroom with a shower. These were a few things that I definitely never considered when I was planning our vacation and that were the cause of lots of stress for Alejandro every single day.
We prepared a checklist six months ahead of our trip and planned for almost all possible scenarios: waking up at 2:00 a.m., the trip to the airport, the waiting in line, security checks, seatbelts, what to do in the plane, earache, headphones, snacks, how to approach new people, taxi rides, meltdowns, sleeping time, beach, swimming pool, parks, fever, mosquito bites, etc.… you name it! But we forgot an important one: airsickness and vomiting. The trip from Ottawa to Bucaramanga included 3 plane rides in one day, and Sammy experienced airsickness in two of them. It was good that mama always carry extra clothing at hand, but you can imagine when that happens in an airplane that is taking off, and you do not have the chance to take your kid to the tiny airplane bathroom… it was definitely an adventurous start of a one month family vacation!
Be smarter than mama! Make your child’s first flight a short one if possible! I am sure he will be as happy as bear, riding his very own plane!
In memoriam of Bear. Always in our hearts!