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How to Plan a Summer Vacation for People with Autism

Summer is in full swing and nothing sounds more relaxing than a nice, peaceful vacation. However, you tend to avoid family getaways due to a loved one with autism. You’re not alone. Avoiding travel with a loved one of any age with autism is quite common.

According to a survey conducted by the Family Travel Association, only 13% of parents with children on the autism spectrum take family vacations. Most people with disabilities tend to bypass trips due to a lack of confidence that their travel needs will be met. With new surroundings, noisy airports and plenty of people, a trip could quickly become overwhelming.

But despite these challenges, it is possible to have a successful vacation. It just requires some strategic planning. Check out our tips on how to create summer fun for the whole family.

Make it Certified

As you start considering destinations and activities, make sure your chosen area includes Certified Autism Centers. Organizations with this authorization are committed to serving people with autism of all ages and have trained at least 80% of their staff members on the disorder. If a stressful situation arises, staff will be able to properly read the scenario, put your family member at ease and offer solutions. 

To give you some inspiration, the National Museum of the Great Lakes and the Denver Zoo are a couple of Certified Autism Centers. You can find a full list here. But if you need additional planning help, we recommend choosing a travel agent who is a Certified Autism Travel Professional (CATP). These individuals are qualified to offer travel-related services and support to people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

You should also consider applying for an IBCCES (International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards) Accessibility Card, which will save time in alerting staff at Certified Autism Centers about your family member’s specific needs (such as sensory sensitivities and dietary restrictions). But please be aware that accommodations will vary depending on location. Learn more about the card and how to register here.

Practice Makes Perfect

The goal is to make your loved one feel as comfortable as possible while traveling, so you’ll want to set aside time for some pre-trip preparation. Take them through an itinerary or search for videos of your destination and activities. If they often feel anxious about future events, this will show them what to expect.

But what about dietary needs and issues with large crowds? Try visiting a mall or another location where groups of people gather. If your family member starts feeling overwhelmed, you’ll know to visit sites at off-times or select small group activities instead.

And don’t forget about their food preferences. Experiment with new recipes to introduce different food options, like you’d find at a restaurant. But you should also pack their favorite snacks, just in case.

Check Transportation Support

If boarding a packed bus or train sounds like a recipe for disaster, Envision Unlimited Director of Behavior Analysis, Danielle Gender-Walters, Ph.D., BCBA-D, recommends looking into ADA Paratransit services as alternative options. These are smaller, shared rides that can be booked in advance, and they’re specifically for people who can’t handle regular bus and train rides. The Chicago and Phoenix, Arizona areas, for example, are well-equipped with these services. But keep in mind that they’re only offered within a mile of standard bus and train routes. Learn more here.

Learn to Fly

With bright lights, security checks and plenty of noise, airports pose their own set of challenges for people with autism. If you plan to travel by plane, we suggest exploring a flying rehearsal program, such as “Wings for All,” which is offered through disability advocacy organization The Arc. These types of programs provide people with disabilities an opportunity to experience airport security and boarding a plane before an actual trip.

And once your vacation draws closer, you can contact the TSA Cares helpline for additional support with security screenings. Similar to the IBCCES Accessibility Card, TSA Disability Notification Cards are also available upon request. These notify TSA employees that someone has a disability and that screenings might need to be altered to meet their needs.

This might sound like a lot to manage. But remember, you don’t have to handle it alone. Ask fellow family members to weigh in and help with research, so your vacation can be a worthwhile experience for everyone.

Sources: American Automobile Association, Autism Travel and the Autism Society of North Carolina

Stephanie Choporis is on staff with Envision Unlimited.

Envision Unlimited is a full spectrum of care organization serving people with intellectual, developmental and psychiatric disabilities regardless of age, gender, background, or ability. Since 1948, we have built a legacy of evolving care delivered with empathy, every time and everywhere. Our innovative services are offered across Chicagoland and Central Illinois and include novel day programs, community living options, behavioral health services, employment programs, respite for families and foster care for children with disabilities.

Our services are grounded in a spirit of advocacy and empowerment. We believe that all individuals are capable of living successful lives if given the right opportunities. Contact us today to see how we can help you!