6 tips for planning a vacation with a child or travel companion with autism

Jul 18, 2021

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As a travel advisor and certified autism travel professional who has helped over 30 typical and autistic families plan vacations around the world, and a mom to an amazing autistic kid, I know that planning a vacation can be time-consuming. When you are planning a vacation around an autistic child or with an autistic travel companion, you must make sure you check off a few more boxes than usual.

I have seen so many people give up early in this process. And when those people give up, they either go wherever and go home early or they don’t go on vacation at all. Both those scenarios break my heart because there are a few things everyone can do to choose the best destination for someone on the autism spectrum.

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I discovered this personally after a trip to Walt Disney World Resort, which was particularly tough to travel to with my oldest son. From the discomfort of the heat to his shoes, the trip proved to be one of my most challenging family vacations because no matter what I did that day, I wasnʻt able to support my son the way I normally could have at home. After that experience, I learned that there were many things I needed to look for to ensure my son had a comfortable travel experience.

This is when I began getting my son invested in our vacations and having him plan portions of the trip for us. Learning from my son and his cues, I pivoted my travel agency. I decided to extend what I learned from traveling with my son to other families both typical and autistic, to plan better vacations that considered everyone’s needs, from dietary to autism support.

Use these tips to choose the optimal destination when vacationing with an autistic child or travel companion.

Look for quiet spaces

As you are looking for different attractions and activities at each destination you are considering, you will want to search for quiet spaces. Some attractions will have a space where anyone can go if they start to get overstimulated while others will not. I always recommend avoiding those places where quiet spaces do not exist, especially if you know your child gets overwhelmed easily.

Walt Disney World, for example, offers an array of quiet spaces such as:

  • Tom Sawyer Island at The Magic Kingdom
  • The Liberty Belle Steamboat at The Magic Kingdom
  • Maharajah Tiger Trek in Animal Kingdom
  • The Garden in the UK in EPCOT

Related: Your guide to visiting Disney World with a child on the autism spectrum

Many hotels offer quiet spaces in the lobby, such as Beaches Negril and Beaches Ocho Rios, both located in Jamaica.

Consider advanced security

We live in a world where various security measures are in place at theme parks, hotels, and many other tourist areas. You might want to consider whether any advanced security measures are in place as well.

I always look for hotels that offer door alarms before I reserve a room. At attractions, I always make sure my autistic son knows what an employee’s badge looks like, so he knows who to approach if we happen to lose each other. Some hotels have a program for autistic families that will issue lanyards or wrist bands.

In general, look for options such as:

  • Autism programs that have subtle ways to identify a person with a hidden disability.
  • Look for hotels with ample lighting both inside of a room and outside of the room. This helps keep a child visible that is prone to elopement.
  • Ensure if there is a pool at the hotel it can only be accessed with a room key.
  • Look for security cameras that may help you find your child more easily if they do elope while you are on vacation.
  • Look for rooms with multiple ways to lock the door.

One resort doing it correctly in my humble opinion is the Tradewinds Resort in St. Petersburg, FL. Guests are offered a safety amenity kit upon arrival which includes items such as door alarms, outlet covers, visual aide “stop” signs, corner guards, and stove knob covers.

While Disney World does have the Disability Access Service (DAS) their support begins and ends at the theme parks. Unfortunately, you will not find extra support in their hotels.

(Photo courtesy of Disney Parks)

Inquire about special training for employees

You may want to consider visiting attractions and staying at hotels where employees have been trained on how to interact with people on the autism spectrum. We all know that many people are unsure of what to do and how to act when an autistic child has a meltdown and becomes overstimulated.

When staff members have the appropriate training, they will know exactly what to do. This can mean staff that are more than willing to accommodate your family in ways such as:

  • Moving your family to a quiet section of the hotel if noise is a stimulus for your child.
  • Keeping an eye out for a child that tends to elope.

Resorts such as Beaches Ocho Rios and Beaches Negril both excel in training for staff in the kids’ club, as does Tradewinds.

Related: An insider’s guide to what to see and do in Jamaica with a family

Include water activities in the itinerary

People with autism love the water, which is why you will want to choose a destination that offers plenty of downtime at pools and beaches. Whether you choose a hotel with a swimming pool or a destination where you can swim in the ocean, having water nearby is always going to work in your favor. Make sure the hotel you choose has a lifeguard on duty and again ensure the pool can only be accessed by a room key. Most resorts have this feature but it’s best to ask.

One hotel that has gone above and beyond is the Sheraton Park Hotel at the Anaheim Resort. In addition to supporting families with an autistic loved one, you’ll also find they have life vests readily available for guests who need them.

Related: 9 beautiful hotel pools across the US

Having lived in Hawaii for a number of years, it checks a lot of the boxes for me for not only having lifeguards at hotel pools but also on most public beaches. It’s quiet for the most part and offers a relaxing and lower sensory vacation experience. My son in particular loved the KoʻOlina Lagoons on the island of Oʻahu. The lagoons are man-made but the water is so tranquil — perfect for those beginning to learn how to swim or just to splash around in. It’s one of my favorite snorkeling spots as well because it’s not overcrowded like Hanuemea Bay.

I also strongly encourage you to enroll your child in swimming lessons to promote more safety around the water.

Check Wi-Fi availability

Staying in the middle of the woods where there is no cell service and no available Wi-Fi connection might not be the best idea if your child loves to watch their favorite television show at a specific time every afternoon. I recommend making sure you will have access to Wi-Fi during your vacation, so you can prevent veering off your regular routine. Of course, Wi-Fi can also be helpful when your child gets overstimulated and needs their favorite device to calm down.

Related: Use these tricks to connect to hotel, airline, and airport Wi-Fi networks

If the hotel you are staying at doesn’t offer Wi-Fi be sure to bring along a portable hotspot.

Consider transportation options

Free hotel shuttles can be very handy. Time the shuttles accordingly to mitigate waiting. For my son, I know that waiting can be extremely difficult. I try to time our return to the hotel to keep our waits down. I also use the “first and then” method to help him connect the dots about the reason for the wait.

The city of Mesa, AZ, has been designated a Certified Autism City by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). It has done extensive work to become a destination where you can not only find autism-friendly accommodations, but also shuttle services, restaurants and attractions.

Bottom line

I am often asked if there are destinations to avoid when traveling with a loved one who is autistic. My answer is: There is not a single place in the world autistic people don’t live, so no.

With that in mind, I always recommend a plan and an itinerary. While my son doesn’t love detailed and strictly structured itineraries he does want a heads up of what we’ll be doing in a destination. No surprises! When you add all that together, the actual destination itself will matter less when it comes to your family’s needs.

Photo by NickyLloyd / Getty Images.

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