Home > Family Services > Ten Tips for Vacationing with Your Child – Part 1

Ten Tips for Vacationing with Your Child – Part 1

This guest post is by Elaine Hall, author of the memoir NOW I SEE THE MOON: A Mother, a Son, a Miracle and founder of The Miracle Project, a theatre and film arts program for children with special needs. She is also the mother of a fifteen-year-old son with autism. Discuss the book on Facebook and follow Elaine on Twitter @CoachE.

Ahhhh, summer vacation. It’s finally here!

For many of us who have children on the autistic spectrum, long gone are the expectations of spending glorious temperate days lounging under a coconut palm in a tropical paradise while watching the kids effortlessly scoop sea-critters into a bucket of brine. Understandably, some of us may decide to forego summer fun-in-the-sun getaways.  Our experience has been that taking a family vacation is “just too difficult!” and these days, also too expensive. But with a little planning, family vacations need not be so stressful, and may even be joyful!

So what can we do to enjoy time together while on holiday?

First, it is important to consider where our children are in their ability to process and hold information, to evaluate their sensory needs, and to contemplate how well they are able to respond to stress (seemingly fun-filled environments can be completely overwhelming for our kids). Extensive preparation is key for all of these.

Tip #1 – Focus on doing something that you know your child enjoys.

Soon after I adopted my son, Neal, from an orphanage in Russia, we joined my family reunion at a beach house in Delaware. When we get to the beach, it is clear that Neal is petrified of sand, of water, of anything to do with the beach.  I make excuses to my family, “He doesn’t know the ocean. He comes from the Ural mountains in Siberia, for goodness’ sake.” Even as I defend him, I’m disappointed. I love the ocean, and I yearn to share the joy of the boundless sea with my son. Instead, we surrender, and end up spending our time on the patio of the beach house where there’s a wading pool. We’re joined by my mother, who was also raised in the mountains – the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia, and she doesn’t like getting sandy.

Know what truly interests your child and plan your trip where you know he/she can be successful. Also, it is important to note that our children’s ability to regulate their own emotional states is largely affected by our own. So if we are anxious, disappointed, frustrated, or angry, guess who’s going to feel even more so?

Tip #2 – Prepare your child’s sensory system. Anticipate, it makes Sense!

If you decide to go somewhere you’ve never been with your child, or try new activities together, make the effort to really prepare (weeks before you take your trip, if possible). After the “failed” beach experience, one of my son’s therapists, Shelley Cox, and I take Neal close to the ocean. Shelley takes a bucket of sand and actually brings the ocean to Neal. Slowly and compassionately we allow Neal to get acclimated. First Shelley puts sand on his feet, rubbing it gently on his skin. I then realize that the hot, scratchy sand must have been irritating to his sensitive tactile system, reflecting why he avoided walking on the sand, preferring to be carried to his beach blanket. I am even clearer that Neal’s fierce preferences are not random. I better understand his world and anticipate his needs.

Each day Neal walks a few steps closer to the beach. Shelley continues to bring the various elements of our impending vacations experience to him. He smells the water Shelley brings to him; she pours it over his legs, getting a sense of his comfort zone. This goes on for seven days, until, finally, Neal walks on the sand to the ocean with confidence. For the rest of the summer, Neal is able to walk to the ocean with me. He wants to. Today, Neal loves the surf and can’t wait to jump in the waves!

Tip # 3 Rehearsals for life: Practice, Practice, Practice!

Before we fly on an airplane with Neal, we role-play everything you can imagine – packing bags, waiting in lines, taking off his shoes and going through security lines, placing luggage under the seat, wearing a seat belt, and sitting patiently. We use visuals – we watch DVDs of airplanes, go online for pictures, we pretend play with toy airplanes, look through airplane magazines. We practice placing our hands over our ears during take-off/landing and we actually visit the airport.

If he is going to meet new people, we show him pictures and tell a story about them, letting him “meet” them first in the comfort of our home. If we are visiting family members whom he hasn’t seen for a while, we show him photos of passed experiences and current photos so he can see what they look like now.

We use social stories to help make sense of new experiences. This provides Neal with a sense of control, and diminishes his anxiety.

This is the first post in a three-post series about vacationing with your child who has autism. Check back later this week for more tips and subscribe to the Autism Speaks Blog to make sure you don’t miss out!


  1. Teresa Champion
    July 26, 2010 at 10:07 am

    If anyone is going to the Dewey Beach, Delaware area for vacation, I can personally recommend the Bay Resort Motel. A few things make it autism-friendly: kitchenettes in each room with stove, sink, microwave, refrig, toaster and basic kitchen supplies. Perfect for fixing the special diets our kids need.
    It also is bay-side and a 2 block walk to the beach. They have a pool and a wharf to walk out on to the bay. Two good alternatives for kids that are tired of the beach and need a break. The people that run the place are very, very friendly.
    It is a typical beach motel but very neat and tidy and I can say they keep things very clean.
    so, just a recommendation if you are in the area. http://www.bayresort.com/

    • July 30, 2010 at 7:58 am

      Thank you, Teresa. This is great to know. My sister often goes to Delaware with her family. This definitely offers a great option for us!

  2. marie
    July 26, 2010 at 10:10 am

    Great tips, traveling or not. Our son is almost 19, a high school graduate who knew he wanted to go to college during his 9th grade year. He is also an Eagle Scout and is returning to college this Fall.
    It has been a long, long journey teaching him and showing him that life has it’s up’s and down’s but flexibility is the key to survival. His journey is not over and as he learns and grows, we can only be grateful for all the advancements he’s made. Sure, it was at times, two steps forward and one back but it has all been so worth it!
    Parents and Care Givers, do not give up!

    • LHaas
      July 26, 2010 at 4:47 pm

      So inspired by your post. Parent to a 13yr. old scout. At scout camp this week with his dad and troop. We love scouting and it is such a great fit for our child. He too is likely college bound. How has that transition been? Does he live at home or school?

    • July 30, 2010 at 8:00 am

      Dear Marie,
      Congratulations on your son returning to college this Fall! This is so inspiring for all of us. Yes, life definitely has it’s ups and downs. But, yes – so worth it.
      We are the lucky ones – the ones who appreciate each little step. Many blessings, Elaine

  3. Mary
    July 26, 2010 at 10:29 am

    We stay at the same hotel chain for almost every vacation….the Hampton. He knows what to expect in the room, pool,and free breakfast in the morning. Little things comfort him like hive like shapes on the shower curtain. We also prepare ahead of time by telling him the kinds of things we are going to do.

    • July 30, 2010 at 8:01 am

      Hi Mary, Great idea to always stay in the same hotel chain. Yes, yes – preparing ahead of time is so important. Enjoy your summer!

  4. Orfa De Armas
    July 26, 2010 at 11:02 am

    I strongly believe in the power of social stories! They made our life easier to travel with our then ASD son last year (curretnly PDD-NOS) for our first summer vacation since his diagnose. We went to Miami for a week all the way from Seattle, to visit noisy, loud and hug-crazy relatives (!!!). We would have not survived the airport checking, the long flight, the heat, the storms, the BEACH and of course, the relatives, without our handy social stories! We are going back to Miami in a week this year and taking it one step further, Nicaragua for a week, and I know Frankie is going to love every minute! Good luck to you all :-)

    • July 30, 2010 at 8:04 am

      Wow! What an accomplishment – from Seattle to Miami! Yes, social stories are terrific. So wonderful that Frankie enjoys traveling. Have an amazing time in Nicaragua – and please let us know how it all goes. We’d love to hear about traveling to a different country and what worked and what didn’t work. Have an amazing time!

  5. Genevieve
    July 26, 2010 at 1:39 pm

    I agree 100%. When we go on vacation, we bring GFCF food for our little one and only go where he’d have fun. When he gets overwhelmed, he listens to mp3 player on headphones and zones out.

    • July 30, 2010 at 8:06 am

      Great idea to bring GFCF food. We have sometimes brought our GF Pasta and asked restaurants to cook for us. They have always been accommodating. We’ve started to bring our iPad. Neal loves it and so does everyone else at the table!

  6. Paula
    July 26, 2010 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you, Elaine! Our 8-yr-old daughter experienced a lot of stress on our first attempt at a roadtrip family vacation this summer. We learned a LOT and it all makes sense with what you describe.

  7. July 30, 2010 at 8:07 am

    Dear Paula, I am so pleased that my blog post is helpful. Please let me know how things go. All the best, Elaine

  1. July 28, 2010 at 9:02 am
  2. July 30, 2010 at 9:01 am

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