My blog today is a guest blog from a woman who I truly look up to. I am so privileged to know Dr. Kristy Donaldson and call her part of my sweet Ellie’s team of professionals. She allows me to get access and an insight into the published world of professionals treating so many disorders plaguing our population. She is truly amazing, genuine, caring and was an absolute ray of sunshine at a time when there wasn’t much of that for us. She has many published articles but was nice enough to share this one with me before it goes to publishing. Enjoy!
Traveling with an autistic child is like attempting to forecast the future in a primitive country. The planning is extensive and fear of leaving home without one of their trusted sources of comfort, daunting. Our family is accustomed to this lifestyle, having a child born prematurely at 23 weeks gestation, who struggles daily with high functioning autism spectrum disorder, is no easy feat. The rigidity of schedule and particularities or idiosyncrasies are a large part of keeping autistic children able to function away from their daily activities of living. There are many ways to combat the hyperarousal that accompanies dysregulation of autistic children’s daily routine. When you travel this can be a difficult task. Social stories, planning ahead to create comfort in temperature changes, frequent breaks, and busy activities are some of the ways to create a positive traveling climate for these children.
Typically, autistic children enjoy earning screen time for iPads, phones, and electronics. This is a great way to pass the time, however, the key is to break up the time spent on this type of equipment as we know over exposure to electronics is not beneficial (Dorman, 2009; Gaylord‐Ross, Haring, Breen, & Pitts‐Conway, 1984). Providing blocks of time, around 30 minutes at a time, then mixing in frequent stops for physical movement, movie videos, and conversations about scenery will help pass the time more successfully. Depending on how conducive the vehicle of travel is, a space can be created with special comfort items, pillows, and blankets. Carrying a light sweater will help combat temperature changes when transitioning from the car to a restaurant, or from state to state if going a further distance.
It is wise to have a well-coordinated travel itinerary, to lessen the chance for hotels being booked and overnight stays being prolonged to extended travel times. Equally helpful is finding hotels that have swimming pools, as many autistic children enjoy the fluidness and weightlessness of the water. This is a helpful transition from car to bedtime routine, allowing for the central nervous system to calm prior to sleep. Additionally, planning ahead on stops for food at places that provide an indoor play system and food your child will eat, may help to minimize emotional outbursts. Keep a supply of water bottles and snack items that do not contain heavy amounts of gluten, casein, and sugar is a surefire way of reducing exposure to foods that may create an allergic reaction, poor gut production, and increased bowel and bladder issues. Providing a calm and gentle environment in the car is one way to alleviate extra stress. If a driver is able to have a “rider” to aid in care of the autistic child should the need arise, and usually it does, even better.
Headphones that cancel out, or reduce noise are helpful travel companions. Amazon has several types, in a whole host of colors without wires, which provide respite to autistic or even children with sensory processing sensitivities. Children with autism sometimes enjoy watching home videos of themselves doing activities. For instance, a child who enjoys swimming daily but will have to wait until making to the destination may find solace in being able to watch a video of a time when they were enjoying swimming. If they have a special pet and it is not trained for service then creating a photo album or scrapbook of their beloved pet will provide entertainment and a link to an area of comfort and familiarity. Prior to leaving home, social stories are a must for autistic children. Taking the time to create a social story about what the child can expect will reduce the tendency to become hyper-aroused during routines being changed. Periodically, revisit the social story to help the autistic child remember what is happening on the travel itinerary to help prepare them along the route.
Remember to stick to some type of bedtime routine once arriving at your destination. Keeping bedtimes and how a child gets ready for bed, as much the same as at home, will allow for an easier transition and better night’s rest. Be watchful for the signs your child provides when needing a break for environmental stimulation in the form of noise, crowds, and smells. Autistic children understand their world through a heightened sensory system. For example, it is not uncommon for them to smell things prior to agreeing to wear, eat, or touch what is being offered. The olfactory system is the quickest of the senses to link to the brain (Claudianos, Lim, Young, Yan, Cristino, Newcomb, Gunasekaran, & Reinhard, 2014). Therefore, an overabundance of information through the olfactory system can create dysregulatory features in the autistic population.
Another important tip is to make sure and educate the people you will come in contact with during your travels. Do not feel as though you are making excuses for your child’s behavior as you will have times where boundaries are required to be tightened, but generally speaking, helping others to understand your child sets all parties up for more success. If you are staying with family or friends during your travel adventure, find out what their working knowledge is of an autistic person. Help them to know what your child likes and dislikes and how to best connect with them. Connection is an important part of our happiness as human beings, autistic children often suffer in this area of social skills as they are unable to verbalize their needs adequately to peers and cause disruption in the play connection (Hartley, Sikora, & McCoy, 2008). Introducing the autistic child to the people you are visiting will help build their confidence. Also, incorporating pictures of the same people in the social story about the trip will help them familiarize more quickly.
Traveling is a wonderful opportunity for autistic children to try new things and rely on their coping skills. It can have a wealth of benefits for the whole family, if well planned. Be flexible and find enjoyment during the process. Being able to find gratitude for the small things that go well will provide long lasting benefits for the body, mind, and spirit of all family members. Remember to take pictures of the vacation travels and create a digital scrapbook later for the autistic child to look back on create positive long term memories about their experience.
Kristy Donaldson PhD, LPC-S, Registered Play Therapy-Supervisor, CHST, AACA Ambassador
Claudianos, C. , Lim, J. , Young, M. , Yan, S. , Cristino, A. S., Newcomb, R. D., Gunasekaran, N., & Reinhard, J. (2014), Odor memories regulate olfactory receptor expression in the sensory periphery. Eur J Neurosci, 39: 1642-1654. doi:10.1111/ejn.12539
Dorman, S. M. (2009), Video and Computer Games: Effect on Children and Implications for Health Education. Journal of School Health, 67: 133-138. doi:10.1111/j.1746-1561.1997.tb03432.x
Gaylord‐Ross, R. J., Haring, T. G., Breen, C. & Pitts‐Conway, V. (1984), The training and generalization of social interaction skills with autistic youth. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 17: 229-247. doi:10.1901/jaba.1984.17-229
Hartley, S. L., Sikora, D. M., & McCoy, R. (2008). Prevalence and risk factors of maladaptive behaviour in young children with autistic disorder. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 52, 1–11. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2788.2008.01065.x