By Katie Dyer
Autism is full of quirks on a daily basis when you’re in your comfort zones.
The days are filled with schedules, familiar smells and foods, and television programs. The initial thought of traveling is totally overwhelming and scary. The first time we talked about traveling with the boys, I nearly had an anxiety attack. I started with the lists of what to bring and talking through every possible scenario of what could go wrong and what could be done to fix it wherever we were. It was exhausting and we hadn’t even left the house yet! I took a few deep breaths (think Lamaze breathing on steroids) and realized that I knew that if we made sure their sensory needs were accounted for, most of the battle would be won.
Noise canceling headphones, weighted blankets, super squishy blankets, Lego sets, books and our favorite stuffed animals went with us on our first trip. I packed snacks that I knew were always preferred foods and traveled with and to people that understood that a “typical” vacation was not on the agenda. We stay in places that I can cook for them, because we are usually at a 7-10 food maximum at any given time and hit a grocery store once we get settled. Or we travel with what is going to be cooked. Our yearly drive from California to Washington has led us to a great little town with a park that is our always one of our stops. It has picnic tables and grass, clean bathrooms, and a great play structure. It’s become an anticipated stop the boys always look forward to on both the way up and the way back. I found a hotel that has a swimming pool and a great breakfast included- full of foods the kids will eat that is also part of the up and back. When we travel to Southern California, the stops are usually at clean rest stops with grass to get the wiggles out and have lunch.
“I have also had plans backfire: too many kids, too loud, flies, no BBQ sauce, and no chocolate milk. Because there are days that it just isn’t going to be okay and that is okay.”
The reality of being a parent of autistic children is that no matter how you plan to tackle any possible situation, you won’t be able to. Your plans will have to change to accommodate whatever is happening at that moment in time. My biggest piece of advice is to not let those moments change your desire to try things with your kids. I believe in pushing limits to try new things but have also become aware of my abilities with them, and what I know we will and will not be able to handle.
I know we are not ready for a big theme park.
How? At a local storybook-themed park, my children actively avoid characters of any kind. The thought of not only spending an incredible amount of money on tickets and hotels for such an adventure, but the amount of sensory overload that accompanies any of these parks is enough for me to say no, for now. So, we try smaller adventures that are less stressful and closer to home because we can come back to our safe place when over stimulation occurs. We try the carousel at the mall, and rides at the fair. We try to go to autism-friendly events with bounce houses and characters, all in the hope that if, as a family, we can tackle these things close to home we will be able to tackle them away from home. Practice makes perfect-ish, right?
Autism, for our family, is about watching and listening to comfort zones.
I deal with anxiety daily and I know that the boys can feel when I am super anxious about an event. So, as their mom, I am having to learn to watch and listen to their physical cues and stims and lack of words when they get overwhelmed. The first full day we have away from home I try to find something familiar- like having lunch at a McDonald’s with a play place. It is a treat that we have occasionally at home, but it is something that they both enjoy and can help ease their anxiety. Why? The food is the same at every McDonald’s. The play places are all similar. It helps the boys to have a visual that things are similar, even when we are not at home. We have a running verbal schedule of where we are going and what we are doing. They bring their comfort stuffed animals with us everywhere and we take our time.
I have also found resources in our town that help us with strategies and ideas to help with travel.
We got to go through security and get on an airplane and taxi the runway. They pressurized the cabin and passed out snacks. The boys got to physically feel what it would be like to go on an airplane. (It was so neat to be gifted that opportunity through Wings for Autism) I talk with the people we are headed to see, or friends in an area to find out what local fun things there are to do. Our support helped me with ideas on how to keep them calm during long road trips, and most importantly I talked with friends who also have kiddos on the spectrum for things that work for them.
“If I have learned anything about being my sons’ mom is that we do things at our own pace, in our own way and how we need to do it to make it fun for us all. In the words of my boss: ‘Semper Gumby’ which means that we need to always be flexible.”
We started slow, visiting family and worked our way to being able to participate in things like 5K runs. As the boys have become older and more verbal, traveling gets easier. We still only travel to familiar places with people that don’t mind our pace. But I know that one day when a new adventure comes, we will welcome it with open arms.
Katie Dyer is a mom of two boys who are both autistic. She works, goes to school and is extremely active in her church and community. She loves dancing in her kitchen and “loving on the world around me.”
Read more articles on “Traveling the Spectrum Way” in Zoom Autism Magazine, Issue 16:
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