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  • Writer's pictureBrenda

Traveling on the Spectrum

Updated: Apr 9

We love to travel, yet traveling with someone who is not neurotypical can be daunting. Whether on the autism spectrum, anxiety or attention deficit, be it an adult or child, you or a family member trying to manage things outside of the expected and controlled can feel insurmountable and undoable.

We have many “neuro-spicy” members in our family and have learned how to successfully manage travel in a way that is enjoyable for everyone. Let’s look at how we manage this when we travel, regardless of the destination.

Plan Plan Plan Plan

We have found that for us we can not just take a spur of the moment trip. No matter the destination or length of the trip, it is important for us to do a lot of research. We decide what our goals are for this trip. Vacations are expensive, and it is tempting to cram as many experiences as possible into your trips. But it’s important to remember that these new experiences will mentally exhaust both youngsters and adults on the spectrum. We try very hard to have realistic expectations, knowing we will have to build in plenty of “bubble” time for our family members to recharge. We research what kind of accommodations for people on the spectrum might be available. For a destination like New York City or a National Park, that would be limited; however, other places like Walt Disney World have systems such as the Disability Access Service (DAS) in place to help support the neurodiverse community.

Know your family member's needs

For my son on the Autism spectrum he does better when he knows exactly what to expect. Having him join in the research, watch youtube videos of where we are going, and have input into our plans is a huge tool to help him feel confident and capable going into any trip. My daughter that deals with social anxiety is the exact opposite. The more research she does about a destination the more overwhelmed she gets. She needs to trust the people she is traveling with and know that they will be keeping her needs in mind. The same way neuro-divergence is a broad spectrum, the things that will help those family members feel safe and in control may vary broadly. So talking with your family members and knowing what their needs are is super, super important.

Make detailed structured plans

Knowing your goals everyday and how your family will take breaks will help with setting expectations and decreasing anxiety of the unknown. The more frontloading you can give them the better. Below is an example of how we might explain and provide expectations during a trip to the Magic Kingdom.

  • Today we will be going to the Magic Kingdom. Our goals are to rope drop Space Mountain and then ride Buzz Lightyear. We will get coffee at the Joffrey's in Tomorrowland, and then we will do the Carousel of Progress so you can bubble. We’ll head for Fantasyland to ride Seven Dwarfs with the DAS comeback time and then stand in line for Little Mermaid. We’ll take a break after that at Gaston’s Tavern and get a cinnamon roll. That will give you a chance to bubble. Next we will head to Haunted Mansion. It’ll be crowded when we walk though Fantasyland, but will get better once we are past the Rapunzel bathrooms. We will use DAS to get a comeback time for Thunder Mountain and then have lunch. After Thunder Mountain we can head back to the room and swim and have alone time, and then come back at 5pm.

Maintain flexibility

But within that structure you need to be flexible for when things go sideways with them. Not everything that is triggery can be anticipated. Unexpected crowds are a killer for my family's neurodivergent members. Sometimes a small break can reset the experience, and sometimes they need to go back to the room. It’s important to listen to their problems, not just keep trying to talk them into pushing through. Sometimes they will not be able to articulate exactly why they are struggling, but trust that they are and respect that. Losing a couple of hours or half a day is, for us, a better choice than forcing them to keep going, leading to a meltdown or creating a situation where they are unable to manage the next day.

Prevent low blood sugar

Keeping a ready supply of snacks is super important for my family. When they get hungry, all sorts of anxious feelings also emerge. We pack snacks wherever we go, and plan meal times out carefully. We also make sure to look at menus ahead of time to make sure those with sensory issues are comfortable with the choices where we are dining. It is hard for them to unexpectedly have to be flexible, especially when their blood sugar is low.

It can feel like a lot. But we love to travel and we love our family, so we work hard at going in with realistic expectations so that everyone can have a positive experience.

Read more in our post here about how we successfully navigate our Walt Disney World vacations.


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