World Autism Day and Travel

I was invited to write a guest blog post for the gowhee.com travel app and website. World Autism Day is Friday, April 2nd. If you’re planning a trip with your kiddos once the world reopens, I think you’ll find some good tips here.

What is Sensory Sensitivity?

We use our senses (there are actually 8 not 5)  to process information.  Our brains and nervous systems are constantly processing input that directs our behavior.  For children and adults with sensory processing quirks or “sensory sensitivity” (a diagnosis like Autism Spectrum Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder or ADHD) certain input overwhelms the senses. A child with sensory sensitivity to a certain food texture might gag and sensitivity to a loud sound might scream and cover her ears. 

A household with highly sensory sensitive children is, to put it frankly, work for parents and caregivers.  Many highly sensory sensitive children are calmed by routines, eating the same foods, and knowing what their senses will be exposed to on a daily basis.  

So Why Travel?

Travel puts the family in a completely new environment. It allows exposure to new tastes, sensations, sounds and views which is highly intellectually stimulating and captivating.  Travel helps brains grow!  With the right plan and practice, the benefits of travel for sensory sensitive kiddos outweigh the disruptions to routine it may cause.  For my own son, who prefers his room to any place we go, I see his eyes light a new environment. We’ve traveled to Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Mexico, and 34 of the United States since he was a baby.  I know he wouldn’t have the courage to leave his cocoon of safety, without the effort we’ve made to travel for the past 14 years.  

The Tough Parts of Travel 

There are some difficulties parents of sensory sensitive children will face while out and about. One of them is misunderstanding.  Most of our kids don’t “look like” they are different.  As a parent, be prepared to explain what your child might need in a busy hotel lobby, or on public transportation, in the midst of a meltdown. As a parent, we have to train ourselves to stay calm and communicate clearly if there is a problem or we need support.  There is a reason we are told to put the oxygen masks on ourselves and then our children when flying.  

Speaking of airplanes, another difficulty is quiet space for sensory overload.  Traveling abroad usually includes a long plane ride.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve taken my ADHD child to a tiny airplane bathroom so he could calm down.  This is why extra planning to learn where you can escape/find privacy along the way is important.  Escape can also be headphones with a favorite song recording and a charged iPad in a pinch.

(Cabo Rojo, PR with my amazing babysitter who became a Special Ed teacher)

A third problem is unknown open spaces.  My youngest was prone to running off–and running for miles. I have a vivid memory of chasing my four-year-old down a beach in Piñones, PR.  Most of the passersby thought we were playing.  I was running for my life! I knew he might run right into the ocean with no fear of drowning.

Where to Travel 

(My eldest expresses joy at staying alongside the animals at Disney’s Animal Kingdom)

There are many resorts, airports and theme parks that offer sensory sensitive friendly destinations and experiences. Where I live in San Antonio, Morgan’s Wonderland was built for children with disabilities and has an indoor Sensory Village plus outdoor sand play and catch and release fishing.

(The Texas State Aquarium has Sensory Sensitive Sundays. We took this selfie on the Overlook Deck of Corpus Christi Bay)

  Disney theme parks have MANY accommodations like alerts for highly stimulating attractions and reservations for rides so families can skip the line.  Vancouver has an I Can Fly airline program where children can practice boarding, use private security lines and watch videos prior to the experience. AutismTravel includes a directory so travelers can search for sensory sensitive destinations before they go.  Most destinations are in the US, but you can recommend international businesses be added to the list. Also, some aquariums, parks and zoos have sensory sensitive “days” catering to families with higher needs children.

How Can I Help Families with Sensory Sensitive Kids While Traveling?

Above all, teach kindness and acceptance. Take your children to places that welcome neurodivergent and disabled individuals so your family is aware and experienced.  As you travel, notice wheelchair ramps, elevators, and pool lifts on the pool deck.  These three tools allow accessibility to all and are important to note for families traveling with sensory sensitive kids.  Sensory playgrounds and or sensory rooms are next level supports.  The playgrounds may have a sandpit and fences so parents can corral children more easily.  Sensory rooms have pads and equipment that allow children to push, jump, hide and play, safely. A final tip is to ask what amenities a hotel or destination has for those with special needs. Many places are ready and able to serve sensory sensitive children and adults, but you won’t be aware of what’s available unless you ask.   

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