The Art of Travel in Aspie Land
Travelling with the family can mean different things to all of us. For some, it's a wonderful break from the normal routine, the joy of the open road, and an intoxicating flexibility to stop off whenever and wherever fancy strikes. For others, though, it can be a hard slog, full of uncertainty, anxiety and strange food. For a child with Aspergers, the later is the most likely response to the announcement - we're going on a road trip!
Below is an article I wrote in 2009 about a recent holiday, and the strategies we've devised to make things better for our son.
Like most Aspies, our 11 year old loves, and needs, certainty, control and quiet. Taking the children on a two week Easter holiday to stay with extended family and friends meant that many of the things we usually do at home to help him manage, were not always possible.
Prior to his diagnosis two years ago, we tried to keep going to music festivals, big group holidays, and the parties we’d so loved BC (before children). With hindsight, I now understand why most of these outings ended in tears. For a while, it all seemed too hard. We curtailed our weekend jaunts dramatically, till boredom and guilt for the other children grew. After learning more about the special Aspie brain, and how best to provide for our son, we have developed some coping strategies that keep most of the family happy, more of the time.
This Easter we drove from Melbourne to Canberra for three days of sight seeing, on to Sydney for four days with relatives, then home via three more days on the NSW South Coast. Over 2,000 kilometres and three different homes in 11 days. Ambitious - yes, even crazy maybe. But the kids were all involved in the decision to add Canberra to the trip, as they were eager to see Questacon with friends, while I wanted to share the museums and galleries with them. It all seemed like such a great idea at the time!
As we drove towards the last part of our holiday, the wheels kept falling off (metaphorically). On arriving home, I asked my son what we could do better next time. Here then are our tips for holiday sanity:
- Provide as much quiet-time and space as possible when the child is feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
- Electronic gadgets and books are great for mental escapism when physical isolation is not possible.
- Ensure your child’s favourite food staples are brought along for the trip. I forgot the magic tomato sauce this time, not good!
- Give them a spell in the front seat on long drives when sibling noise and wriggling gets too much.
- Be realistic in how many activities can be achieved in one day. Allow the child to choose from a shortlist.
- Give plenty of notice of scheduled plans, and especially any changes. Keep repeating the planned itinerary, and even put it in writing.
- Let the child wear their favourite clothes - the stress of the itchy-scratchy ‘good’ outfit is unwise, and unnecessary. He really doesn’t care how he looks.
- Allow plenty of time for the child’s favourite activity, e.g. hours building complicated sandcastle villages at the beach, rather than more challenging adventures. There’s nothing to be gained from insisting they do the canoe trip if they’re really not interested.
- If possible, let them stay back with a supportive adult when the group is doing something they feel anxious about. Give space and time to recover when anxiety levels rise.
- Try to avoid places that are too noisy, busy or chaotic, as it may induce panic attacks or meltdowns. If you must go, ensure the child feels supported, and knows the time will be kept as brief as possible. Keep to your promise about the duration of parties.
- Don’t forget to pack a fiddle toy. A great big blob of Blu-Tack is his current favourite. We also like its reasonable cost and easy replacement attributes!
- Try to keep to the home routine as much as possible, e.g. meal and bed times, and sequences of routines.
While our son would be happy to stay home nearly all the time, the rest of the family deserves to enjoy outings and holidays. Striking that happy medium for all is a constant endeavour, which we hope will ease over time.
Previously published in ASSN Victoria's Winter 2009 Update