I have written about how hard it can be for neurodiverse families to get out of the house quite a bit over the years. Both Biggest and I are homebodies. We love our comforts, hate crowded places and love having the time and space to indulge our passions in peace and safety. However, we both also have an insatiable curiosity about the world and take great pleasure in seeing new places and learning new things – if it is planned well. We have developed quite a few strategies for ensuring that day trips with autistic children go as well as they can, and for making sure the whole family can enjoy time at new and interesting places.
Likewise, we have learned Biggest’s warning signs and tolerances. I think we are now quite knowledgeable about how to make sure our trips are a success as much of the time as they can be. The tips and advice below are the things we have found to work with our son, so they will not fit for every autistic child. However, I think there will be some things that many can adapt to suit individual needs.
Tips for Day Trips with Autistic Children
The Scouts had it right. As with any outing with small children, being prepared is essential. When planning a trip with an autistic child, planning is taken to a whole new level. We consider: the journey and how long it will take, the venue and facilities, the food they will have there, the weather, the time of year and whether it will be busy, how Biggest has been feeling and how he has been coping with things in recent weeks. When packing, we need to consider the things he will need and this can go beyond the needs of a typical child. For example, though he is approaching 6, he needs the right cup and sometimes special cutlery. A great deal of thought goes into every element, from when we go, to what we take.
The Right Amount of Warning
Giving Biggest warning about things can be a really tricky thing to navigate. Sometimes, our son will prefer to have a warning weeks in advance and to talk about the upcoming event a lot in the build-up. This gives him comfort as it allows him to be absolutely sure about what will happen and to indulge in repetition (one of his favourite things) in order to feel secure and comfortable. However, if it is a place or an event that he has particularly strong feelings about – something he is really excited about or a place where he had a bad experience last time, for example – then warning too far in advance can send his anxiety through the roof. Gauging this is tricky, and I suspect every child will be different. You will likely know which events and places are likely to cause more anxiety for your child.
With general outings and events that I know he will not worry about, we give lots of warning. For day trips, we would probably start telling him the week before and reminding him of little details about what will happen. For example, things we will see, whether or not we will eat there. We also have a visual timetable and we print off pictures of the place we will be visiting so that he can stick it to his timetable board. (We keep this up on the wall in our dining room so that he can always see it.)
For events that will cause worry, warning is still necessary but we keep it succinct to minimise his anxiety. The earliest we have told him is the day before, but this can cause a problem with sleep. If this may be the case then we have sometimes waited until the morning to tell him. We keep it as simple as possible in these cases. The visual timetable is still helpful, but we stick to clear and straightforward information about what it happening. For example, where we are going, a few very simple steps about the order of events (first, now, next, finally) and when we will return.
If an autistic child has limited speech or is non-verbal, this may also affect whether giving advance warning is possible and sticking to simple information/pictures on the day of the event may be the best course.
Give them a Call
If you are planning to go somewhere, give the venue a call in advance. You can find out when their busiest times are, what kind of food they have, if anything unexpected is happening that day, if they can help support you in any way (skipping queues for example).
Do your Research
These days, most places have websites with lots of information. As well as information about facilities, opening times, and what’s on, they usually have a lot of pictures. This can be great for showing your child in advance or printing off to give them or use on a timetable. This can backfire if they change anything or sections are not open – that is why I always like to phone first before giving Biggest the pictures or letting him know that we will be doing.
Another good trick we have learned (which only works if you have two adults available unfortunately) is for one adult to ‘case out’ the venue as soon as you arrive. For example, I might take the children to look at one thing, or give them a drink and a snack, while my husband spends a few minutes checking everything. Where are the toilets, do they have hand-dryers, what kind of food is the cafe serving, is there anything else he may see/come across that could cause distress?
Packing is Key
Firstly, there are the general things you may need to pack for children. Extra layers, sun cream, hats, a favourite toy. Next, you will likely have to consider any special items your child will need. For example, nappies/pull-ups, special cups or cutlery (if eating), ear-defenders or headphones. If you have a sensory seeker, fiddle toys or any other fidget objects that reduce anxiety may be necessary. Next, there are electronic items that may give comfort to your little one. We always pack Biggest’s tablet and headphones/music. He may get a few tuts and stares while playing on a tablet amidst a beautiful National Trust site or museum but his comfort is the most important thing. His tablet is one of the few things that can stop a meltdown when the warning signs one might be on its way have started.
Another strategy that we have found works is to take one or two unexpected items. This may sound odd with a child who really needs perfect planning and routine but it has worked to avert upset more than once. By unexpected, I do not mean completely unfamiliar. I mean something that is new enough to distract and engage but familiar enough to be comforting.
Things we have used before include: little matchbox cars (Biggest collected these at one point), a new chew or fidget toy, or stress relief toy, a sensory timer (the kind with oil or coloured sand, like these), a new book, silly putty, anything with a light or that glows.
Obviously, buying something new to use every time you plan a trip would be impractical. However, if there is a big trip coming up, it can be a useful trick to have ‘up your sleeve’ for the most important events. For example, family get-togethers that you will need to stay for or something you know they will really love and you want to go well.
You Cannot Plan for the Unpredictable
Sometimes, it starts raining unexpectedly. Sometimes, the venue run out of a favourite food, or have to close parts for unpredictable reasons. You can only plan for these to a certain extent. Unexpected noises have been a big issue for us – from hand-dryers to church bells to dinosaur models that roar without warning. Distraction and comforting tactics can sometimes fix this, but not always. The best you can do is develop plans for what will work best for your family if something unexpected happens.
Be Cost Effective
One of the great issues we have found when planning trips with an autistic child is cost. Biggest cannot tolerate busy places for very long. If we pay for a very expensive entry to a zoo or park, the likelihood is that he will manage a few hours at most. In addition, if something goes wrong (see above) or he is simply not coping very well, sometimes we will have to leave immediately. Entrance into many family oriented places can be very, very expensive. For our family of four that can be in excess of £50. If you have a larger family, or choose one of the most expensive venues, that can easily get up into the hundreds. It is highly unlikely that a family would want to spend that amount of money if there is a chance they may have to leave after a very short time.
Choose venues wisely. Researching places that are free, or low-cost, is as much a part of our preparation as researching and warning Biggest. We pay for a National Trust membership and we have found this to be a perfect solution for us. Although we pay every month, we can go whenever we like. There are one or two sites nearby that we visit often. This means that we do not have to worry if we turn up and have to leave suddenly.
Do Not be Afraid to Call it Quits
As mentioned above, you cannot plan for the unpredictable. Sometimes, you can tell that the trip is never going to work – at least, not on that day. One of the greatest things I have learned about trips with Biggest is to not be afraid to just leave. I have left places in the middle of ordering food before, or when we have just paid to do something. One issue with this is the cost (see above). I think another was the feeling that I really should stay, because it was expected and Biggest needed to learn to cope.
I have completely changed my thinking on this. If his distress outweighs his enjoyment, we leave. I no longer believe that we need to stay to get him used to it or because he should do certain things. If he feels safe and comfortable, part of that is knowing that he will not have to do anything if he does not want to. I find that, in the long run, this makes him more able to cope, not less.
Other factors which may affect this include if another child may be upset about leaving. I suspect this will be something that becomes more of a problem as Littlest gets older. She will become more aware that things are often dictated by her brother’s reaction. Again, if you have two adults available, splitting up can be an option to make sure things are fair. Balancing the needs of two children with very different abilities and tolerances is quite tricky for any parent.
When things work well and go to plan, the benefits and rewards of a happy and engaged child are well worth the meticulous planning –
Those are our tips for day trips with autistic children. Which ones would you add?
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