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ASD on Vacation

Nine years into parenting our special needs daughter, we were ready for a vacation.

Last year Duluth, MN experienced the snowiest winter on record - 140 inches! Expecting the snow to continue trending, we decided we'd do what it takes to get somewhere warm in 2024. Little did we know, 2024 would break the record for the mildest winter on record... oh well, to the southwest we went!

A few highlights from our trip to Las Vegas, Lake Havasu, and the Grand Canyon.

Accomplishing things with children can be a colossal task. Even the activities they enjoy can turn upside down if naptime is interrupted or snack time is skipped. Factor in a child with special needs and we are talking about a full-on event. For me, it can feel like getting through the most basic daily tasks is all I can manage day to day. But, this doesn't have to be the case. I recently proved this to myself with a vacation and I want to share what I did to make it work.

First- seek resources and support.

I was apprehensive about flying with my child. She enjoys buses and car rides, to a point, but you can stop and exit those modes of transportation if things get hairy. To overcome my worry, I reached out to the airport to see what sensory solutions I might find. I was relieved to find several resources and strategies prepared for us.

We have an adaptive stroller for our daughter. We were granted this via insurance based on safety. She ambulates well, so well that she's a flight risk. and airports are big places, and they can be a maze. In addition, she has some oppositional tendencies, so we decided to utilize our stroller to meander the confusion with a bit of security and control. I thought the stroller would be a burden and possibly expensive to carry on, but no! Using our stroller granted us wheelchair services. I cannot tell you how much time this saved us at TSA, but I can tell you we were through the checkpoint in under five minutes.

Having an ASD child who is overwhelmed by stimulation and new experiences is challenging, but try doing that in line for an hour surrounded by strangers staring you down, offering advice, or criticisms. That alone can be enough to deter special needs families from leaving the house. Getting through security quickly and efficiently was a game-changer. If you can utilize wheelchair service to travel with your special needs child, I recommend you try.

The airport also offers meet and greets before your travel date. This gives your family a chance to tour the airport and see the plane before D-day. Exploring the setting and navigating the process soothed our routine-loving daughter's anxiety and turned the big day into a manageable adventure.

We were surprised to find so many accommodations along the way. Most places offer sensory-friendly days, chaperones, and ADA-friendly options. Before each attraction, we'd search the web for ADA and ASD accommodations and utilized them to the fullest. I've been self-conscious about this in the past, feeling that we didn't always fit the ADA framework, but it turns out we fit precisely. Not only did allowing ourselves to ask for help save us a load of stress, but our daughter was also thoughtfully accommodated allowing her to enjoy things we used to avoid out of fear of inconvenience or overwhelm.

Second- planning, planning, planning.

I used Chat GPT, Google Maps, Facebook groups, friends, and family to organize our trip. Pulling from numerous resources helped me orient myself in new places before we even arrived.

I created our itinerary with Chat GPT, Google Maps for timing, Facebook groups for insider info., and family and friends for their travel lessons. By the time we took off, I had enough knowledge to comfortably accomplish our travel goals and adapt when things needed to change. Having an idea about where pharmacies, grocery stores, and your desired attractions are can make the stress of travel less intense and more like a day in your neighborhood. Being prepared is the difference between vacationing and managing.

We are now planning our next flight vacation to Florida next winter. This first successful experience was what we needed to build our confidence for the next.

Side note - we invested a little extra when buying our tickets and making reservations to guarantee things, such as no layovers, refunds, free hotel cancellations, and text updates for flight delays. This did cost us money, but saved us a headache or two.

Third - Obviously, be flexible. I had a small panic attack the night before we left, thinking about dragging my little daughter so far from home. I felt so vulnerable and concerned about being away from our normal and our support. To calm down, I googled the local Walmarts, pharmacies, and hospitals near our destinations. I needed to know that anywhere we were, I could still find what we'd need. This may not sound like flexibility, but giving myself reassurance called my nerves enough to think about other things, like roadside and tourist attractions.

Having young children, and navigating special needs means constantly dealing with unknowns. This can amount to a steady stream of cortisol. This is not good. Thinking about vacation on edge was enough to make me second guess our decisions over and over. We had to trust that we'd planned well enough and knew ourselves well enough to manage whatever, wherever we went.

In the end, we took off, managing our expectations and cortisol levels all the way to Arizona.

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