Visiting Relatives With Your Autistic Child
Noise-canceling headphones: check. Fidget toys: check. Crunchy snacks: got ‘em. Favorite stuffed friend? Packed. Unsolicited advice deflector: umm, where can we get one of those? Traveling with an autistic child presents a potpourri of challenges to autism families, but some of the biggest come when you reach your destination. Here are some tips for visiting relatives with your autistic child.
Communicate in Advance
Once everyone decides who’s hosting this year, set a time to speak with the lucky winner. Start by acknowledging that they know your child is autistic, and take the angle that you want to help make the holiday enjoyable for everyone.
Remind your host and all the other guests expected to attend about your child’s sensitivities, and explain that those triggers aren’t going to magically disappear. Be clear that failure to cooperate can have intense consequences (pulled hair, broken glassware, screaming, or whatever your child’s preferred method of indicating distress might be), “and we don’t want that, now, do we?”
Develop an Escape Plan
Plan what to do in the event of a meltdown. One of you can be the escape artist who takes your child to the local park, for a drive around the neighborhood, or into the designated break room with fidget toys or a favorite stuffed animal.
Pack some favorite food items you know your child will like, or that your child finds soothing. Expect criticism, but ignore it. Your child has to eat, and if they won’t eat what your host is serving, ensure they get something they will eat, even if it’s fast food.
If your visit involves an overnight stay, do your best to maintain your child’s routine. Flying across the country may mean you’re getting up at 4 a.m. instead of 6 a.m., but keeping your child comfortable will be worth it. And bonus, you’ll get some quiet time with your kid before Grandma starts banging around in the kitchen.
Safety Is Non-Negotiable
If your child tends to wander or gets fascinated with electrical outlets, firmly insist that your host prepare their home to be safe for your autistic child. Bring or buy childproofing equipment if you must, but never accept, “oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine for just a few days.” You know better. Take turns with your partner and enlist a sympathetic family member to ensure that someone is watching your autistic child at all times for safety.
Say “Maybe Next Year” When You Must
If your host is not responsive to your requests for accommodation, or your child has a last-minute meltdown, tell your hosts you won’t be able to come. If they’re tuned in to your child’s autism, they’ll understand. If they get snippy about it, that’s their problem, not yours. Be grateful you dodged that bullet.
Visiting family with your autistic child can be wonderful, or it could break bad at any moment. You’ve been riding this roller coaster for a while, so trust your judgment and put your child’s needs first.