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A spectrum of family travel possibilities

By Kara Halonen and Gregory Martin

We’re the Martin family from Oshawa, Ontario. We have two beautiful daughters who live with autism, Teagan (age 9) and Logan (age 4). Both girls are now avid fans of travelling, after family trips to Disney and holidays on the beautiful beaches of Florida.

However, for many years, we’d worry about one of the girls running away from us at the airport or how we’d manage the long line-ups at airport security or border customs. Then, at our amusement park destinations, we’d second guess how they’d cope with the lines and the crowds. We’ve learned a lot, so here are a few of  our personalized tips to help get your vacations planning off on the right foot.

Show and tell

Use visuals and social media as a means to showing your child the steps and obstacles they will have to endure at the airport and showing them all the fun things that await them once they are able to get through it. A visual board (PECS), social story and a countdown calendar help break things down into a step-by-step process. This way your kids will know what to expect from  the moment they leave the house to go to the airport until the time they’ll board the airplane.

What to expect

Visit the hotel and amusement park’s websites –they’re great visual aids to show your kids. This will help to build up their excitement and for them to give them a better idea of how everything will look. It will also bring a level of comfort now that they know what is ahead of them rather than the nervousness of not knowing what is ahead.

Use airport services

Fly from a smaller airport, if that is an option, to mitigate the traffic and chaos.  Also, airlines offer Passenger Assist programs. By calling ahead to the airline and discussing your situation, you can pre-book your seats to assure the family will be sitting together. You can also use a check-in desk that is specifically designated for those living with disabilities. After the check-in process is complete they will call an attendant to work with your family to get you directly through security and customs.

Step up ahead of time

Take advantage of pre-boarding so your children can get seated calmly and quietly, get help putting on their seatbelts and organize snacks, electronics etc. Introduce your children to the flight attendants and discreetly let the crew know that you are travelling with a child with autism, so that they have a heads up if you need any sort of assistance during the flight.

Inclusive destinations

Over the last couple of years many well-known theme parks (Disney, Legoland, Sea World, Canada’s Wonderland, Sesame Street Place, Discovery Cove, to name a few) have taken steps to making sure their attraction is one that is inclusive for all, and some have implemented a program called the RIDER ASSIST PROGRAM (R.A.P.)

Other parks have even gone so far as to have themselves become autism certified and have provided staff members with workshops on how to work with and help meet the needs of children with autism. Each theme park will have their own version of how their R.A.P. works, as it’s not a universal program. Consult the parks official website or to call ahead and ask how their R.A.P. works to reduce line-ups and noise. Check in with guest services as soon as you arrive

Locate quiet spaces

Sensory rooms and sensory play areas throughout the park may be available help reduce any anxiety or stress that may occur with being among large groups of people, noisy rides, bright lights and loud music from parades/bands/fireworks often associated with these theme parks.

Over the years, we’ve watched our daughters mature, grow, gain more self-convince, discover a sense of adventure, and meet new friends throughout our many travels. And, we have learnt
that just because your child may have special needs does not mean they can’t enjoy those special travel adventures with their family. Our secret: careful research, plenty of planning, and a lot of love.

Kara Halonen and Gregory Martin are full time autism parents of Teagan and Logan Martin with their pet cat Princess Belle. They would love to hear all your stories as well. You can follow the sisters their family’s journeys at: www.autismmodelingsisters.ca.

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