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neurodiversity pets

How to pick a trip?

Neurodiverse kids can benefit greatly from travel.

Thu Feb 01 2024

The Beginning 🐣

The first trip we ever took with our son was to India when he was about 7 months old. The flight was extremely hard on him. He cried the entire second leg of the trip from Chicago to London as he just could not sleep. This made him extra cranky and jet lagged when we arrived. The trip was about 2 months long. We settled into a rhythm in the first week. After that, we enjoyed some day trips and shopping excursions which went well and others not so much. This trip was primarily a work trip for my husband and an opportunity to spend some time with in-laws. We did not pick the location of this trip for any other reason.

We did a few other trips after this.

  • Grand Cayman (15 months old)
  • New York and New Jersey (17 months old) for a family wedding
  • Mexico (20 months old)
  • Disney World (2 years old)
  • Italy (2.5 years old)
  • Caribbean cruise (4 years old)

We picked these destinations either based on necessity or some kid-friendly factors. In the early years of having a special needs kid but not knowing exactly what those special needs were, we thought he would be happy with something outdoors. He always preferred being outside to being inside. As a child he could be outside playing with rocks and bugs for hours. Hence, any location that would allow him to do this was fine. Having a pool was helpful too. Until about 3 years old, we tended to pick a place that had a beach, good food and a slower pace to accommodate afternoon naps.

Learning & Tweaking 📑 ⚙️

After visiting Disney World and the cruise we learned that he does not much prefer crowded places. He can overcome the discomfort if he is getting something he really wants, but it makes him uncomfortable nonetheless. Disney World helped us understand some other discomforts as well such as loud music, dark rides and the importance of research. Overall, the trip was successful as there were plenty of outdoor places to enjoy with leaves to clean up and rocks to be collected.

The cruise was enjoyable as it took us to some beautiful islands such as St. Thomas and St. Martin in a picturesque part of the Caribbean sea. However the at-sea days and evenings were a bit more challenging. After going to the pool on the first day, he did not want to go anymore. There were several tantrums about eating in the sit-down restaurants as well. We now knew that this was due to discomfort with crowds. We enjoyed some quiet corners of the cruise ship and some decks, but we could not go to the pool again on that trip. We were lucky enough to have my parents on this trip with us. This allowed us to take turns and go to the sit-down restaurants for dinner a couple of times, as my son refused to leave the room once it got dark.

Our flight to Milan was a challenge and included long hours of crying and struggle. Once there, things went much better. Looking back, he probably enjoyed all the transportation vehicles we took, especially trains. He also enjoyed spending most of the time outdoors, walking around. This is where he learned to eat pizza as he never liked it before this trip. We chose Italy for this trip as we had been here for our honeymoon. It was our 5-year anniversary and we wanted to take our son here.

This was about the time we decided to tailor our trips based on what our son would enjoy the most. Like most kids on the spectrum, our son had a strong affinity towards certain things. Since before he was 2 years old, he has been obsessed with trains. He especially loves the huge 🚂 steam trains. He finds comfort in the sight and sound of the trains, the mostly straight and long paths it follows and how one carriage is connected to another. Another thing that he was in love with were 🐸 frogs. He especially loved the green ones (his favorite color is green). We used this to plan our trip to Colorado a few months after his 4th birthday. We planned the trip to include 3 scenic train rides in 3 different types of trains. He was so thrilled on this trip looking forward to each train ride. Now he is 10 and still loves trains 🚃 but is currently obsessed with airplanes 🛩️. This was the first trip he began to develop an interest in airplanes, as the airplane is a vehicle which took him to the train. This trip included a trip to the Denver aquarium as well, which had about 3 frogs on display at the time.

Trains 🚂

After this trip, for a few years, we ensured that our trips included 1 or more train rides and some way of seeing frogs, if they were found in those areas. During the ages of 4 to about 6, he was able to understand things a bit more. He would be uncomfortable to leave his toys, home, schedule and all things familiar to go somewhere completely new. The encouragement of going for a special train ride or to see some special frogs made him comfortable enough to give the whole experience a try. Planning these trips meticulously around the experiences that our son would enjoy didn’t leave much room for 🤷🏽‍♀️ surprises. He could be told the schedule for the entire trip down to the hour. Discussing this before the trip put his mind at ease and helped him understand what to expect.

Schedules ⏱️ 🗓️ ⌚︎

When we travel with him, we try to keep our daily home 🏡 schedule as much as possible. For example, we eat dinner at 5:30pm at home. When we are on a trip, we try to have dinner as close to this time as possible. If there is a delay due to a scheduled activity, we make this known before hand. We try to keep the same bedtime routine (bath, iPad, reading, bed) as well. Our son has a keen interest in different varieties of food for the last few years. When we travel, we try to eat as many different things as possible. When he was younger, he was more of a picky eater. We tried to make sure he got something he enjoyed to eat for every meal even if that meant eating pizza several times on the trip. Keeping familiar clothes, toys and familiar people (take grandparents along) is helpful on the trip as well.

Interests 🧐

On some trips, we took some reward items with us. When he did something particularly challenging like sit in the car for a couple hours without much fuss, he would get a reward (mostly a train toy or stickers etc). In my experience, using the thing that is most interesting to your neurodiverse kid (or even neurotic typical for that matter) to plan your trip has a higher chance of being enjoyable to them. This obviously varies from kid to kid. Some children are obsessed with animals, vehicles, skyscrapers, boats, elevators, water, certain type of food, characters from movies or shows, colors etc. Using this to encourage and entice them out of their comfort zone can prove most beneficial.

For kids in the 4-6 year old category, it is helpful to keep car rides and maybe even airplane rides short at first to get them used to it. Increasing the time spent in cars and airplanes can be increased gradually once they have a bit of experience. I used what I know my son is comfortable with as a guide and increase it a little each time. This helped him increase his flexibility tremendously. While choosing a destination, pay special attention to the high season and low season (especially for kids who do not like crowds or loud music like mine) , the weather (wet vs dry season as some kids have weather preferences), indoor vs outdoor activities.

In Closing 👍🏼 ✈️

Neurodiverse kids can benefit greatly from travel. Travel allowed my son to learn flexibility, enjoy different foods, engage with different types of people, understand different ways of living, eating, getting around and most importantly enjoy the world in his own way!

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