We’ve returned from our trip and everyone is in one piece. It went better than anticipated, but it was still exhausting. As often is the case, I think the successes during the trip can be attributed to J-Man being stronger than we give him credit for and a lot of planning and strategizing on our part to make up the rest. Taking a long trip with an autistic toddler takes a lot of planning and thinking through. Preparation can make the whole thing better, but believe your kid will surprise you with managing better than you expect on some things.
Seven hours in the car is about two hours (or more) too long for him – and probably us for that matter – but he was a good sport about it. We left entirely too late on Thursday and were still driving in the dark well over an hour past his bedtime. He was borderline insane by the time we arrived, going full bore with something between grumpy moaning and crazed, maniacal laughter along with really energetic stimming. What fun.
You can read our previous post about planning for our big trip.
For what this is worth, here are a baker’s dozen of things we learned that are worth preserving for next time. This assumes you’re traveling by car. I don’t have a freakin’ clue how one would get through a plane trip. The mere thought of that gives me shivers.
1. Educate the family ahead of time if they are family you aren’t around much. We laid a lot of groundwork before the trip and told them how they could help us have a good visit. They were very understanding of our situation and most of them did a great job in helping out. It helped tremendously that my dad was there as J-Man worships the ground he walks on and draws untold calm from him.
This is also a good chance to help family members celebrate your child. If you have a positive attitude and show how much you value and honor your child just as they are, others will get more comfortable and hopefully adopt the same attitude. People assume autism is some awful nightmare, which it’s not. A good attitude helps overturn stereotypes and gives opportunities for others to celebrate all the diverse gifts autistic children can bring to their lives.
Not surprisingly, some of the younger cousins had a harder time understanding his situation. Occasionally we had to intervene when they were too into his personal space. They missed him and wanted to be near him, though, so this is perfectly natural and rather sweet really.
2. Similarly, you are there to shepherd your child through the trip as needed; everything else – such as other people getting annoyed at your adherence to schedule – can get over itself.
3. Keep an eagle eye out for signs your child is starting to go south and stay ahead of the meltdowns with brushing, holding, music, or whatever methods work for them.
4. Try to stay with the most calm family member you can (assuming you’re not staying in a hotel) and don’t worry about what everyone else thinks of your choice of where to stay.
5. Schedule events around your child’s normal daily rhythms as much as you realistically can. If your child normally gets some downtime in the afternoon, try to be somewhere that has a place you can retreat to with your child for a little while.
6. Since autistic kids are usually finicky eaters, be prepared to pack a mobile kitchen. We packed literally everything he’d need to eat and drink for three days, going as far as pretending we wouldn’t have access to a grocery store. My family lives primarily in small towns, so who knows whether they’d have the right kind of chicken nuggets, snacks, etc. at the store. Pretty much all we borrowed while up there was a tea pitcher and a couple of plates. It took two small coolers and a couple of grocery bags, but it was worth it.
7. Music was extraordinarily helpful. A lot of autistic kids respond to music, and ours is no exception. We loaded up the iPods with music and resigned ourselves to having to listen to Rachel Coleman and Laurie Berkner much of the way (not a terrible fate by any means, it just gets old after a few hours). We’re kind of used to this, so it was OK. Likewise, don’t hesitate to use videos or other distractions to calm everybody down for a bit. A quiet car is a safer car.
8. Get out of the car often; be prepared to not rush your stops. This seven-hour trip would take barely more than six if I drove it on my own. We accepted ahead of time that we’d get there when we got there. The stops were worth it to get out of the car, stretch our legs, eat, stock up on caffeinated beverages, and generally get some fresh air. I know the compulsion to drive the wheels off the car, get there faster, and end the suffering is strong. I think the breaks are worth it.
9. On this trip, J-Man wouldn’t use his food picture board for some reason. I imagine because it wasn’t on the wall in our kitchen in the expected place, it threw him off. If this happens to you, keep track in your head what your child’s normal needs are at any given time of day and anticipate them at those times when you’re on the road. If you’ve got the picture schedule thing wired whether at home or on the road, good-o for you!
10. (Big warning – this may be totally wrong for your kid.) We found that at least for J-Man, completely exhausting him each night was actually a good idea. We kept him up over two hours past his normal bedtime, which was a very daring move, but it made it much easier to get him to fall asleep. We left him on the big bed until he was in deep sleep and then slipped him into a crib where he stayed until morning. Normally on trips he ends up sleeping with someone, which completely screws up everybody’s sleep. He slept until about 8AM, which was a miracle by our standards. Sure he lost two hours net of sleep each night compared to normal, but this is still an improvement over other trips where he’d go three or four hours over par every night, and it probably bought us an extra day or two of sanity over our usual two-night limit.
11. Go with the flow and be OK with being off schedule. If you give off a sense of calm about it, there’s a better chance your child will draw from that and do better. If you need to blow off some insane steam, go off by yourself and do that, and then come back and try to put on a calm face. Not everything can be perfect. Don’t panic, or at least don’t let your child see you panic.
12. If your child is comfortable with your family – or one or more of the people present at any given time – let them enjoy each other and take a break on your own, like nap.
13. Ingest as many comfort foods and beverages (non-alcoholic of course) during the drive as you need to in order to stay semi-sane, and forget the health consequences. I found that a couple of bucket-sized lattes and chocolate kept some level of sanity going in me, and at that point I didn’t much care how I got there. I figured I’d exercise when I got home or something.
On a side note, preschool has turned out to be really helpful for long trips. Pre-K is 6 1/2 hours a day for him, about as long as one way on the trip. Preschool has dramatically helped his overall endurance during the day. I would go as far as to say that a month ago before he started school, this trip would have been much, much harder.
Well, that’s plenty to ponder. If you have tips and tricks for getting your autistic child through trips, let us know!