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Holiday activities away from home

Young boy playing with sand on the beach

Transitions can be difficult for people with learning disabilities or autism and travel is really a series of transitions. Preparation is the key to making travel as comfortable as possible.

If you are planning an activity at a new destination, or if there are specific rules that need to be followed, prepare your child in advance for the experience (for example, “At the movies, we use our whisper voice and we sit in our chair until the movie is over.”) If you plan to visit public parks or events, try to phone ahead to advise them of your child’s specific needs. They may offer discounts, or recommend the best time to visit.

Possible destinations

  • Local parks, pools and libraries.
  • Libraries, museums and art galleries.
  • Beaches and lakes
  • Zoos and aquariums (consider purchasing a seasonal pass if these are favourite places)
  • Family/friend’s house
  • Shopping centre
  • $2 shops
  • Bookstores
  • Restaurants
  • Indoor playground

When holidaying away from home, even more preparation may be wise.

Visual schedules

Put up a monthly calendar and mark off the days until departure. Take the calendar with you and continue to mark off the days for each stage of the trip. Clearly mark the day you return home.

Waiting Boards

As travel can involve a lot of waiting, you can make life a lot easier if you practice waiting before making any long journeys. For this, you need a hard board, a picture that your child understands means ‘waiting’, a picture of a frequently requested item, some Velcro dots and a visual timer.

  1. Make a picture that represents ‘waiting’ and stick it on a hard board with Velcro.
  2. Make a picture of something your child usually requests and wants immediately and back this with Velcro. The next time they ask for the desired item, stick it beside the ‘waiting’ symbol on the board.
  3. Set the timer for as long as you think they can wait (it may only be 10 seconds for some, or a few minutes for others).
  4. When the timer goes off, give them the requested item and, say “Thank you for waiting.” Lengthen the time they have to wait and continue to use it regularly before the holiday.

Travel kit

On the day you leave, pack a kit to keep everyone entertained on long car rides or if you are stuck in queues.

  • Familiar snacks and drinks (consider textual needs and sensory sensitivities)
  • Communication aids
  • Fidget toys
  • Engaging activities or distractors
  • Reinforcers or rewards.
  • Caps for light sensitivities
  • Headphones for sound sensitivities

Planning your holiday

There are some great online holiday directories to help you choose which activities will best suit your family. Here is a list of some national directories to get you started.

NZ Online

NZ Tourism Guide

Grab Your Wheels

You could also check out some of the daily deal websites like GrabOne or TreatMe for special offers on activities or other holiday and activity websites like Bookme or Wotif.

Travelling by plane

If you are travelling with someone who has not flown before, or is anxious about flying, here are some strategies that may help.

  • A visit to the airport before the day of departure is recommended. Contact the airline or airport ahead of time and explain your travelling needs. Some airlines have special assistance services and this is a good place to start. See if you can go through security as a practice. Explain the luggage drop off and pick up process, and ask to have this demonstrated if luggage disappearing from sight will cause distress. You may need to give the airport staff some information about any particular unusual behaviour that might cause alarm or embarrassment, for example, if your travel companion hand flaps when anxious or excited.
  • Create a social story using photos of the airport, the outside and inside of the plane, and the destination airport. Start reading this story well in advance of the day of departure, so that your traveller can be as prepared as possible.
  • You may be able to arrange for your family to check in a little early to avoid queues.
  • Ask if there is a quiet area where you can wait to board.
  • Request to board first or last, depending on what works best for your family.
  • Discuss seating with the airline and select the seat that is most suitable. Often the first and last seats have a little more room, which may have advantages.  But check the location of toilets, as these are often at the rear of the plane, which may cause difficulties.
  • Let the airline know in advance if there are any special dietary requirements. If you are travelling domestically, you may decide to take your own food; check with the airline if you are travelling internationally as there are restrictions around taking food into other countries.
  • Check out the range of airport restaurants and plan which one (if any) will best suit your family.
  • Encourage your travel companion to write or draw a Worry Page, to share their travel concerns with you before you leave home.
  • Take noise-reduction headphones if sound sensitivities cause distress.
  • Make sure you keep essential items in your hand luggage.
  • Make sure you have adequate medication for the time you are away, and check if there are any disclosure requirements around these when travelling internationally.
  • Carry a recent photo of your travel companion in case they get lost and you need to identify them. If they are non-verbal, pin an information card to their clothing and include the words “non-verbal’. Medical bracelets or tags for shoelaces can also be used.
  • Don’t wash any favourite cuddly toys before travelling if this will wash away the comforting smells of home.
  • Make good use of a travel agent to ensure you know about any special supports for families with disabilities.
  • Consider travel insurance if travelling overseas.

Bon voyage!


National Autistic Society. Holidays: Preparation and practicalities.

Sicile-Kira, C. Travel tips for families with an individual on the autism spectrum.

You may be interested in reading our article about travelling on public transport.

This article originally appeared in Altogether Autism Journal Christmas 2014

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Suggest an edit for Holiday activities away from home

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