When you live with someone with sensory processing disorder or autism, it’s easy to get into routines and stick to what works.
Home becomes a refuge and a place of reassuring predictability.
But, as we saw in a year where everyone stayed home, it quickly gets boring and depressing to see the same people and do the things day after day. We all need to get out and do new things. Even if autism or sensory processing differences make this feel a little more challenging.
It’s time to break free, have a little fun, and make some family memories. You deserve it. Your family needs it. Your teen will love it.
With the right plan of action, you can help make your next family trip be a happy experience for everyone, including your teen with sensory processing disorder or autism.
Keep reading to learn about routines, items, activites, and eating out tips to make your trip not only sensory-friendly, but wildly successful.
Pay Attention to Valuable Routines
It’s easy to see vacations as an escape from normal routines, but this is wrong. Successful use of routines can be the difference between having fun – and fighting an uphill battle against moodiness and irritation.
Incorporate Familiar Routines into Vacation Plans
Plan to bring important routines on vacation with you to create some familiarity in the context of new places and activities.
For instance, bring familiar items like toothpaste and comb for the morning routine. Or keep your family’s typical pattern for going to bed at night.
This might also mean planning fun activities for when your teen is usually most active during the day or creating a quiet zone in your hotel room for when some downtime is needed.
Healthy Habits Are the Key to Fun
Prioritize eating and drinking. It’s easy to forget hydration and hunger while running from fun thing to fun thing – until it’s too late and everyone is over-hungry. Start by planning your meal times, then schedule other activities. And stick to the plan.
This is especially important if your child or teen (or you) have trouble with interoception – so the body’s sensations of hunger and thirst aren’t always noticed. To avoid fatigue and meltdowns from not sensing or meeting these needs, consider carrying a water bottle or setting an alarm for drinking or eating times.RELATED ARTICLE: Sensory Needs in Neurodiverse Children.
Similarly, prioritize rest instead of trying to do more activities. It’s tempting to stay up late and get up early to squeeze in extra fun. However, instead of fun, you might get memories of meltdowns or battles. Along the same lines, incorporate rest or quiet times during the day. This can help reset the sensory system before overload happens.
Provide Extra Help with Daily Routines
With a different environment you may need to consider using visuals to encourage routine. Your child may not need these in the familiarity at home but providing picture schedules can help them understand both daily routines and what to expect for the day.
Or maybe in the morning, you lay out their items in order - clothing, toothbrush, comb, then banana. Finally, pause so they can see all the steps to get ready and out the door.
Pack The Right Items to Avoid Sensory Overload
No one loves to uncomfortably squint through a sunny day or be startled by a sudden noise. What’s an annoyance to some, can ruin a whole day’s adventure for someone with sensory processing challenges.
So before your trip, gather some of these items and remember to pack them into your backpack each day:
- Hat or sunglasses: Eliminate light sensitivity from too much sunshine or walking from sun to shade.
- Noise cancelling headphones: Great for in the car, in the airport or other noisy places.
- Fidgets: Keep fingers and mind busy while in the car, waiting in lines, or sitting in restaurants.
- Favorite comfort items: It might take some extra room but bring that favorite pillow, seat cushion, or snack. It’s worth the hassle if it makes the day run more smoothly.
- Wearable compression gear: Lightweight, and easy to pack, compression clothing can provide on the go, calming sensory support.
Picking the Right Vacation Activities for Your Sensory Teen
You know your child and what’s going to work. This seems simple but it’s also powerful. Start vacation planning by picking activities that match sensory preferences. Keep in mind what your child or teen does or doesn’t like, and go from there. Especially if you can find a destination that includes one of their special interests. One visit to that thing they can’t stop talking about could be the defining, memorable experience of the whole vacation.
Thrill-loving Sensory Seekers
Got a teen who loves to move and have some high-velocity activities? Lot’s of options here for fun adventures for your vacation. Find somewhere with physical activity or fun rides. Think white water rafting, ziplining, and amusement parts.
Fun Low-Sensory Activities
Other teens really need more mellow, low key activities. But there are still so many options.
Find a quiet beach. Enjoy the sounds of the waves and the warmth of the sun. For some, the sensation of the sand is uncomfortable so bring a large blanket and a bucket to wash off extra sand.
Explore nature together. There are many vacation locations that feature amazing views, refreshing fresh air, and spaces to decompress. This could be hiking nature trails or going camping.
Museum or low-key interest. Does your teen love art, or sports, or science? Find a venue that offers programming around this topic. Plan ahead to attend at a time that is less busy.
Also as awareness around sensory processing disorders has increased, many museums, ballparks, and facilities have started offering either special times to visit or sensory rooms for a sensory break. Call ahead to find out what options exist.
Sensory Challenges Around Vacations and Meals
Most vacations involve eating out. However, busy restaurants and unfamiliar foods are not always easy for those with sensory processing issues. But don’t let that stop your vacation plans, there are many options for adjusting vacation meals.
Pack Favorite Foods: A trip may not be the best time for trying new foods. Bring favorite snacks and foods along to offer during outings or back at the hotel room.
Order Food To-Go: This avoids the overwhelm of eating in a busy, noisy restaurant. You can bring your meal back to the hotel room or find a quiet park.
Quiet Meal Options: There are many ways to make restaurants less overwhelming. Go during less busy times, choose outdoor seating, or request a private room. Or simply get a break by walking outside between ordering and when food arrives.
In the end, it might just come down to being flexible. Let your teen order the same meal over and over again. Or have your teen skip eating at the restaurant and simply enjoy family company or use fidgets (and eat later in at the hotel). Sometimes going on vacation means letting go of normal expectations to have an enjoyable experience for everyone.
It Doesn’t have to Be Perfect to Be a Wonderful Vacation
You’ve got this. So tuck away those concerns. Stop worrying about what might happen, and get to that family adventure. It can be as big or small as you need it to be.
In the end, you’re making memories with your family. There might be some hiccups or some changed plans. But that’s ok.
What matters is that you’re doing new things and giving your child the opportunity to explore the world in a way that’s good for them. Headphones, routines, and 4 meals of only chicken nuggets and all.