Vacation tips for parents of children with ASD

Photo by Derek Thomson on Unsplash

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Summer is here, the kids are out of school, and it’s time for that family road trip!

But let’s not kid each other – road trips make for great memories, but can also come with stressors.  Often times your family is packed into a vehicle for hours, if not days, at a time.  Hotel rooms can be confining, and theme parks can be overstimulating, hot, and tiresome.

While most families have experienced the stressors of vacation, they can be particularly challenging for parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

So before you pile the kids in the car for that two-day drive to Disney World, we have a few suggestions to help ensure your vacation runs smoothly:

Create a visual schedule.  A visual schedule is simply a visual representation of activities that take place consecutively across one or more days, and can be a great way to minimize surprises and ensure your child knows what to expect during the trip.  Moreover, creating the visual schedule can be a fun activity to do with your child that can help get him/her excited about the vacation.  One simple way to create a visual schedule is to print out cards with names or pictures of activities or  places.  Attach the cards to a timeline, and review the timeline with your child at the start of the trip and at the beginning of each day.  As you progress through the schedule, have your child remove cards from the timeline.  As an extra tip, consider decorating the schedule with things your child likes (e.g., favorite animals, sports, etc…).

Create a token system.  A token is simply an object that can be exchanged for a variety of preferred items later.  Tokens have an advantage in that they are easy to quickly administer whenever your child does something positive. Be sure to make the tokens out of something that is fun for the child.  For example, if your child likes video games, you could print out images of gold Mario coins and give your child a coin immediately following something good.  You can also create a simple reinforcer menu that lists an array of preferred items or activities in which your child can receive by exchanging different amounts of tokens.  For example, five tokens might earn a treat, ten tokens might earn an extra ride at an amusement park, and 15 tokens might earn a new favorite video game.

Structure the environment.  Structure can take a variety of forms depending on your child’s needs.  The basic idea is to arrange the environment in a way that is most likely to prevent maladaptive behavior, and encourage adaptive skills.  For example, if your child is sound sensitive, you may take extra care to reduce the radio volume in the car, or avoid noisy places with large crowds.  Structure also includes consistency on the part of parents in using reinforcement, the visual schedule, praising adaptive skills, and so on.

Let your child know what to expect.  Though visual schedules go a long way toward establishing expectations, you may not always have the schedule in front of you.  Not to worry! Establishing expectations can take a variety of forms, all geared towards reducing surprises during transitions.  For example, you could say “in 5 minutes we will leave the restaurant” or “it looks like there may be alot of people at the next ride”.  Sometimes combining these strategies with choice options will go a long way to preventing maladaptive behaviors as well.  For example, you could say “the ride we wanted to go on might be closed by the time we get there.  If it is, would you like to do X or Y?”

Try to avoid lines.  Waiting in line can be a stressor in and of itself – typically there are few activities to occupy the child in line, and the presence of many other people in the line could overstimulate your child.  Thus, you might consider purchasing special passes that allow you to skip the line.

Check for special accommodations.  These days, more and more places have accommodations for kids with special needs. Accommodations could take the form of wheelchair ramps, sensory activities, an autism friendly movie theater, and many more.  Larger tourist destinations will be particularly likely to have such accommodations.  Before your trip, look online or give them a call to see what’s available.  You might be surprised!

Be safe.  Safety is every parent’s top concern for their child.  In the event your child gets lost, simple things such as having identification, contact numbers, or a cell phone, can do a lot.  You might also consider practicing adaptive safety skills that your child can use if need be.  The latter might include “stranger danger” skills, how to identify police officers, and where to meet if your family gets separated.

Finally, we should note that ABA is not a one-size-fits-all approach to learning.  ABA is highly individualized based on your child’s specific needs.  Care should be taken to design a plan based on a comprehensive behavioral assessment by a qualified professional.

For more tips to ensure a smooth vacation, talk to your BCBA or email us at


Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world,  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at

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