Family Adventures

This article by Maisie Soetantyo was originally published in Autism World Magazine in September 2014

“The world is the true classroom. The most rewarding and important type of learning is through experience, seeing something with our own eyes.” – Jack Hanna

During our recent travels from Singapore to Jakarta, my family and I were running through the length of Terminal One at the Changi Airport, dragging our suitcases with our kids whining behind us, and worst of all, having to do the walk of shame as we stepped onto the plane as the last ones on board… (We had not changed our clocks). It was a miracle that we made it back to Jakarta!

Some families are amazing travelers, and I always wonder about their secrets; how do they occupy their children on the plane when everyone else is asleep, what do they know what to pack without bringing the whole house with them, what kind of accommodations do they choose and how do they keep everyone happy with holiday activities. In the RDI (Relationship Development Intervention) program, we believe that traveling is an invaluable opportunity to build the guide-apprentice relationship through real world opportunities. Often times, parents avoid long distance traveling because it may cause too much anxiety on themselves and their child with Autism. Issues such as inflexibility, sensory overload, dietary restrictions, transition problems, safety or tantrums are tough to handle when you are out of your own comfort zone.

In my search for useful ideas on traveling with a special needs child, I found two excellent books “Autism & Travel” and “A Travel Resource for Parents of Children with Special Needs” written by Jesemine Jones and Ida Keiper. The writers were founders of the “Starry Night Travel”, a travel agency based in New York specializing in helping parents with special needs children plan a getaway. These books contain practical tips, check lists and important questions for parents to consider before and during their trips. For instance, topics such as safety, getting through airport security, vacation countdown calendars, adapting to new environments and many more are thoroughly discussed.

Thinking Ahead

Does traveling get any easier? The answer is “YES”. Even if a trip turns out to be a stressful fiasco for whatever reason, it is still an opportunity for families to plan better for future adventures. The key to having a productive getaway is providing a meaningful experience for the child before, during and after a trip. When children are given a chance to be actively involved in planning a trip, they are more likely to take ownership of the outcome they would want to gain from the new experience.

So where do we start? Jesemine Jones and Ida Keiper started off their book with a wonderful bit of advice; ‘imagine and dream your vacation’. Start having a discussion with your family months or even a year ahead on what your ideal vacation might look like. Try having a ‘vacation family ‘Pow-Wow’ once a week, so it won’t be a hurried, last minute activity. For individuals with ASD, getting involved in a project where they can take part in revisions, fill in the blanks, think about options, develop a check list and consider other’s input and preferences is an excellent practice.

Is it a relaxing beach, challenging mountain hike or exciting city scenery? If your ASD child has a difficult time participating in a lengthy discussion, keep it simple. Make a visual scrap book for everyone, with drawings or photos. Research possible new places, activities to explore, tag good travel tips and take snap shots of interesting land marks as a family activity. An organizational App for iPad, iPhone or android phones such as Evernote can provide simple ways to create written, audio or visual folders and journals, as well as tools to help you develop check lists.

Perhaps it is hard to agree on an ideal place? No problem, everyone could have a different scenario and compromise can be made as planning advances. Next is to fill in the details; will the vacation involves animal or train themes, shopping, hiking, water sports or eating at well-known restaurants? This bottom up approach will help the whole family to choose an ideal vacation spot with a little bit of everyone’s interests.

Getting Ready

Once the family has chosen a vacation destination, they can now identify potential travel concerns. In the “Autism & Travel” book, the writers recommended creating a check list of concerns grouped into major aspects of the trip. For example, at the airport and on the plane ride, there may be sensory issues related to being in a crowded place, waiting in line for security check, keeping a seat belt on or sitting calmly during the flight, etc. Problems related to vacation accommodations could be riding in an elevator, sleeping on a different bed or unfamiliar routines. Other major concerns for parents are frequently related to safety issues, such as staying close to a parent and not wandering off without permission.

The Goal beneath the Goal

In RDI we coach parents to include their ASD child in meaningful opportunities where both parent and child collaborate not only in ‘doing’ things together, but also to focus on the process of decision making. One objective that many young children (as well as individuals diagnosed with ASD) can learn to improve is in the area of ‘executive functioning’, which is defined as the ability to link past experiences with ‘in-the-moment’ decision making. Activities such as planning, organizing, anticipating what comes next or time management are just a few examples of executive functioning exercises. Thus, planning for a vacation can make a great family project!

There are many daily activities adults do that can serve as excellent vehicles for our children to prepare for a vacation. For instance, making a check list with our children for things to do, to pack or to buy, fits perfectly with advance trip preparations. Practicing walking together after dinner while focusing on relaxing and sharing the experience, could increase a child’s ability to monitor his/her parent and their surroundings. During these walks parents can spotlight staying together for safety purposes.

Below are some ‘keep in mind’ tips for parents as they use daily activities to plan and prepare for a vacation:

Assign two active roles in any activity, so that a parent and child could work on collaboration and exchange of ideas throughout the activity. For example, when choosing an ideal vacation place online, the parent can take on the role of ‘note taker’ while the child can search and highlight interesting things about each place. A true partnership reflects the process of a parent guiding one step at a time, instead of a parent instructing his/her child to complete tasks.

Make time to schedule and slow down communication pace to increase the quality of discussion for vacation planning. Take the time to look at previous decisions and make revisions as a family.

Spotlight “Same but different”, so that our apprentice can relate ‘now’ to the ‘past’ in order to anticipate the ‘future’. In RDI we often use a preview before we begin an activity. It might sound like this: “Remember when I went grocery shopping and you helped me check on the items we needed to get? Now we are going to make a list of things we need to pack for our camping trip”.

Focus on the process and not the end results, which means that the most important moments in any activity should be the discussion points where both a guide and his/her apprentice notice a potential problem, and decide what would be the best way to resolve it.

Use clear feedback to spotlight the apprentice’s competence in processing information, thinking and decision making. This means that a guide should avoid using a generic “good job” and instead utilize some more specific phrases such as “I like this idea much better than the last one” or “Thank you for helping your brother to find things to do”.

Keep it simple and don’t rush! There is always a way to break things down, to make the process clearer, or to choose better tools. But this also means that a guide needs to take on the responsibility to set the pace, plan ahead and develop good habits first.

Travel-Related Activities

In this last section, I put together a list of activities that can be rehearsed ahead of time to prepare our young travelers:

Walking: We all have to walk everywhere, even when we do chores around the house! Get your apprentice to help you carry the grocery bags, laundry baskets, and before you know it, they are ready to help you to carry the suitcases! Another idea is to incorporate different themes into your leisure walking, such as ‘bird watch’, ‘walk in the dark’, ‘what are they cooking’, ‘who lives there’, ‘I Spy’, or ‘rock collecting’ walks? These themes give some novel and interesting shared perspectives to communicate between a parent and his/her child.

Trying New Hobbies: Why not take on a new hobby, perhaps learn photography, a new language, cooking or water sports? Trying new activities provide opportunities for a parent and his/her child to navigate uncertainties together.

Collecting Mementos: Collectively discuss how your family can capture mementos of your upcoming trip, aside from just taking pictures and videos. Perhaps collecting coasters, postcards, coins, match boxes, bottle caps, or ticket stubs? Take a look at the photos below to get some ideas!

Map Reading: Here is an important activity that could increase your child’s independence and awareness of safety. Start with paying attention together to directions to your frequently visited stores, parking lots or streets. Extension activities could be creating your own map or finding an online map of your destination. Furthermore, map reading can easily tie in with finding important places such as a ‘restroom’ or an ‘exit’.

Packing and Unpacking: Lastly, here is something we all pretty much do on a daily basis. Take the time to practice packing and unpacking for familiar routines, such as a lunch box, backpack, swim bag, overnight bag and eventually, suitcases!

While most of us are not functioning at our best while rushing to get to the airport, trying to make it to the gate, or getting the kids somewhat clean before they meet relatives, the more we rehearse as a family the better the chances are that a long-awaited vacation will turn into a cherished family memory.

About the Author

Maisie Soetantyo has been providing RDI supervision and training for families in California and South East Asia. She firmly believes that through daily mindful engagements parents can make a difference in their special needs children’s long term outcome. Maisie and her husband, Pete Dunlavey, are both seasoned certified RDI consultants who run “RDI Certification Training Programs’ for professionals in South East Asia and ‘Destination 4 Day RDI Parent Trainings’ all over the world. To learn more about RDI program, visit: For additional questions or comments about this article, contact Maisie at:


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