Jun 04, 2014 0 Share

Dreaming of Summer Vacation—Maybe

Illustration of suitcase with travel gear and airplane

First published May 17, 2012.

The weather is warm and breezy. Kids are out of school. The pace of life seems to slow down, even just a little: It is summer.

Most people in American society can’t wait for a summer vacation. People dream all year of taking off to the beach, or hightailing it on some adventure. What if you are on the autism spectrum? Is summer vacation just as enticing?

Maybe. A stereotype about autistic adults is that we do not like traveling. In order to travel, don’t you have to leave the familiarity of home? Won’t it be too hard to cope with new environments, new routines, and new people? The reality is that some of us on the spectrum like to travel and some of us don’t. Whether you can’t wait for vacation—or you’re being dragged along on one—planning can help. 


Always thoroughly research where you are going. You don’t want to end up at an idyllic resort on a tropical island and discover your room has no air conditioning if you require it. Make a list of amenities you absolutely need, things you can’t stand at all, and a list of features you would enjoy but could do without. Then call the hotel where you will be staying and ask questions. If you aren’t staying at a hotel, you can politely ask your host.

Also consider conditions outside. You might be counting down the days until you get to the beach, but are you facing the ocean or a bay? Oceanside will always have rougher tides and bigger waves—great for surfing, or sunbathing, but not typically ideal for swimming. And what is in the water? Don’t find out two minutes after you put your towel down on the sand that the water is full of stinging jellyfish.

The more information you have, the less disappointment you’ll face. I had a friend who saved up a lot of money for a trip to a rainforest. He thought he was going to see animals, go hiking, and sit by waterfalls with exotic flowers. Instead, the rain was so heavy every day that the trails were too muddy for exploring. He didn’t realize that the month he picked always has the worst weather of the year.

If your hotel or host doesn’t have much information on local conditions, you can call the visitor’s bureau of a nearby town or city. Check weather websites, too. Or ask locals for the best advice on safe, travel-oriented chat boards. Never be afraid to ask. People understand that you don’t live where you are going. Usually they are very happy to describe what is home to them. 


In addition to thoroughly researching conditions like weather and features like air conditioning, next on your list should be food. Many of us are on special diets or have numerous food sensitivities. What will you be able to eat while you are away? 

If you are staying at a hotel, you can usually see menus and hours of the hotel restaurants on the hotel website. Does the hotel have a shop that carries items you can purchase if the hotel restaurants do not suffice? Some hotels are walking distance to malls or towns, expanding your options. Many hotels will also pick up items for you or take you in a hotel van to a shopping area. Usually there is a fee for this service. If you are really hungry, it’s worth it. Don’t forget to ask for a hotel fridge or microwave if this would help—hotels typically have them, but often reservation in advance is required.

If your diet is extremely limited, you may have to bring food with you. This is not as complicated as it might seem. For example, you can pack a box of your favorite cereal in your suitcase, and then buy milk or soymilk once you land. As a vegetarian, I’ve packed mixes or soup packages that require only hot water—something usually obtainable in most places. Twice, traveling companions of mine packed gluten-free pasta or gluten-free frozen entrees and the hotel kitchen manager cooked these specialty items—he simply asked my friends to come by at a time that the hotel restaurant wasn’t busy. They tipped him for his help.

Food is crucial to consider during visits with relatives and friends, too. Hosts may be offended if you won’t try their food or accompany them to their favorite restaurants. If you anticipate that a host might be sensitive about your food proclivities, communicate honestly and well in advance. Grandma will want to know that you really appreciate her quiche and that you just can’t swallow it for reasons that don’t have to do with her efforts. Be as polite as possible. If you can, offer an alternative. For example, you could say to Grandma, “I really appreciate the quiche you make every year when we visit. But I have severe sensory issues with eggs. I do love your spaghetti and meatballs. Could we make that together?” Or you could say, “Grandma, I appreciate that you love to cook for me. But you know me with all of my sensory issues! Could we go out for ice cream instead?” Grandma might be disappointed that you’re not going to eat that quiche, but she’ll have some other ideas for how to feed you. 


For most adults on the autism spectrum, the real issue with vacations is idle time. My brain needs to be active. Doing nothing is just not relaxing. The best way to tackle this issue, especially if your vacation is mandatory, is to write or draw a schedule for each day, or print out a schedule on the computer.

When we went to Disneyland, I divided activity time into morning, afternoon, and evening. Each slot had a desired activity and a back-up activity. If you have back-up activities on your schedule, you will always have something to do in the event of unforeseen closures, lines that are too long at your first choice, or uncooperative weather.

Making this schedule allowed me to balance everyone’s needs. For example, I knew some members of my traveling team would like an afternoon on the beach snoozing in the sun. So I could plan to visit a nearby nature center at that time on my own, or I could join everyone on the beach armed with a stack of academic journals to analyze while they tanned.

Now some people will say that vacations are supposed to be spontaneous: You simply show up at a location, and then see what happens. If that is your style, there is no problem going the spontaneous route. But my personal experiences and the experiences of family and friends on the spectrum suggests that a planned vacation can be just as fun and a lot less stressful for us. You’ll relax knowing the schedule has blocks of time for your interests balanced with required activities or the preferences of your traveling partners. You can also build into the schedule enough time to recuperate from sensory and social overload.  

Service Vacations 

If you worry that too much idle time will sky-rocket your anxiety, or if you don’t want to be a tourist in a hotel, service vacations are another option. Clean up a beach, count owls for a nature protection agency, teach English for two weeks at a refugee center, or build houses for homeless families—the choices are endless. Do a search on the Internet and you will see many types of service vacations.

Service vacations vary widely. Sometimes, you need no skills—just a desire to help. Other times,you must have carpentry or nursing skills or scientific lab experience. The trip might be highly regulated, with every single minute on the schedule filled. Or the trip might have a more leisurely pace, with afternoons off for hiking or swimming or side trips to museums. When looking for a service vacation opportunity, think about what type of work and what type of work schedule would be best for you.

Once you find a service trip you might want to sign up for, do the same pre-trip research and planning you would do for any vacation. On service trips, you usually have less chance to bring or buy your favorite foods, and amenities may be wholly absent. Some activities may be required or optional. Always check the reputation of the agency facilitating or offering the service trip, too. Ask to speak to prior participants to really understand what the service trip is like.

Note that some agencies or groups will charge you a fee even though you are volunteering. This is because the facilitating agency will be arranging tickets, organizing logistics, and providing accommodations. Some service trips charge you for insurance, tools, pre-trip training, special equipment, or side excursions. The facilitating agency should be absolutely clear about what you are being charged for and what the fees include.


If the idea of leaving home makes you jittery, you can still plan an adventure in your home town. The idea of a “stay-cation” is catching on and is also great if you are on a low budget. Get on the computer or call the visitor’s bureau and make a list of interesting things to do in your town or in your region. You may discover things to do that you’ve never heard about, even if you’ve lived in town your whole life. Lots of museums, parks, and tourist attractions have discounts or free days for local citizens. Because you’re local, you can also go at less crowded times.

Not into formal places to visit? Just take a stroll downtown and see what there is to see. Or follow up on your special interests. Have a special interest in cargo traffic? Go watch the ships loading and unloading at the port. I had a friend who spent two required vacation days counting the number of pizzerias in his city. He had always wanted to know, and when his boss insisted that he take the two days off, he realized this was his chance.       

Also, consider doing things that you haven’t been able to do for whatever reason. Always wanted to decorate your bedroom like Mos Eisley space port? Never had the time to paint your garage orange? Want to sleep late, wander into Starbucks, and read The New York Times all morning while enjoying a delicious drink? Guess what—you can! You’re on a stay-cation. 


With these tips and fresh ideas, the idea of a vacation doesn’t have to be overwhelming. I found through my many years of extensive travel that minor inconveniences were worth it for the chance to meet new people, see new places, and participate in other cultures. With careful planning, you can work out destination, sensory, food, and activity issues in advance. If you must always have tea in the morning or you must always use a blue towel, this doesn’t mean you can’t travel. And for those of you who don’t want to roam, you can still find plenty to do right in your neighborhood or in your state. Whether you are headed for an all-inclusive resort, volunteer work in a frog sanctuary, or a dental museum a few miles from your house, I wish you in advance happy adventures this summer.