We are adamant about taking our autistic son on as many outings as we can, to stores, movies, restaurants, parks, and other destinations. He is a cheerful and energetic boy, and he likes a good adventure as long as we respect his limits. Also, we want him to be a dude-about-town so he gets used to being part of our community, and our community gets used to him.

Outings aren’t always easy. But I have no intention of leaving my son home when we might succeed. I do not care if other people think he behaves strangely or makes funny noises; as long as he is not harming or interrupting anyone, we carry on with heads raised, meeting stranger’s occasional stares with confident and unapologetic smiles.

Here are some of the tactics that make excursions with my son, and hopefully some of his friends, a bit easier.

Go Early, Go Off-Season

We arrive at popular local destinations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium or Exploratorium right when the doors open, and we go elsewhere during summer. We do this to avoid crowds. Autistic people don’t always do well in mobs, as it’s difficult to tolerate crowd noise and jostling, and they need extra time to navigate, have gear that requires extra space, or—like my son—just take up a lot of room.

Plan Ahead

If you’re worried about a new excursion, try searching for the knowledgeable souls on autism and disability forums (including lists for your destination). Tell people what your child’s accommodation needs are and ask after positive experiences. You should get some good suggestions.

Some museums and science centers have special events, extra hours, or will arrange special tours for visitors with special needs.

Be Open to Failure

Success to me means going out on top. When my son starts showing the first signs of stress, it’s time to go. My son does not deserve to be someone else’s cautionary horrorshow. I am okay with leaving theaters mid-movie if need be—ideally, we can always come back later and try again.

My son had a meltdown at Costco a few weeks ago. I had all three kids with me, it was the late afternoon witching hour, we took too long because I needed to buy too many items, and the checkout people were passing out badly-themed balloons that I didn’t want my youngest child to have, so there was crying (a huge sensory trigger for my son). I’m not sure how we made it back to the car.

And we went back the next week and everything was fine. Because of our spectacular failure, I had learned what not to do.

Take Advantage of Anything That Will Make Your Outing Easier

If you don’t already have a disabled parking placard (rear-view mirror hanger to use as needed) and you think you might ever need one, get it. In California, you can get one with your doctor’s approval, and signature on the application.

I haven’t turned in our signed application, but there have been a few times when we had to do an emergency extraction, and it wasn’t really safe for our group to make it across a parking lot. I really should get that placard, as should you. I know you won’t abuse it.

Lots of places, e.g., Disneyland, have access programs for visitors who are autistic or have other disabilities. Call ahead of time to find out what your destination can do for you. I am often pleasantly surprised by existing accommodations.

Have an Escape Plan

Park as close to your destination as possible. Disabled parking and parking in general can be limited at popular destinations, which is one more reason to arrive early.

If you’re going with a group, consider taking two cars. It’s nice if the people who want to stay can do that when other people need to go.

Scope Out Quiet Areas for Recharging

Can you find the autistic kid in this picture? This is my son at the Monterey Bay Aquarium on a busy day, having some downtime so he can mentally recalibrate, and he can stay longer (because he wants to, not because I want him to).

Young white boy sitting in a quiet outside corner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Hiding away at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

ID Your Kids

Few things frighten me more than the thought of my mostly nonspeaking boy getting away from me and being found by strangers, so I got him a med-alert tag with his basic info and our names and mobile numbers. He could not tolerate wearing the tag as a bracelet, so now I attach it to his belt loop with a small locking carabiner. There are also temporary solution like Safety Tats for backup ID.

I also tend to dress my son in bright colors so I can spot him more easily, should he feel the urge to dive into a crowd.

Boredom is the Enemy

We always pack lots of my son’s favorite activities, so he’ll have something to do if our outing involves downtime, as it does when eating at a restaurant. (Restaurants have to fit the same criteria as any other outing, by the way, and downtime should be within reasonable limits for my son.)  We keep a packed backpack in our car, as well, with different but beloved activities, so those stay special, and thoroughly engaging.

If You’re Going to Fly, Know Your Rights

I never pass up an opportunity to cite my favorite section of the U.S. Air Carrier Access Act:

Airlines may not refuse transportation to people on the basis of disability.

They can cite safety, that’s it. But you and your autistic loved one have a right to be on that airplane if doing so will not endanger anyone.

Being Around Excursioning Kids With Autism

I recently told the very nice salesperson at a destination gift shop that we’d arrived early because my son couldn’t tolerate crowds. Her perk turned to pity, and she looked at me like I’d said we’d accidentally run over a kitten. If my eyes had been daggers, she would now be perforated.

If you need to, remind people around you that disabled kids are still just kids. No one should assume they need different treatment. I love it  when people talk to my son like they would any other child, and understand that if they need to modify their approach, I’ll let them know.

Good luck, and happy trails!

This essay was updated on October 20, 2022