I have a little magnetic bookmark in my day planner with the daily reminder to “sometimes plan and sometimes wing it.” I’ll admit, I’m not the best at winging it, but the occasional spur-of-the-moment, after-school adventure or trip out for smoothies and ice cream has been known to happen! In my experience, and taking our three kids and their different needs into account, planning is less of a choice and more of a necessity.
Today I’ll walk you through what we consider when planning an outing for our family. It may seem like a lot of steps, but I’ve found that the more information we have beforehand, the smoother the whole experience goes.
A lot of our ideas for outings come from Instagram. When I see a suggestion, the first thing I do is go to the search function, click on Places, and type in the location. This helps me to see what the outing looks like from the perspective of families and visitors who have tagged their photos (rather than solely from the places themselves or influencers). I’m able to get an idea of the variety of attractions available, the general layout, and different ways that others have approached their visit. It also helps to see aspects that aren’t stylized or always shown on an official feed.
From there, I’ll often email the business or attraction, if possible. Years ago, I used to feel like Y’s diagnosis was none of their business and didn’t mention it. Time and experience taught me that it was unreasonable to expect accommodations that would be helpful for Y specifically without offering information. Most information can be gathered from a website, Google, or a social media page, but I feel that reaching out and expressing our interest in visiting and inquiring as to their experience with autistic guests is eye opening. Just the response itself can often tell us if the outing is appropriate – if they’re less than forthcoming about accessibility, or accommodations, or their experience with neurodivergent guests, it’s better to know early rather than at a ticket booth. If they’re comfortable discussing different ways to make the experience as successful as possible, or have their own specific tips, etc., it really makes all the difference.
Important factors we also take into consideration include:
I like to clarify the parking situation, whether through Google or calling the location itself, if possible. Is accessible parking available? Is there alternate parking that would provide an easier experience? Is parking provided or public (and if public, is it busy and difficult to get a spot)? How far is the parking lot from the main location? This helps to decide if we should bring the wagon, so that Y isn’t already tired or irritated when we arrive, or if it’s close enough that walking isn’t going to have a big effect. Finally, the cost of parking is something I try to ascertain before leaving, so it’s not a shock when we arrive and starts off the experience negatively.
Y usually doesn’t have an issue with long car rides, but taking into consideration how far we have to travel is still something I consider in terms of in-car activities, sensory toys, and preferred snacks on-hand. Also, if it’s far, it helps to decide on what time we’ll visit, since we don’t want to be caught in traffic on the way home, in rush hour, adding to an already lengthy journey.
This is often difficult to confirm until we arrive, especially if we’re visiting trails or other public locations. Last summer, with a stroller + wagon, it was often difficult to navigate paths and more than once we had to go back to the car, return the stroller, and then head out again on foot. I’ve found that parent forums and scouring the Instragram places results for a location has been most helpful in clarifying the level of accessibility offered.
I try to find out if there are quiet spots where we’d be able to take a break if things become too overwhelming (or even if it’s just really hot or we get tired). This can be as simple as a picnic area, a grassy patch, or, in the best case scenario, a space specifically set aside such as a family/ quiet break room. I also try to research to see how much general noise there will be. Are there spontaneous performances or announcements? Is there background music playing? Etc.
Size of Location/ How Busy It Is
I will often email a location and inquire as to their busiest times in order to plan our visit and arrival time accordingly. One of the benefits of the protocols last year was ticketed entry, where the number of visitors was always maintained and we didn’t have to worry about long lines at the entrance. This opened up so many more possibilities for us (rather than having to go at random times or at opening in order to avoid large crowds). Where this isn’t possible, Google is a great resource to check busy times for more public attractions (parks, etc.) that don’t necessarily have a contact number.
Variety of Activities Offered
This is something I take into account considering the fact that we have a 2-year-old, 6-year-old, and 7-year-old, all with varying abilities and interests. We try to ensure that our outings have something for each of them, so they’re not bored or frustrated waiting for their sibling to do something they’re unable to (or that we’d feel the pressure standing in line to hurry through something, to get back to the rest of the family). At this stage, I find that the safest bet lies in outings such as farms, splash pads, trails, provincial parks, the beach, and zoos. Here there are fewer attractions reliant on height or ability, and there tend to be more options that are accessible to a wide range of ages and interests.
This can be a very inhibiting factor that prevents families from attempting an outing. The possibility of paying a large fee for a whole family to attend, only to find a lack of accessibility or that the experience is too overwhelming or difficult for whatever reason happens all too often. I highly suggest calling in advance and finding out if there are any accommodations for caregivers/participants with a diagnosis. We’ve found that businesses can be very accommodating and understanding, and offer different types of discounts. (I’ll discuss this further in my next post!)
I hope these tips help you to feel more prepared to head out on your next adventure! And while this may not apply across the board, I hope that the next time you see a family who looks different from yours, who may need extra accommodations or adaptations to enjoy their day out, you understand what it took for them to get there. If you ask a friend or family member to just head out for the day, and they’re less than enthusiastic, please know that the appreciation for being included and thought of is there, but also think back to this and remember all the factors they may have to take into consideration, all the planning and the accommodation to a routine that needs to take place, before they can pick up their bags and go! Sure, some may feel this is overkill and that they maybe don’t need to consider all of these components, but if you do and if it helps you feel better equipped to go out, then there’s no shame in that at all!
Outings and adventures require a lot of work (and a lot of luck) and while it can be overwhelming, we have found that it is always worth it. We’re able to implement the concepts that are worked on tirelessly in classrooms and therapy centres out into the real world. Waiting in lines, taking turns, learning social cues, and more, are all given the space and opportunity to be put into practice. The successful outings encourage us to get out again and again, and the more difficult ones teach us more about our son and more about what we can do to accommodate him as well as what to advocate for in future attempts.
Other Posts in this Series:
Summer Adventures & Accessibility