Navigating NYC with a Child on the Autism Spectrum
There’s no question, New York City is a sensory filled place. The sights, the sounds, the smells — whether it’s the lights of Times Square, the blare of car horns or the whiff of a food vendor on the street — they can assault the senses, especially if you’re on the Autism Spectrum. Spectrum kids travel in a world that is not designed for them. Sounds are louder, smells more intense. Grasping social cues can be a challenge. But with a little planning, you can help your child navigate the urban chaos of New York City.
Tips to Visit NYC with an Autistic Child
Before You Go
As with many situations involving kids on the Autism Spectrum, pre-planning for a trip is key to success.
Start by identifying areas for concern, then develop strategies for dealing with them.
Here’s an example: Our son doesn’t have what we call a “danger filter.” We knew traffic could be a challenge. While he won’t run into it, he likes being close to moving cars, finding their motion fascinating. Realizing that this could put him in a precarious position with New York City traffic, we agreed in advance to always be at an arm’s length of him, even putting one parent between him and the sidewalk edge at all times.
Involve your child in the planning whenever possible.
We front loaded our son with information about our trip, role playing some scenarios he could encounter on a New York City street and teaching him appropriate reactions when necessary. We also showed him some video clips that would inform his impression of New York City streets. Not only did this help prepare him for what he could encounter during our travels, it was instrumental in mapping out our next strategy.
Develop a reward or coping system to help your child stay on track.
Watching and evaluating our son’s responses to the videos and our role playing scenarios helped us come up with incentives to keep him on track. He wanted a classic New York Yellow Cab ride and ice cream, and we were game to let him earn these items.
Integrate sensory breaks into your game plan.
This can be a healthy and energizing move not just for your spectrum child but for everyone in the family. While many will simply return to a hotel room when in need of a sensory break, we looked for quieter spaces in the area where we’re staying. There was a great one near New York Hilton Midtown! Central Park was just a six-minute walk from the hotel. As we hoped, it turned out to be a great place to turn our son loose and let him find calm among the trees, the lush grass, and the winding beautiful pathways.
During Your Visit
Encourage your child’s interests and be ok with the fact that they may be a little different from other tourists.
That second part can be tough to get on board with sometimes. Our son didn’t care about the iconic New York City sights; he was more interested in the city’s dog population. Everywhere we went he quizzed dog owners on the names of their canine companions. We discouraged this at first, thinking that we shouldn’t let him talk to strangers. However, every New Yorker we encountered proved to be a gracious host and happily responded to each and every inquiry.
After a while, we stopped discouraging him, but we continued to employ our earlier agreed upon arm’s length strategy. Not one person judged our son for his interest; all of them smiled and happily introduced their pooches. By allowing him this interest, the rest of the family got to see a side of New Yorkers most other tourists don’t see.
Watch for cues for oncoming meltdowns or getting overwhelmed.
We got lucky; these moments were few and far between on this trip. I would like to think this was due to our level of preparedness going into it. This hasn’t always been the case though; we’ve experienced other vacations where a spin out occurred despite all of the planning.
In this situation, it’s still possible to find a quiet spot on the fly where your spectrum child can take a moment. A quick scan around almost any New York street yielded small plazas, tiny parks, benches, and stoops where we’d be able to sit for a minute to recalibrate if needed. Just be creative and don’t concern yourself with what others might think about your parenting in that moment. New Yorkers seem particularly dialed into the fact that we are all dealing with something in this life.
What I’d do differently
Purchase a medical wristband.
While my son is good about staying with the family, New York City is crowded with some areas being more congested than others. There were a couple of instances where we wound up losing sight of him for just a moment as people stepped in and out of our view. What a disaster it could have been had it been a longer period of time!
While my son knows his full name and ours, he can’t seem to memorize my cell phone number. He also knows to look for a police officer because he puts it, “The police will help.” But if he found one, I doubt he would be able to tell his story in a way that would help the officer return him to us quickly.
In the future, he will be wearing an Alert Me Band, an emergency contact band that clearly states not only our contact information but his autism diagnosis. With all of the pre-planning we routinely do, it’s astonishing to me that we didn’t think of this item sooner. It’s a great example of how even the best laid plans can use a tune-up or a tweak.
One Thing to Keep in Mind
As I said in my article, Preparing a Child on the Autism Spectrum to Travel, there is really no foolproof travel plan for preparing every child on the autism spectrum for a trip. This is mainly due to the fact that autism is a spectrum disorder, which means those who live with it are affected differently. These are tips that have worked for my family, but trust your instincts to find what will work for yours!
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Know Before You Go
- Opt for walking tours instead of bus tours if you want to eliminate the issue of traffic – just make sure to pack comfortable shoes!
- If you bring your own ice skates, Bryant Park allows you to ice skate for free in the winter.
- The Bronx Zoo is pay-what-you-wish on Wednesdays.
- Utilize the New York Subway to travel like a local – it’s also a great way to avoid traffic!