Camping – Autism style!

Autism and camping isn’t always a match made in heaven, sometimes due to sensory issues it can take some background work and preparation to get it to work successfully.

Miss V (aged 3) wanted to go camping however she has significant sensory issues to lots of things involved in the camping experience including rustley fabrics and the wind in general. She also is adverse to layering clothes and will seldom wear jumpers etc so the weather is very much a factor in the entire experience.

Background work and preparation:

  • Social stories: create and read social stories about what will happen. Try and be as specific as you can while also allowing wiggle room for flexibility if things change
  • Role play ‘camping’ including setting up, daily activities and packing up with toys. Take turns being the ‘adult’ if your child likes that role switch.
  • Get your child involved in packing their items so they feel included and a bit more in control and that the experience isn’t happening ‘to’ them, rather it’s happening ‘with’ them.
  • Do a practice run in your own backyard. We set the tent up right near the house so if Miss v changed her mind we could go straight inside. When we were setting the tent up V stood and watched from a distance for around 10 mins before coming closer and touching the tent then actively helping set up by passing us things like tent pegs. Once set up she ran straight inside! I couldn’t believe it!!! For the practice run I bought her entire bed and bedding into the tent to help on this first time along with her sensory items. 

The actual camping trip:

  • Try to keep their routine flow as similar to home as possible, for example if you always read a story before bed, make sure to do that before bed while camping.
  • Bring their familiar comfort items and sensory items – ear muffs, chew necklaces, lovies, taggies, poppers. I recommend using their familiar bedding from home instead of totally new sleeping bags etc.
  • Consider toilets – drop toilets may be terrifying for children. Can you bring their potty from home, a bag style camping toilet with a real toilet seat etc instead? You can get little portaloo toilets for as little as $100 from camping shops and they work great.
  • Expect your child to escalate in their emotions and behaviours as they may experience anxiety about the newness of the whole thing. There are so many new sensory issues they are experiencing – people nearby, the new smells, new dangers (campfires, animals, roads past the tent) it can be a lot for any little person to process, let alone an autistic person. Their regular routine will change a bit so that is unsettling. Practice compassion and patience when dealing with their big behaviours and feelings.
  • Bring activities and a mat for the children to sit on and play while you set up to keep them occupied and out of the way if they don’t want to help set up and so you know where they are.
  • Use glo sticks or battery operated LED string lights to show where the string lines are (from tent to the tent peg in the ground) to prevent trip hazards at night.
  • Set up fires, stoves and bbqs out of the way, away from foot traffic areas to lessen the risk of burns/accidents
  • Use battery operated night lights or projectors at night in the tent to help your child feel safer
  • Bring along a support person or drive two cars so that way if your child freaks out and needs to leave in the middle of the night, one of you can stay with the campsite while the other person can take the child home. Sometimes this is the best way, much rather have a positive memory of leaving and listening to your child, then forcing them to stay and the terror or overwhelm is burnt into their memory forever
  • Do short trips, even overnight at first. Build up over time.
  • Zip the tent from the bottom to the top to keep the zip out of reach of little hands to prevent them from wandering in the night. Padlock it if you need to.

Remember that this whole thing may be a slow process and that’s ok. If it doesn’t work the first time that’s ok too. Wait a few months and try again. Reflect back on what worked and what didn’t and adapt for the next time.

I took both my girls camping and set up entirely on my own. If I can do it, you can do it. You got this Mama – I believe in you! You can do hard things!

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