As an autistic parent, I feel the weight of generations judging the behavior of my autistic children. Because their autism is invisible, I often get the dreaded comment: They don’t look autistic. The best way to support your autistic children is to listen to them; sometimes, this requires you to stand up to tradition.
If you are autistic and part of the Latin diaspora, traveling is an added challenge. Especially if you are a child at the mercy of the family’s expectations.
I should know. I am a late-diagnosed autistic immigrant from Ecuador and the mother of three autistic children. And I, as a parent, have chosen a different path, one where I don’t focus on making my children obedient or teaching them to behave in a certain way to please adults. I have chosen cooperation and compassion.
Traveling to visit your abuela, je tía, or primos can be a joyful experience full of uncertainty. I have seen my children react exactly as I used to when meeting our Ecuadorian relatives.
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They eschew physical greetings and avoid eye contact. They shut down and seem indifferent when overwhelmed by too many new sights, sounds, smells, and people.
Because other intellectual or physical disabilities do not accompany their autism, it is invisible, and I often get the dreaded comment: they don’t look autistic. (Really? There’s a look?) There’s extra pressure on them to perform and skepticism about their support needs.
As a parent, I feel the weight of generations judging my children’s behavior: Malcriado. Hace lo que le da la gana. I get annoyed when well-meaning relatives make demands: Coma callado. Salude con beso a la abuela para que no se resienta. Share un abrazo al tio.
Here I make a choice. I do not do what my parents did and force my children to ignore their discomfort so that Los Abuelos will see them as obedient and polite “good” children. I become their advocate, respect their right to be their beautiful neurodivergent selves, and protect their boundaries.
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I tell the abuelos en tías in advance that my kids don’t want hugs and kisses and repeat when they inevitably forget in their excitement to be together. I tell them that wearing noise-canceling headphones at the dinner table allows for meal participation. That they should distance themselves from everyone and maybe leave the table earlier. That they listen better when they are not forced to make eye contact and when they can move their bodies. That they connect a better one-to-one bond than sharing a favorite interest or activity.
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You may know these tried and true strategies that will make traveling with your autistic child easier:
Tell them what to expect: where are we going? What shall we do? Who will be there? How long do we stay? Show them pictures of places, relatives, and friends you visit. Create a visual diagram for them to refer to. Keep daily routines as close as possible to daily routines at home, especially meals and bedtimes. Take advantage of disabled access features such as access passes and quiet hours.
You may find these additional strategies from my occupational therapist “toolkit” helpful:
Build downtime into the schedule. Autistic sensory processing differences often result in overwhelm, which can lead to shutdowns and meltdowns. Shutdowns and meltdowns are extremely distressing and exhausting for your child, and the best support is prevention. Make sensory adjustments. If your child says it’s too bright or too loud, believe them. Provide hearing protectors, noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, and hoodies. Know your child’s distress signals and make a support plan with your child in advance when things are calm. Q: How can I help you calm down? How can I help you feel safe? They may need more physical activity or retreat to a quiet place. Maybe they need screen time, a book, alone time, or one-on-one time with you. Make an “escape plan” together. Sometimes knowing they can get away from a situation where they’ve had enough is all it takes to ease the fear of being in a new place with new people. Free the stim! Stims are repetitive actions that help autistic children to self-regulate. It can be the same song repeated repeatedly, rocking, clapping hands, humming, twisting their hair around a finger.
Whether at home or abroad, the best way to support your autistic children is to listen to them, believe them, and accept and appreciate their differences. Sometimes this requires courage, standing up for them, and respecting tradition and deep-rooted cultural practices.
Ana Karina Suarez is a late-diagnosed autistic occupational therapist from Ecuador. She works to provide neurodiversity-affirming therapy and focuses on changing attitudes and adapting the environment to support students in developing positive autistic identity and self-advocacy skills. She lives in Europe with her American husband and their three children.