BEMIDJI -- As travel picks back up, many families are eager to resume creating memories and marking milestones by taking vacations. But for families affected by autism spectrum disorder (ASD) traveling and experiencing new places can be daunting at times.

Because autism is a spectrum disorder, each person with autism has a distinct set of strengths and challenges. Individuals with ASD may also be susceptible to sensory overload, and a disruption to their daily routine can prove upsetting, the Autism Society of America said. For these reasons, many parents of children with autism may be hesitant to partake in activities like traveling and putting themselves in uncertain situations so as to not upset their loved ones.

However, in a recent Explore Minnesota column titled "Why RV Camping is Perfect for Kids with Autism," Sheletta Brundidge explained that Bemidji would be featured on her list of summertime autism-friendly destinations for her and her three children with ASD.

"My third-grader, Brandon, has been learning all about Paul Bunyan in his virtual classroom this year. Being from Texas, I knew all the tall tales about Pecos Bill, but not so much about Minnesota's legendary lumberjack," she wrote. "And with widespread vaccinations just around the corner, we're planning a summer vacation so my children can meet Paul -- and his sidekick, Babe the Blue Ox -- for themselves."

April is Autism Acceptance Month, and there’s no better time than now to educate oneself on ASD -- as well as learning to be mindful and respectful of those with autism, especially when they’re out of their comfort zones while in public or on vacation. And for families with children affected by ASD, enjoyable trips are still very possible with some early planning and scheduling.

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Autism-friendly activities around Bemidji

  • Play at Paul Bunyan Park: Visitors can first visit the towering statues of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox and then explore the Paul Bunyan Inclusive Playground, which is universally accessible for all ages and abilities to enjoy at the Bemidji waterfront. The playground has sensory-rich elements that provide activities for those with developmental disabilities. It also features rubberized surfacing, molded, high-back swings with harnesses, and a high-back "omni spinner" with transfer points for children who use wheelchairs and walkers.

Endonnis Hazelrigg, 6, comes down a slide at the Paul Bunyan Inclusive Playground on Friday, April 16, 2021, in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Endonnis Hazelrigg, 6, comes down a slide at the Paul Bunyan Inclusive Playground on Friday, April 16, 2021, in Bemidji. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

  • Explore Headwaters Science Center: With more than 70 hands-on exhibits featuring science and technology, the center aims to provide intellectual stimulation and enjoyment for both children and adults. There is also a live animal collection including snakes, birds, lizards and bunnies, as well as various demonstrations held for visitors.

The Headwaters Science Center has more than 70 hands-on exhibits featuring science and technology. There are also animals on display, such as the bearded dragon exhibit. (Pioneer file photo)
The Headwaters Science Center has more than 70 hands-on exhibits featuring science and technology. There are also animals on display, such as the bearded dragon exhibit. (Pioneer file photo)

  • Camp in Lake Bemidji State Park: The park features a sandy beach, hiking and biking trails, boat, canoe and kayak rental, a children’s playground, and a volleyball court. Its facilities include a 95-site campground (with four pull-through sites and four wheelchair-accessible sites) and a fill/dump station along with modern restrooms and showers during the summer season.

Lake Bemidji State Park (Pioneer file photo)
Lake Bemidji State Park (Pioneer file photo) Annalise Braught

  • Geocaching on the Paul Bunyan Trail: Geocaching is an outdoor recreational activity that uses a cell phone, or any device with a GPS, to find hidden containers, or caches, at specific locations. These caches often have small items in them such as toys and keepsakes. There are over 1,000 caches hidden along the 112-mile Paul Bunyan Trail. According to the Trail’s website, it is recognized among sports enthusiasts as a power trail adventure due to the close proximity of cache hides along every trail mile.

Geocaches are often hidden in unusual places and may require some searching even after reaching the GPS coordinates. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DNR.
Geocaches are often hidden in unusual places and may require some searching even after reaching the GPS coordinates. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota DNR.

  • Other ideas: Spend time in nature by going berry picking or doing some gardening, take a bike ride or go for a swim. If it's cold or rainy, an afternoon at the library is a great alternative.

Here are some tips for having a fun, safe vacation from Autism Speaks, an organization that is dedicated to promoting solutions for the needs of individuals and families with autism:

  • Plan ahead: Parents should first be sure to research their destination of choice to ensure that it's autism-friendly. And before setting out on their trip, they should consider early preparation by contacting guest services at airports, train stations and hotels for additional support. For example, when staying in a hotel, it is a good idea to call ahead to see if a quiet room can be accommodated and proper safety measures are in place in the lodging.
  • Pack comfort items: In uncertain situations like a vacation, it’s important to let a child with autism keep a sense of control to alleviate the anxiety of the unknown. One idea is to let them pack their own comfort items to take along, which might include calming toys, books, an iPad and snacks. Additionally, to help relieve or prevent sensory overload, be sure to pack earplugs, noise cancellation headphones or music players in case of unfamiliar noises during travel.
  • Remember safety first: If a child with autism tends to wander from safety, it’s good for parents to have an emergency plan in place, especially in an unfamiliar environment. Autism Speaks recommends additional safety products such as wearable ID tags to make sure the child has a form of ID on them at all times.
  • Keep a routine: Although vacations are meant to deviate from one’s typical routine, Autism Speaks advises parents to try and keep as normal of a routine as possible for a child with autism when traveling. For example, if the child likes to have a snack in the morning and then have quiet time in the afternoon, it’s best to try to stay true to that routine.
  • Create a schedule: While it’s wise to keep some form of routine when traveling, it may also be helpful for parents to form a schedule and then share it with their child. Not only will it allow the child to develop a sense of a new routine during the trip, but it can also help them to predict what is going to happen next in order to relieve some of the anxiety of being in a new place. Before the trip, it may also be useful to practice the schedule with the child to familiarize them with the changes they'll be facing.