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Safety in Numbers – Traveling with Students on the Autism Spectrum

Traveling with students on the autism spectrum is a fun and rewarding experience provided that planning and forethought are engaged before going on a trip. Domestic local day trips differ from multi-day international excursions. However, some basic tenants pertain to the planning of each kind of trip. Previewing the trip highlights, reviewing safety procedures, and practicing contingency plans all help make the execution of the trip go smoothly.

Travel Training Classes

Learning to travel independently is a critical skill for individuals on the autism spectrum. It is an essential activity of daily living that helps a person on the spectrum gain and maintain employment. The ability to successfully execute activities of daily living is a better predictor of post-secondary success and employment than I.Q. or academic achievement. Enrolling a student on the spectrum in a program that has a travel training curriculum can be a key bridge to independent living.

The travel training course must incorporate not only academic classroom learning, but also practical in vivo learning experiences where the student is able to practice traveling in groups of his or her peers. Fixed route travel training is not sufficient. The students must learn contingency management – i.e., what to do when something goes wrong with his or her travel plans. Any rider on public mass transit has had to deal with delays or cancellations. They have had to learn to find alternative routes or modes of transportation to reach their final destination. While some students on the spectrum have outstanding skills when it comes to memorizing route maps or timetables, many struggle with the anxiety that comes with the sudden change in plans that a service disruption engenders. Many freeze and cannot problem solve in the moment. The travel training curriculum needs to emphasize how to remain calm and remain flexible in order to find alternative solutions.

Probably one of the most terrifying thoughts for students, parents, and teachers is the thought of a student becoming lost. Prevention is key. Assigning students to pairs of travel buddies is one way to help reduce the probability that a single student will become lost while on a trip. A second method is to further subdivide a large group of students into smaller teams led by an adult team leader. The number of students assigned to the team leader is dependent upon the age and developmental level of the students as well as the students’ experience with group travel and familiarity with the route and final destination. Developing a team identity helps foster cohesion and a sense of looking out for each other. Emphasizing repeatedly the need to stay with one’s buddy and sticking with the team leader during the travel training class goes a long way in preventing a student separating from the group. A third method for preventing a student from getting lost is to conduct frequent head counts. A head count should be conducted by team leaders at every transition point. This means every time the group gets on or off a bus or train, goes through a turnstile, or turns a corner on a busy street, team leaders should be taking a count. The overall group leader should poll each team leader at these transition points asking them if they have all of their team members. On the day of then trip the group leader should remind the students to have a buddy for the entire trip and who their team leader is.

What should happen if a student gets lost on a travel training trip? This is one of the first topics that needs to be covered in a travel training course. The student needs to stay calm and relaxed. The teaching of relaxation techniques are imperative for this to occur. Next the student must be trained to stay where they are as long as they are in a safe location. The student should be trained to observe their surroundings and look for recognizable landmarks, street signs, and logos of restaurants and stores nearby. Once the student determines his or her location, then he or she should call the school with his or her coordinates and await the arrival of a teacher. At the NYIT Vocational Independence Program, we give our students a credit card size instruction sheet to put in their wallets with the college’s telephone numbers to NYIT security which coordinates the re-connection process. In addition, each student has the NYIT security telephone number pre-programmed into his or her cell phone and each team leader has a list of all of the students’ cell phone numbers with them on each and every trip. In preparation for the trip, the travel training faculty remind the students to bring a fully charged cell phone, charging cables and a backup battery.

One set of skills that many students take for granted are pedestrian skills. This is the second most important topic to cover in a travel training course. Looking both ways while crossing the entire street is a key to staying safe. In large cities pedestrians must cope not only with vehicular traffic, but bicyclists, skateboarders, and rollerbladers as well. Often these modes of transportation are silent and sometimes do not follow the rules of the road. They can appear suddenly from an unexpected direction. Students must be reminded that just because they have the green light and are in a crosswalk, it does not necessarily mean that they are safe to cross the street. Staying focused and alert are critical to maintaining their personal safety.

After establishing basic safety rules, the travel training curriculum should teach the students how to access information regarding transportation modes at their destination. Using the internet is a basic skill that can open the doors of mass transit to students on the autism spectrum. They can look up routes, fares, schedules, and points of interest along the way. Classroom discussion can revolve around the optimal way to get to a destination. There may be more than one way to get to a place. Choosing the route or mode of transportation can depend upon a number of factors including: time of day; weather conditions; city wide special events like parades or visiting dignitaries, and construction or maintenance of transportation infrastructure.

Preparing the Staff for Escorting the Students on Trips

Being responsible for escorting a large group of students on a trip of any kind can be anxiety provoking for even the most experienced teachers. Preparing the staff with expectations and procedures can reduce that anxiety and increase the success and enjoyment of the trip. Remind staff their main function is to ensure the safety and enjoyment of the students on the trip. They are to remain with their team at all times and refrain from engaging in any personal errands during the trip like shopping. Reminding them to conduct head counts at every transition point helps the team leader keep control of their group. Repeating this basic expectation is essential for student safety and everyone’s enjoyment

Knowing the profile of a student who is likely to become separated from the group is important. A student who is unwilling or unable to become a buddy with another student or will not join a group of students is more likely to be lost or separated from the group. Often this is a student who is more comfortable with staff and prefers to be with adults. A second type of student who is likely to become separated from the group is the student who is highly distractible. This type of student becomes absorbed in all the stimuli of a new environment. He or she can become fixated upon shopping, looking for an outlet for charging his or her electronic devices, or searching for his or her favorite fast food outlet. A third type of student who may get separated from the group is the student who has not slept well or eaten well before the trip. This student may fall asleep on a train or bus and miss his or her stop if the team leader is not keeping a keen eye on this type of student.

The group leader on the morning of the trip should provide each team leader with a number of items to ensure that the trip goes smoothly. These items include: (1) a 3” x 5” card with the full names of each of the students on his or her team; (2) Medical alerts for any of the students on the trip; (3) Epi-pens™ for students with severe allergies; (4) A list of staff cell phone numbers on the trip; (5) Train and Metro card tickets for each of team members; (6) Cash, if the students are to practice purchasing tickets from automated machines; (7) An agenda with timelines, objectives, and points of interest/destinations. At the end of the trip the overall group leader should give each team leader an evaluation sheet for each student on his or her team. Team leaders should complete the forms while the trip is fresh in his or her mind. The data from these evaluation sheets are invaluable in planning future classes and trip, especially if there is a common theme among the forms. Deficits in the students’ learning can be reviewed in the classroom prior to the next trip.

International Travel Training

Once students have mastered traveling locally using mass transit, they may be interested in traveling internationally. This is a wonderful opportunity for the students to practice their skills and increase their confidence. Student selected to go on international travel training trips should be in good academic and behavioral standing with their program.

Students on international travel training trips must be able to manage their personal possessions especially passports, money, luggage, and medications. One common mistake many first time travelers make is that they over-pack. Mini-clinics can be a helpful way to teach students how to pack lightly for international travel; how to deal with voltage and electronics issues; what to expect at security, customs, and immigration; and the history and culture of the destination. Having a pot luck dinner with traditional foods from the country the group is traveling to is a nice way to introduce the traveling companions to each other. During the dinner, the group leader can show a slideshow of the sites the group is about to visit and he or she can include music from that culture.

The student to staff ratio on international trips can be slightly higher than beginning travel training classes.  This is because students on the international trips are presumably seasoned at traveling with a group and have earned the privilege of accompanying an international trip because of their ability to follow directions and be on their best behavior. Staff accompanying international trips should be selected on a volunteer basis. They should enjoy traveling and being with their students for extended periods of time.

Like with the domestic trips, international trips with large groups of students on the autism spectrum should be further subdivided into smaller teams. The team leaders will not only have the list of students names, medical alerts, emergency contact information, but should also carry a first aid kit to deal with minor scrapes and cuts as well as over the counter medications to deal with intestinal issues. Carrying photocopies of the students’ passports is crucial especially in the event a student loses his or her passport.

Traveling with students on the spectrum is fun, exciting, and helps them develop a critical life skill that not only leads to independence and employment, but also increases their quality of life. By traveling in groups, students on the spectrum practice social skills, engage in conversations about the sites they have seen, and develop friendships. They do this in the safety of a group of supportive peers. There is indeed safety in numbers when traveling with students on the autism spectrum.

 

Ernst VanBergeijk, MSW, PhD is the Associate Dean and Executive Director of New York Institute of Technology Vocational Independence Program (VIP). VIP is a U.S. Department of Education approved Comprehensive Transition and Post-secondary (CTP) program. Dr. VanBergeijk also administers the Introduction to Independence (I to I) Program. I to I is a seven week summer bridge program for students ages 16 years old and older. Please visit www.nyit.edu/vip for more information.

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