By Melanie Isaacs

A cautionary tale on expectations vs. reality

I have the perfect family day planned: picnic at the park, then taking in our favorite local museum topped off with family laughter in the car and an adorable photo of us all smiling with the sunset in the background. This is how it is planned in my head.

Then we get to the park and there is a company party – it is packed and noisy. Our museum is sweet relief, except our son’s favorite slide has a line, his patience runs thin, and we have a meltdown. The car ride is filled with tears, and our photo – well, let’s just say it is not making the holiday card shortlist.

Can anyone relate?

Walking out of the door with expectations too high is a dangerous habit of mine. One I am working on, but still, it is a process. It is easy to get wrapped up in the Instagram perfect image of adventuring as a family, but the truth is that photos are a moment in time and going out is a series of reactive moments. One thing I know for sure is every outing is worth it – smiles and/or tears – it is critically important for our health as a family to share time and experiences together. Of course, it would be infinitely easier to stay home and avoid the stimuli of the world – but we can’t do that.

Isolation can quickly become a habit, especially for families impacted by disabilities, like autism. In fact, 70% of families with autism are socially isolated. This causes resentment in sibling relationships, spousal relationships, and limits exposure to new ideas, new friendships, new interests, new social skills and growth.

Bottom line – experiences are fun but can be hard. Here are some ways to make going out more enjoyable for everyone and keep expectations realistic.

It is easy to get anxious when you do not know what to expect – will it be crowded? Is there a place to rest? Can I bring in my own snacks? It is hard to prepare and set appropriate expectations when you do not know what is going to happen. The uncertainty of the unknown is certainly a factor when deciding if leaving the house at all is worth it.

What our family has found is that knowledge is power – and knowing before going is the secret to success. Coincidentally, this is the work I do now with nonprofit Pal Experiences. Pal creates video social stories that show you what to expect and helps everyone set appropriate expectations. If a destination you want to visit is not a Pal Place look up Google Images or YouTube videos. These can be great tools to get an idea of what will happen. If your family needs a little more support, give the venue a call. You may be surprised at what they can offer – some places will let you have a dress rehearsal, or practice session, before you go. For example, practicing what to expect at an airport before you actually fly can make the actual travel day much more successful.

Sometimes our issue is with transitioning from one activity to another. This can be a challenge for kids with developmental disabilities, or really any kid who is having a good time and not interested in the next item on your ‘Perfect Family Outing Checklist.’ To help with transitions when in the community, be super clear with your plan. Make a list, first the park, then the museum. You can even get more granular if it helps – first we play at the playground, then we clean hands, then it is lunchtime, and then we head to the museum. Remind your family of the steps to come and allow kids to cross off the completed parts. It includes them in the transitions and gives everyone more autonomy in moving on.

You can even have a ‘scavenger hunt’ – a gamified to-do list that helps you steer your family to a successful visit and makes transitions more fun. At Pal Experiences, we create Mission Charts that do just that. Allowing kids a small reward for each step of the journey is always a nice touch. Our family has used cupcake stickers, or even a fun-colored highlighter to make crossing off a step fun.

Having fun as a family is about more than the photo captured in a moment. It is the bedrock of healthy relationships – between each member. Without shared experiences, it is easy for everyone to start to only focus on their personal narrative. The deeper the rut becomes in the habit of doing things alone, or without your family, the harder it is to start. Prioritize fun – laundry can wait – and make sure the kids have a memory-filled with the good, the bad, and the ugly. It all matters.

So, look for us out there – we will be the family taking the photo – probably a little dirty, maybe a few dried tears on our cheeks, – but oh so happy.

Melanie Isaacs is the Founder & Chief Inclusion Officer at Pal Experiences. Pal Experiences was created for the 40 million Americans with non-visible disabilities to more successfully engage in their community. With Pal, everyone gets to go! Learn more by visiting



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