Traveling with Autism: How to Handle Safety, Transitions, and Time in Transit

The Zebra
March 27, 2019

Autism Travel

 

Traveling is a bit more complicated when you have a child on the autism spectrum, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. With some advance planning and a good safety strategy, you can make transitions and time in transit a lot more manageable.

Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD, affects approximatelyone out of every 59 children in the United States. Families with kids who are on the autism spectrum often face unique challenges when planning a trip because so many children with autism struggle when out of their regular routines. Yet that does not mean families with children with autism should skip traveling. In fact, traveling can be quite beneficial for the entire family, including the child with autism.

Sometimes, travel is necessary in order to seek therapy, specialized care, or to visit out-of-town family. No two children are the same and the accommodations that make traveling easier for your child might be different than what works for someone else. But by anticipating your child’s needs and sensitivities, it is possible to make traveling something your entire family enjoys.

 


 

Benefits of family travel

There are significantbenefits to traveling with children who have autismand other special needs:

  • Reduce isolation. When parenting a child with special needs, isolation is a very real concern. It is all too easy to become isolated in your home because of your child's needs, and that is not healthy for you or for your child. Traveling allows your entire family to move out of your comfort zone and avoid the trap of isolation.

  • Enjoy family time. Travel brings opportunity to bond as a family. Both your child with special needs and your other children need time together to build strong relationships. You can also use travel experiences as an opportunity to visit other relatives that you may not see regularly. The family bonds and memories you create are worth the challenges and logistics you must tackle.

  • Life skills. Your goal when raising a child with autism is to encourage as much independence as possible, and that requires developing life skills. Being able to travel is a life skill that will benefit your child long after the trip. You can use travel to teach life skills like social interactions, map reading, budgeting and more, depending on your child’s abilities and age. Learning a bit more flexibility, especially with neurology differences that often require strict adherence to routines.

  • Educational benefits. Seeing different cultures, exploring historic sites, and interacting with nature are all important for your children’s education, and these are things that they cannot learn in the classroom. This, in turn, can increase your child’s cultural appreciation and empathy for others who think or act differently than your child does.

  • Sensory desensitization. Most children with autism have sensory needs, and many respond negatively to sensory stimulation. One of the best ways to help them overcome this hurdle is to desensitize them to the sensory stimulation that they find challenging. Travel exposes your child to new things that can help with this process, and because you don’t have access to the comforts of home, it makes the desensitization process more automatic.

  • Spreading autism awareness. For many parents of children with autism, spreading awareness about neurodiversity is something they are passionate about. When you travel, you are able to spread that message even further. Exposing other people to the neurodiverse world can help make the future world one that is more accepting of diversity and kids who have autism. This is a benefit not only for your family but for the rest of the world.

Do those benefits make you want to jump in and start planning your next family trip? Before you do, make sure you are prepared for the unique challenges that traveling with an autistic child will bring, so you can move forward with confidence and preparedness!

 


 

Early planning

Some of the tips you will need to make travel with a child who has autism comfortable require early planning. From choosing your destination to addressing your child’s unique needs, these tips will need to happen far ahead of your actual travel date.

  • Choose a destination that reduces stress.Children with autism are able to pick up on the stress of others. They are also overly stimulated by crowds at times. A trip to an amusement park, where strict schedules are a necessity, may not be the best choice. Choose a trip to a relaxing destination with unhurried schedules, like the mountains or the beach.

  • Choose a destination based on your child.Though most families with a child with autism benefit from an unhurried destination, you need to consider your child’s unique needs. Some children may find the heat of the sun and the scratching of the sand to be too troublesome for a beach trip. Some children may love amusement parks, even with their neurodiversity. Plan a destination that will be appealing for your unique child’s needs.

  • Include your children in the planning.Include all of your children in your planning, including your children with special needs. This will help you choose a destination that is a good fit.

  • Call ahead.Call the airport, train station, hotel, or attraction ahead to learn what accommodations can be made for your child’s needs. Find out about special passes that may be available to help your child enjoy the experience with minimal stress.

  • Use pre-boarding if possible.If the airline allows it, use pre-boarding. This will give you the chance to settle your child or get extra assistance if the flight induces a meltdown.

  • Give yourself ample time.Parenting a child with autism will quickly teach you to expect the unexpected. When you head out for your day of travel, plan ample time. If something goes awry, you do not want to add the stress of a time crunch to the mix.

  • Practice with your child.Usesocial storiesand even actual practice to help your child with autism understand what to expect. This can help reduce anxiety and negative behaviors, because your child will face fewer unexpected problems. Anticipate areas where your child may struggle, such as TSA checkpoints, baggage claim, meals in unfamiliar restaurants, and sleeping in a hotel.

  • Reduce your own stress to improve your child's travel experience.The more stressed you are, the more your child will struggle. Whether you need to plan extra time, need down time for yourself, or need to bring an extra caretaker with you to help with your child, do what you can to reduce your own stress while planning and executing your trip.

For more help with travel planning, visit:

 


 

Creating a safety plan

Safety is one of the biggest concerns parents of children with autism face when away from home. Many children with autism wander and some have communication difficulties that would make it difficult for emergency personnel to help them find their parents if they become separated. Here are some ways to make your trip is as risk-free as possible.

  • Have a plan for dealing with wandering behavior. Make sure you have a plan if your child has wandering tendencies. Using tether backpacks can be helpful when traveling, as it gives your child a measure of freedom while ensuring you know they are close by at all times.

  • Consider a GPS tracker. Products like AngelSense give parents the peace of mind of knowing they can find their child if he or she wanders off, and that can alleviate much of your stress when traveling with your child with special needs.

  • Use a medical alert bracelet.If your child has speech concerns or other considerations that emergency personnel should know if an accident occurs, use a medical alert bracelet. Include an emergency phone number on the bracelet that you will have on you during your travels.

  • Keep a form of identification on the child.Children with autism should have a form of identification on their persons when traveling, just to ensure emergency professionals can provide the right help if a problem arises.

  • Have an ID kit with you that can be used to help find your child in an emergency.A recent photograph and an accurate description, including current height and weight, can help emergency responders locate your child should you become separated. The National Child Identification Program offers kits you can use to easily create an ID packet for your child, including a fingerprint and DNA sample, which is a good starting point.

  • Teach your child what to do if separated.From staying within a safe area to identifying safe strangers, like police officers or store workers, give your child skills to handle dangerous situations in case you are separated. Of course, this needs to suit your child’s abilities and understanding, but it is something to practice at home.

  • Consider temporary safety tattoos.These temporary tattoos can be placed on your child’s arm to contain your name and phone number, increasing the chance that your child will be safely returned if lost and separated.

For more help with your safety and travel planning, visit:

 


 

Know what to pack

Packing strategically can greatly improve the quality of your travel, so be careful in what you pack. Bringing some of the items your child loves from home can ease the transition into the new environment. Here are some considerations as you pack.

  • Bring items to make sleep easier.From packing your child’s favorite blanket or pillow to bringing a comforting stuffed animal and well-loved pajamas, bring items from home that will make sleeping as comfortable as possible.

  • Pack a noise machine.The noises in a hotel can be uncomfortable for a child with autism. Pack a white noise machine or fan that you can use in the hotel to mask the noise as much as possible.

  • Bring a favorite toy or two.If your child has a favorite toy that can be calming, bring it. Yes, you may get new items on the trip, but for a child with autism, the familiar items from home are almost always going to be soothing and helpful.

  • Pack sensory and comfort items.If there are certain sensory items that help your child when facing meltdowns or overstimulation, pack them. These will be unique to each child, so consider what your child benefits from most at home, and consider packing that.

  • Bring some safe foods.Many children with autism are picky eaters, and you do not want to add hunger to the considerations your child will face on your trip. Make sure you keep hunger at bay, even when unusual food options present themselves, by packing some foods that are “safe” in your child’s mind. Keep in mind that airports have regulations about what foods and liquids are allowed in carry-on baggage, so read up on those before you head out.

  • Pack your own toiletries.While most hotels provide soap and shampoo, your child may do better with the smell and texture of the items you use at home regularly, so bring your own.

For more help with packing for your trip, visit:

 


 

Hitting the road – tips for car trips and a child with autism

Road travel is still a popular way to see the country, as nearly80 percent of all family tripsare the road trip variety. If your travel plans involve the good old American road trip, then you may want to plan ahead a bit. Hours strapped in the car seat or car can be hard on a child with autism, and you need to be prepared. Here are some tips that will help your road trip go well.

  • Check car seat installation.Consider having your car seats and booster seats checked professionally before you hit the road to ensure they are properly installed. Poorly installed car seats are not only a safety risk, but they are also uncomfortable, and that can lead to the wrong type of sensory input for your child.

  • Tackle maintenance tasks for your car before you go. Don’t hit the road until you are completely certain your car is ready for the task at hand. An unexpected breakdown because you forgot to change the oil can turn all of your careful preparation for your child on its side, because children with autism do not handle changes and transitions easily.

  • Try shorter trips before the big vacation. If your child is not used to long periods in the car, take some shorter excursions on the weekend before you head out for the big trip. This can give your child the chance to practice the skills necessary for a longer trip and will help you plan for what unexpected problems may arise after you see how your child responds to extended periods of time in the car.

  • Prep an itinerary. Have your stops scheduled before you leave. This will help you answer any questions about “how much longer,” and will also prevent problems when you cannot find a place to stop when your child needs a break.

  • Pack a sensory tool kit.A sensory tool kit will have comfort objects and sensory toys that your child can use when the road trip experience becomes overwhelming. Consider adding earplugs, noise canceling headphones, or other comfort items that help your child. Add sunglasses or a sunshade in case the sun is shining on your child.

  • Plan for entertainment in the car.Audiobooks, video players, the iPad, and things your child can do with his hands are all helpful for long road trips. Have a variety of entertainment options to prevent boredom, which can lead to meltdowns.

  • Have extra batteries for electronics.If you don’t have the ability to charge electronics in your car, make sure you have more extra batteries than you think they will need so the chosen entertainment device is never unavailable.

  • Stick to a routine as much as possible. Children with autism thrive on routine, and that is disrupted when you hit the road. To keep things as routine as possible, try to keep with your regular schedule as much as you can. Do you normally have lunch at noon? Plan your trip so you can keep this time frame.

  • Pack plenty of snacks.Low blood sugar will induce meltdowns quickly, but you can avoid this by stashing plenty of healthy snacks for the road. Make sure you have foods that meet your child’s dietary needs in case the options along the road are not good ones.

  • Watch out for car sickness.Children who are neurodiverse and have sensory integration needs may experience car sickness more easily than others. Pay attention to signs of distress so you can stop if needed. Pack cleaning supplies and changes of clothing in case your child becomes sick in the car.

  • Use motion sickness bands. If car sickness is a problem, have your child wear a motion sickness band to help combat the problem.

  • Schedule sufficient breaks.Everyone can benefit from breaks during a long road trip. The opportunity to get out of the car and stretch tired legs will help reduce the risk of a meltdown from your child with autism, and it will improve the mood of everyone in the car at the same time. You may even find it beneficial to plan some stops along the way that are part of the fun, such as hitting some tourist attractions while you travel.

  • Pay attention to your child’s emotions.If it appears your child is starting to get agitated, take an unexpected break. It is better to get to your destination late than to have a meltdown along the way.

  • Be flexible.Road trips require flexibility, and when you add a child with autism to the mix, that flexibility need is even greater. Be willing to follow your child’s cues, and you will eventually arrive at your destination.

For more help planning a road trip, or for inspiration for your next road trip, visit:

 


 

Take to the skies! Tips for air travel with a child with autism

When your travels are taking you to more exotic or far-from-home destinations, or when you need or want to arrive at the destination more quickly, airline travel is the best route to take. However, airline travel is an extremely sensory heavy experience, with many unexpected things that your child must face. It can be overwhelming, leaving you with a frustrated and emotional child while navigating the airport. Thankfully, with some forward thinking and planning, you can successfully fly, even internationally, with a child who has autism. Here are some tips that will help:

  • Practice ahead of time. Think about what might create problems for your child in the airport, and practice ahead of time. From security checkpoints to long waits to board the plane, your child needs to know what to expect.

  • Request a TSA Autism Spectrum Disorder Notification Card.This card will alert TSA officials to the fact that your child is autistic, and that will help you get through security easier. With this card, you can consult with the TSA officer at security about the best way to go through the security process without undue stress for your child.

  • Call ahead. Many airlines have plans in place to help passengers who have sensory needs, so call ahead to learn what options you have.

  • Use videos and social stories.The more preparation you can provide your child, the more success you will have at the airport. Use visual tools to tell your child more about what is coming.

  • Arrive plenty early. Don’t be late on the day of your flight. You need time to deal with the unexpected.

  • Board the plane during pre-boarding.This will give you more time to settle your child and avoid the crush of people that happens during the regular boarding times.

  • Sit near the front or back of the airplane, if you can.This will give you a measure of quiet from the other passengers, which may help your child. It will also put you closer to the lavatories. Sitting in the bulkhead will also allow your child to kick her feet, if needed, without disturbing passengers in front of her.

  • Prepare for the ear pressure problem.Children with autism may react strongly to the feeling of pressure in their ears and the ear popping that occurs during takeoff and landing. Using chewing toys, chewing gums, or suck-on candy, depending on your child’s preferences, can help. Even drinking from a straw can provide relief.

  • Pack meals and snacks.If your child gets hungry on the flight, you will want to be prepared! Research the restaurants at your terminal if possible, so you will know if there are appropriate foods that your child will tolerate.

  • Understand your rights.When traveling with a child who has disabilities, you do have rights under the Air Carrier Access Act. This includes the right to request a private screening at security, if that would be easier for your child.

  • Have a plan in place for delayed flights.Delayed flights are frustrating no matter who you are, but when you are traveling with a child who has autism, you need to have a plan in place to avoid unwanted stress.

  • Remember that other passengers will not know your child has autism.If your child is having trouble, just ignore the looks of other passengers, who may mistake a meltdown with a behavior problem. Remember, it’s your job to focus on your child to make the travel experience pleasant and enjoyable, not to worry about other people’s judgments. If your child is not having trouble, explain to the passengers around you about your child’s needs, so they will be more understanding if a problem arises. This will elicit compassion, not judgment, from your fellow passengers.

  • Inform the security officer and flight attendants of your child’s needs before an incident arises. This will help them respond more calmly to your child’s issues if they develop problems on the flight.

For more help preparing for airline travel with a child who has autism, visit:

 


 

Trains, ships, and other modes of transportation

Many children on the autism spectrum are fascinated by trains. If yours is one of them, traveling by rail or even taking public transportation can be a memorable experience. But as with all new situations, there are challenges to consider when traveling by train, taking a cruise, and even using city public transportation after you arrive at your destination. Here are some tips to help:

  • Use social stories, videos, and other tools to help prepare your child.Like other modes of transportation, using social stories, videos, and similar tools to prepare your child for the new mode of transportation will help.

  • Get on early. When boarding a train, cruise ship, or bus, avoiding a mad rush is always best. Give your child time to acclimate to the new scenario. Sometimes this is not possible, especially with train travel, as some modes of transportation do not stop long for passengers to get on and off, but do your best to get on early if you can.

  • Prepare for the noise of engines.Trains, ships, and buses are all quite loud. If your child has auditory sensitivities, be prepared with noise-canceling headphones and preparation beforehand. This will prevent a meltdown because of loud, frightening noises.

  • Find a quiet seat.If the bus, train, or ship is not too crowded, look for a quiet place to sit, preferably near a window. This will give your child some space if the process becomes overwhelming.

  • Take advantage of the ability to move. One of the benefits of taking one of the alternative forms of transportation is the ability you have to move. You can move around the train and on board ship. This can be beneficial to a child who struggles to sit in one seat for a long trip. If your child seems to be getting overstimulated, you can move to a different area of the train.

  • Bring entertainment.On a train, ship, or bus, you may not have access to the entertainment options in your car, like the radio or DVD player, so bring your own devices, toys, and sensory items to keep your child entertained.

  • Prepare for seasickness on a cruise.Cruising can be a great way to enjoy travel with your children, but children with autism may be more prone to sea sickness than neurotypical children. Prepare with motion sickness medications and armbands.

  • Choose cruise cabin location carefully.Cruise ships are notorious for thin walls. Choose the location carefully to avoid noise stimulation from the gym, engine room, restaurant, or another noisy place on the ship. If that is not possible, make sure you are prepared with noise cancellation tools.

  • Meet with the cruise company ahead of time.This can help you create a plan for dealing with your child’s special needs on board the ship. It will also help you plan activities and shore excursions before you leave.

  • Consider traveling in the offseason.If you will travel via train or ship, traveling in the offseason can limit the number of crowds you have to face. As an added perk, you might save a little money!

  • Keep children with you at all times.Cruise ships and bus stations can be dangerous locations for children with autism who are prone to wandering, so keep them close at hand.

  • Inform kids’ club staff and other cruise staff about your child’s needs. Many cruise ships offer kid’s clubs that can be a great place for your children to hang out but make sure the staff is well aware of your child’s needs. Children with autism must not leave the kid’s club without their parents, even if the rules are more lenient on board the ship.

For more help with alternate forms of travel for children with autism, visit:

 


 

Hotel stays and autism

Any time an individual with autism is away from the home environment, it can trigger anxiety and meltdowns. Staying in a hotel may feel like a luxury to you, but to your child, it can be a stressful experience. All of the sounds, smells, and sights that your child is familiar with are not close at hand, and that can make sleep elusive. These tips can help make everyone more comfortable in the hotel when you travel with a child who is autistic.

  • Request a room that will be quieter.Rooms near the stairs, elevator, or ice machine are likely to be noisier, and that can disrupt your child’s sleep. Ask for one that is not near these hubs of activity. Some hotels even have designated “quiet rooms” for travelers with autism, so if you call ahead you can get this access.

  • Consider adjoining rooms. Getting adjoining rooms gives you the ability to set up one room with your child’s special needs in mind while having another room where you can stay up watching TV or otherwise function without disrupting your child’s sleep. Make sure, however, that the room is equipped with locks that your child cannot access, so you are not left to deal with a child who has locked you out of her sleeping quarters.

  • Ask about the security in the room.From locks on the sliding doors that access the patio to alarms for kids who wander, consider a hotel that has room security as part of its amenities.

  • Protect your child from wandering out of the hotel room.Choose a second-floor room away from the stairs if your child is a wanderer. This will give you the ability to find your child quickly if they do manage to get out of the door without your knowledge and will prevent injuries.

  • Look for kitchenettes.If your child is a picky eater, a kitchenette can be a lifesaver on your trip, so look for a hotel that has one. In addition, consider a hotel with a continental breakfast that offers more than just muffins and cereal, so your child starts off the day with a healthy breakfast.

  • Know that free Wi-Fi is a must!Many children with autism rely on technology-based interventions to help soothe themselves, and free WiFi makes this easier to access.

  • Consider autism-friendly hotels.As autism awareness has grown, some hotels have created sensory rooms and other autism-friendly areas. If the location where you are traveling has one of these, consider booking a stay!

  • Bring your own sheets and pillows if your child is sensitive to textures.Even neurotypical people sometimes struggle to sleep on unfamiliar sheets and pillows, so the added comfort of home may make sleep easier to come by.

For more help finding the right hotel, visit:

 


 

Navigating theme parks with children with special needs

For some children with autism or other sensory special needs, the crowds, noise, and smell of a theme park are overwhelming, but not all. Children who are sensory-seeking may actually crave this kind of environment, and those who are easily overwhelmed can enjoy it with a little accommodation. Here are some tips to make it easier.

  • Choose the right theme park.Many theme parks are creating accommodations for families with children with autism, making the experience easier with low sensory parades, low sensory areas, quiet rooms, and guest assistance passes that allow children with special needs to skip the line queues for rides. Research parks ahead of time to find one with these types of offerings.

  • Bring the right sensory tools.Noises, smells, and visual stimulation can all be challenging for children who are dealing with autism in a theme park. Bring noise canceling headphones, sunglasses, and other sensory tools that will help with these concerns.

  • Call the customer service ahead of time to request accommodations.Reach out to the park’s customer service professionals or guest services department to learn about options for your child’s needs. Many parks already have plans in place to help families with loved ones who are autistic have an exceptional time.

  • Make it easy to track your child.In addition to GPS trackers or leads, consider dressing your children in matching or bright clothing, so they are easy to spot if they do wander away from you.

  • Plan breaks from the action with respite locations chosen beforehand.Children of all ability levels need breaks during a busy day at a theme park, but for children with autism, this is critical. Whether it involves a trip to the hotel for afternoon rest or just finding a quiet place in the park, have some downtime built into your day. It will benefit everyone!

  • Avoid problematic clothing. Make sure your child is in comfortable clothing that is appropriate for the weather. Choose comfortable footwear that is unlikely to rub your child’s foot as the day progresses.

For more help with navigating the world of theme parks, visit:

 


 

Troubleshooting travel concerns with children on the autism spectrum

No matter how carefully you plan your trip, you are going to run into occasional problems. The more you can prepare for them beforehand, the better your trip will be. Here are some troubleshooting tips to keep in mind:

  • Prepare for strangers who don’t understand.Autism awareness is growing, and people are becoming increasingly accepting and sympathetic to families with children who have autism, but you will run into people who don’t understand. Remember that they are not your responsibility. Your child’s safety, happiness, and well-being is your only priority, so ignore those who try to pass judgment. Focus on enjoying your vacation.

  • Give your child ample time for transitions.The added stress of travel can increase your child's struggle with transition, so keep lines of communication open. Prepare your child for as many transitions as possible during the travel experience.

  • Go to management.If you or your child is treated unfairly or discriminated against while traveling, do not pick a fight with the person you are in contact with. Instead, go to management to get help, as this is often more effective. Also, be prepared with the company's disability regulations and accessibility rules, if possible.

  • Prepare for toilet troubles. Children with autism, even if they are fully toilet trained, may struggle when out of their normal routine. They may find the public restrooms or hotel restroom frightening and uncomfortable. This is normal, so be prepared with extra pull-ups or changes of clothing in case a toileting accident happens.

  • Understand the concerns of public restrooms.One of the reasons your child may struggle with toilet training while traveling is because of all of the sensory input of public restrooms. The loud hand dryers, automatic flushing toilets, unusual smells, and unusual sights can all add up to problems. Be prepared for these issues with noise-canceling headphones and sticky notes to put over automatic toilet sensors. Also, consider looking for family restrooms, which can be less frightening for your child. Practice visiting public restrooms before your trip to make this transition easier.

  • Understand and prepare for the effects of a disrupted routine. Your child may have trouble sleeping in the hotel. Bring all of the aids you would normally use at home, but be willing to be flexible. Extra nap times, earlier bedtimes on subsequent nights, and an attitude of flexibility will be helpful.

  • Prepare for picky eaters.Many children with autism have a very limited diet because of the sensory issues surrounding eating. Brainstorm foods that are “safe” that are travel-friendly. For instance, if your child enjoys macaroni and cheese, consider single-serve containers you can make in your hotel microwave or with water from a hot pot you pack. Keep a large stash of safe foods on hand, and research restaurants before you leave.

  • Encourage food exploration. If your child knows you have safe foods, he might be willing to try just one bite of something new. The excitement of a new destination can make this more inviting. Encourage this type of food exploration, and you just might find that your child learns to like something new on your trip.

  • Have a Plan B, or C, and even D.When you travel, things will go wrong. Having additional plans to make up for these problems at all times. This will reduce frustration.

  • Watch for signs of sensory overload.Know when your child has had enough, and stop the activities for the day in favor of something calm and soothing. Even if this means you do not get to “do it all,” you will still be creating positive experiences for your family, and your child will remain calmer as a result.

For more help troubleshooting problems that may arise on your trip, visit:

 


 

Conclusion

Traveling, even when someone in your family has autism, is a rewarding experience. It opens your eyes to different cultures and experiences, which can be beneficial to all members of your family. Traveling with someone who is autistic does create unique challenges, but they are challenges you can and should face. The rewards are well worth the effort. With the tips in this guide, you can head into your next travel experience with confidence, knowing that your child is as prepared as possible for the experience ahead. Just remember to stay positive and be flexible, and you will all enjoy a great vacation experience.