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The Ultimate Travel Guide for Autism Families

The ultimate travel guide for autism families

Updated: August 11, 2023 · 8 Minute Read

Jeryn Cambrah

Written by:

Jeryn Cambrah

Highlights

  • Traveling with kiddos on the spectrum can be stressful, but with careful planning, it doesn’t have to be! Pack a “sensory kit” with your child’s favorite snacks, fidgets, toys, stuffed animals, and more.
  • Stick to your at-home routine as much as possible. Familiarity can help your child self-regulate.
  • Seek out CAC (Certified Autism Center) businesses or work with a CATP (Certified Autism Travel Professional) as you plan your trip for an autism-friendlier experience. Reach out to hotels, airports, attractions, etc. in advance to work out accommodation options before you arrive.
  • Mentally prepare your child for travel by using social stories, videos, pictures, role play, and more, to decrease sensory overload and give them a sense of control.
  • Give yourself (and your child) grace. Oftentimes, it’s our own expectations that frustrate us and let us down. Allow plenty of time and space for physical and cognitive breaks – taking the pressure to be perfect off of yourself makes travel easier for the whole family!

For individuals on the autism spectrum, travel can be very challenging. You’re bound to experience a number of new sensations and environments. Sights, sounds, light, crowds —all of these can be tough for autistic kiddos to adjust to, and it can be difficult to self-regulate

 

That’s why we’ve put together a list of tips from experts and parents to make your next trip as stress-free as possible. We’re hoping this guide will give you the resources and confidence you need to get out of the house and explore the world as a family because every member of your family deserves a great travel experience. Scroll on to read our guide for stress-less travel with autistic children! 

 

(Psst! Check out our “Resources” section at the end for links to our favorite autism-friendly travel programs and other helpful sites.)

 

 

What’s the plan?

You’ve probably heard the saying, “a little planning goes a long way,” and it’s so true! Planning as much as possible of your trip in advance can reduce stress for you and your family in the long run.

 

Chart your course. If you’re going on a road trip, carefully map out your destination, including mode of travel, where you’ll stop, where you’ll stay, where you’ll eat, and who your child will encounter. You can search online for CAC (Certified Autism Center) hotels and attractions along the way (check the “Resources” section below).

 

Pack in advance. At least a few days before you’re set to leave, take time to carefully list and plan everything you’ll need to pack. This will prevent that mad-dash last-minute packing frenzy, or forgetting important items. Ideally, you’ll have two bags/suitcases for your child – the first is a sensory travel kit designed to contain what they’ll need to self-soothe and stay entertained on the trip, as well as a change of clothes and diapering necessities (if applicable). This can include things like earplugs/headphones, gum, snacks, fidgets, toys, and more. The second can contain their clothing and other items you’ll use at your destination, like toiletries. Check out some ideas for what to pack or how to create a sensory travel kit.

 

Be conscious of time. Choose a departure time that works for your family – not morning people? Maybe skip that early flight. Build travel around your already existing schedule; for some families, it may be easier to schedule a flight before your child’s regular bedtime, so they can sleep on the plane. For other families, it may be best to avoid scheduling travel during meal or bedtimes. You know your child better than anyone, so you know what will be easiest for them.



Share your plans

While it may feel daunting to communicate your child’s needs and challenges to those involved with your travels, it’s a crucial step in ensuring you get the services and accommodations your family needs. People can’t help you with what they don’t know, and most people will be happy to assist you, so don’t be afraid to communicate – you’re not being bothersome, you’re being proactive!

 

Prep those you’re visiting. Going to see family or friends? You can ‘prep’ loved ones by sharing with them details about your child’s triggers, needs, likes, and dislikes. Don’t be afraid to be creative and set firm boundaries to ensure that you and your child are comfortable.

 

Contact the airport, train station, hotel, etc. Alert hotel staff in advance that you are traveling with a child on the spectrum, which means you’ll need a room with fewer neighbors and closer (or further, depending on your child’s needs) to the elevators/stairs. If you’re flying, you can contact the TSA Cares helpline at least 72 hours before departure to organize accommodations for your child.

 

Work with staff. According to TSA’s guidelines for disabled/special needs children, all items must be scanned, but you may carry your child through the security checkpoint, if necessary – just let them know when you get to the security checkpoint what your needs are. Some businesses will offer autism families accommodations like curbside check-in, selective seating, or allowing outside food/drink (for picky eaters); but you won’t know until you ask!



Prepare them mentally

You can use social stories, role play, pictures, videos, and more, to prepare your child mentally for the trip. 

 

Check with the airline for pre-flight prep. Some airlines offer flight walkthroughs to autistic individuals so they can become familiar with the plane before a flight. If your airport doesn’t offer this, you can always role play at home! You can prepare your child for a flight or train ride by showing them pictures, videos, and explaining the sensations they will experience and what traveling will be like. For example, “once the plane goes into the air, your ears may hurt.” 

 

Incentivize and visually organize your trip. Knowing where you’ll stay and eat comes in handy here – you can create a chart or velcro board for your child that shows them the order of your stops and destinations. You can even offer treats as a reward for each leg of your journey. For example: “Yay! You got on the plane; here is your slime.” “Wow, you did a great job on the plane; here is your coloring book!” You can also include photos of the people they’ll be seeing – this is especially helpful for kids meeting new people or seeing relatives for the first time in a long time.

 

Create visual representations of time. Place a calendar or visual “countdown” (you could even use a digital timer) somewhere prominent your child will see it every day. Make it a point every day to point out the travel date on the calendar and how it’s approaching. You can also use timers during the flight or car ride to count down travel time. Giving your child a clear representation of what they’ll be experiencing – and for how long – helps them feel in control and can reduce stress for both of you.

 

Tell them the story of your trip. Familiarizing your child with as many aspects of your trip as possible will let them know what to expect and minimize surprise stimuli. Show them pictures of the theme park, your relative’s house, the airport, the car, the plane, and anything else they may encounter. Make it fun! You can create an entire “book” to show them the trip from beginning to end. Ideally, you’ll want to begin this process well in advance of your trip (several weeks); but if that isn’t possible, begin prepping your child at least a few days before your travel date.

 

Give them a sense of ownership and control. Let them hold onto their trip book! They can refer back to their “itinerary” for reassurance and direction when things feel stressful. Some parents may find a “First, Then” board in the car to be helpful; it’s a laminated velcro sign that hangs from the rearview mirror or headrest and shows your child where you’re going. For example, “First, we’re going to Grandma’s house [picture of Grandma’s house]. Then, we’re going to the hotel [picture of the hotel].”

 

Take Safety Precautions

Many autistic children are at risk of elopement (running away). Put safety measures in place to decrease the chance of your child becoming separated from you, and to ensure a speedy reunion in the unfortunate event they are.

 

Add waterproof labels with your name and phone number on your child’s clothes and personal belongings. You can also purchase waterproof temporary tattoos, or a waterproof temporary ‘tattoo’ marker to adhere your phone number and name to your child’s hand or arm in the event they become separated from you.

 

Alert the airport staff, local law enforcement, and hotel staff that your child is special needs and an elopement risk. If you’ll be stopping in many locations (such as on a road trip), alert the local authorities for every destination in advance.

 

Teach your child how to get help if they become lost. If your child is able to understand, teach them your phone number in the event they are separated from you or experience an emergency. You can also use social stories or training videos to teach your child about police, firemen, and EMTs, so they understand how to interact with emergency personnel. 

 

Dress your child in distinct, appropriate clothing. If your child wears clothes with neon colors or unique patterns, they’ll be easy to spot in a crowd if you get separated.

 

Utilize safety accessories and devices. Some parents may prefer to use an accessory like a child’s harness/leash or a wrist tether to keep kiddos nearby. You may also consider using a stroller or wagon to move your child from one location to another to minimize the possibility of them becoming lost. Many airports will allow you to use a stroller in certain areas and will allow you to bring the stroller onboard the flight. Additionally, you may want to invest in a tracking device such as AngelSense or Apple AirTag, to attach to your child’s clothing in the event they elope.



Keep it Familiar

Having a sense of home will allow your child to feel more at ease, making self-regulation a bit easier. As much as is possible, try to keep objects, foods, smells, and textures, the same as normal.

 

Bring favorites and staples. When you’re deciding what to pack, be sure to bring along their favorite foods, including snacks, for the plane, car, and destination. You’ll also want to pack their favorite toys, fidget/sensory items, and plenty of extra batteries (or a battery-operated charger) for electronic devices. (Having a dead tablet when you need it most is every autism parent’s fear!)

 

Don’t switch it up. Their unwashed favorite stuffed animals and laundered items (blanket, pillow, towel, etc.) will carry the scent of home and provide much-needed comfort. For toiletry items, pack the same items your child uses at home – now is not the time to experiment with new scents or brands.

 

If possible, keep destinations familiar. Some autism families find it helpful to stick with the same brand of hotel each time they travel, or even choosing a rental car that is the same as your car at home. If your child is used to staying at Aunt Joan’s house when you’re in town, that’s the safer choice over staying with another relative or at a hotel.

 

With that being said, you may find that traveling with your autistic child requires you to be a bit flexible, too. You may be surprised by your child’s new interests, curiosities, and changes in behavior while away from home.



Day of Travel

Travel days can be hectic and stressful, but they don’t have to be! If you feel at ease, your kids likely will, too.

 

Practice (self)kindness. Don’t push yourself or rush; be gentle on yourself and them. You’re all going through this big change together, so empathy is key. Do you remember the last time you faced a big change and how scary it felt? That’s likely how your kiddo is feeling about traveling. 

 

Set realistic expectations. We often become frustrated and discouraged by our own expectations, so don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to make things go perfectly. Accept that your family’s travel experience may look a bit different to that of other families, but that doesn’t make it any less fun, valid, or important. Be prepared to pivot when necessary to meet your family’s (and your own) needs.

 

Slow and steady. Give yourself and your child(ren) plenty of time to get ready. Involve them in the process, if you can, and take plenty of time to bond, hydrate, rest, eat, cuddle – whatever allows your family to be its most relaxed.

 

Run through your itinerary/social stories and travel resources with your kiddos. This tip isn’t just helpful for kids on the spectrum – kids of all ages and cognitive abilities will appreciate knowing what to expect and how long it’ll take.

 

Double-check reservations, luggage, and more. (You could also save yourself the day-of stress by doing this the day before.) Nobody wants to show up with a crew of hungry, tired kiddos, only to find out the hotel is double-booked or that you’re missing the only blanket your child actually likes.

 

Reiterate to staff at airports, hotels, etc. that your child is special needs and what accommodations you have requested.



Stick to the Routine

For kids on the spectrum, routines are so important. Just like us, they find comfort in patterns, predictability, and knowing what’s around the corner. While travel can be a large disruption to your child’s routine, the distress can be mitigated by sticking as close to the routine as possible.

 

Keep bedtime and mealtimes the same. You may have to account for time-zone changes with this one, but it’s easiest to maintain your child’s schedule around meal and sleep time, since those are some constants regardless of where you travel. Maintain your child’s normal bedtime routine (bath, sound machine, cuddles, story, etc.) Your child will likely appreciate the consistency of having their meal and sleep experiences the same.

 

Stay consistent with rules and boundaries. If your child is only allowed an hour of screen time before bed, maintain that boundary. If you don’t allow your child to throw things at home, they should be expected to hold that boundary at the hotel, relative’s house, or wherever you may go during your travels. It’s not uncommon to see a regression in behavior when a big change (like travel or moving to a new house) occurs, but don’t fret! When your child sees that your expectations for them haven’t changed, it will help them adjust.

 

Stick to your techniques. Whatever techniques you use for your child at home, employ them while traveling. It can be tempting to preemptively meet your child’s needs because you understand travel is hard for them, but try sticking to what you’d do at home. For example, if your nonverbal child normally uses a communication device or signs “milk” for a milk cup, continue to encourage them to do that while on the road – resist the urge to grab the milk in advance. Preemptively meeting needs can actually set your child’s progress back. What techniques do you use to manage behavior at home? Adapt them for travel! A warm bath, offering choices/options, redirection, distraction, timers, visual aids – whatever methods you’d normally use, do that.



Take Breaks

Traveling can be fun, but it can also be demanding. Take breaks, both for yourself and your child, as often as needed. That could mean physical breaks and cognitive/sensory breaks. 

 

Turn things up or down a notch. There are many ways you can increase or decrease stimulation to meet your child’s needs. At times they may need more or less activity, and you already have a pretty good indication of when the activity level needs turning up or down, because you know your child best! Stopping at rest stops to stretch your legs can increase sensory input, while ducking into quiet corners of the airport between flights or shutting off all the lights in the hotel room can decrease it. Allowing your child(ren) to play with slime, play-dough, puzzles, or some other low-stress activity is a great way to soothe fidgety passengers.

 

Let it out. To relieve the lack of sensory input that comes with long hours of sitting on the plane, train, or car, try to find ways to expel your child’s energy. This could mean a trip to the playground (or backyard!) before you leave, and frequent stops at rest stops or open spaces where your children can safely do jumping jacks, jog in place (“Let me see how fast you can go without leaving this spot!), or “shake off” their energy (we recommend shaking your sillies out!)

 

Don’t forget about you. It’s important to notice when we’re overwhelmed just as much as it is to notice when our child is overwhelmed. It’s perfectly acceptable to remove yourself and/or your child from a situation that is causing overwhelm.



Conclusion

Traveling with your autistic child doesn’t have to be stressful – all it takes is a bit of planning, consistency, and a whole lot of grace (for you and them!). 

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