Whether your idea of a vacation is relaxing on the beach, exploring mountainsides or adventuring the streets of a big city, if you’re a parent of a child with autism, we’re guessing your ideal travel plans don’t include navigating high-stress transportation nor massive crowds.
Traveling with a child who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) adds a whole new layer of complexity to road trips, plane delays and long lines for character meet-and-greets. Many families choose to forego traveling all together in order to dodge the added pressure, but some trips are difficult to avoid, like business trips, weddings and grandparent visits. For other autism parents and caregivers, journeys to “faraway places” play an important role in creating new experiences for their children (including siblings affected by autism) and themselves that they may not otherwise receive at home.
No matter what your reason for traveling, our Hopebridge professionals developed 10 ways to make your voyages more enjoyable for the entire family.
How to Prepare to Travel with Kids with Autism
Choose a destination that capitalizes on your child’s interests. If possible, have your child take part in determining the vacation location to build excitement. Is he or she interested in dinosaurs? Consider a city that has a museum with a dinosaur exhibit, for example. Or maybe it’s something more obscure, like elevators. There are a ton of locations with famous elevators, like that in the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. This rule also applies to pre-determined destinations. If your kiddo is a sports fan, for instance, make sure to add a local ball game or stadium tour to your itinerary.
Take it a step further with an autism-friendly locale. If you’re flexible in your destination choice and want the ultimate autism-friendly experience, select a travel spot that goes out of its way to be inclusive of those on the spectrum. Sesame Place in Pennsylvania is the first-ever theme park designated as a certified autism center. It offers specially trained staff, sensory guides, quiet rooms, low sensory areas and a ride accessibility program, plus the chance to meet the Sesame Street character, Julia, who also has autism. TradeWinds Islands Resorts in Florida also boasts safe and enjoyable activities and amenities for families who require extra accommodations. Autism resources include trained staff, room safety kits, waterproof mattress pads, temporary safety tattoos for wanderers, an autism-inclusive Kids Club and special menu options.
Simulate the vacation experience. Practice is a crucial element of travel preparation for families impacted by autism. It can start as simply as showing photos and videos of the mode of transportation and destination (YouTube and Instagram location tags will be your best friends on this one!). Use this time to talk to your child about what he or she can expect, such as how you will arrive and who will be there. If you’re lucky, some airports, like Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, even offer travel “rehearsals” certain times a year for families to practice making their way through the airport and onto a plane. These events are intended to introduce individuals with special needs to the sights, sounds and other senses that might occur within an airport, all within a more relaxed setting. If your local airport does not offer an event like this, call ahead to see if its staff is willing to accommodate a practice run designed for your family.
Talk to your child’s therapist. Discuss the vacation in advance with your child’s BCBA or RBT. Through applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy), we can work together to set travel-related goals, and prepare your kiddo with strategies and tools like social stories and calendars to help them tolerate new settings, sounds, etc. Your therapy team can also support you in communicating expectations in order to increase your child’s comfort level with the idea.
Time it appropriately. This may seem like common sense for all travelers, but is especially important for those dealing with sensory sensitivities. If your kiddo is sensitive to temperature, keep the weather for that time of year in mind. Try to stay away from peak season for certain locations if crowds may be an issue. “Timing” is also important when it comes to itineraries. Create a schedule so your child can plan for activities and try to keep it as close to the normal routine as possible.
Start small. It’s probably not a good idea to test the waters with a weeklong European vacation. In addition to opting for a nearby spot for a weekend getaway, ease into overnight stays with a practice run. Stay one night at a local hotel or family member’s home. It will also help you identify potential pitfalls before the big vacay and may be necessary to practice more than once.
Seek out services for individuals with special needs. A Google search or call to a travel planner or concierge will help you discover the little known services that might be available to your family. Many theme parks offer skip-the-line passes for families of children with autism. Hotels may be able to provide certain amenities or quieter rooms to make the space more like home. Airports may offer a spot in shorter lines for TSA security checks. It never hurts to ask in advance!
Pack your go-to “tools.” Most travel bag lists include sunscreen, snacks and comfortable shoes, but the checklists for autism families can be a bit longer. For long car rides or flights, have a good amount of activities available. Include new and exciting “gifts” as well as tried-and-true options like iPads. Pack headphones, ear plugs, sunglasses and other calming tools they need for sensory challenges. Sleep is a key part of overnight travel, so bring along familiar pillows, weighted blankets and a lovey, if needed. If your child is a picky eater or has special dietary needs, pack your own food or map out approved restaurants and grocery stores in advance. Keep toileting in mind. If your child may have accidents due to anxiety, a lack of rest stops or an extended airplane “seatbelt sign,” consider packing diapers or an extra change of clothes. Reinforcements are also key–don’t forget some of your child’s preferred toys or snacks, in addition to highlighting appropriate behaviors along the way.
Safety first. If your kiddo has challenges with elopement, the idea of traveling can be scary, especially in unfamiliar places. Implement a buddy system at all times and create an emergency plan for everyone in your party. Even if he or she is not a “runner,” it’s also a good idea to equip your child with identification, whether it’s attached to a shirt or shoe, or a temporary tattoo stuck in plain sight. Tethering with a safety harness backpack in crowds could provide added comfort for some families. You can also purchase tracking devices, door alarms, guardian locks and stop sign prompts to prevent nighttime wandering, as well as life jackets for water-related vacations.
Be realistic. All in all, think about what your child can handle. If a cross-country road trip is too much to handle, don’t push it. Design your expedition around your kiddo as much as possible, which may mean shortening travel time or staying in an Airbnb rather than a five-star resort. If you simply must scale Mt. Everest or attend your best friend’s wedding at a Tuscan winery (or just want an overnight away, which is completely understandable!), maybe a spouse can stay with the kids, otherwise ask a close relative or familiar friend who may be willing to babysit during your time away.
What are your travel experiences and what has worked best for your family? Share your travel stories with us and other families on our Hopebridge Facebook page and Instagram.
If you could use extra support preparing your child for life experiences like this, our Hopebridge Heroes are here to help. Contact us today to arrange autism testing or an ABA evaluation to start setting up your child for a more independent, fulfilling life.
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