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Traveling With Children Who Have Autism – A Comprehensive Guide

Written by: Theresa Alexander Inman, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Theresa Alexander Inman

I want to start with something Temple Grandin said, in essence: one of the best things her parents did was to expose her to new experiences. Traveling can be an enriching experience for families, offering opportunities for learning, relaxation, and creating lasting memories. However, for families with children who have autism, traveling can present a unique set of challenges. As a result, too many families who have children who have children with autism avoid leaving their homes, never mind vacation travel. Why? Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects communication and behavior. Changes in routine, unfamiliar environments, and sensory overload that often come with travel can be particularly difficult for these children to manage. With careful planning and consideration, families can create a travel experience that is enjoyable and comfortable for everyone involved. This article provides a comprehensive guide for traveling with children who have autism, offering tips and strategies to ensure a smooth journey.


group of friends with autism or down syndrome lying on blanket with laptop.

Start with being calm and excited about the adventure: Next, develop a detailed plan, this helps you and your child prepare for the adventure! The first time you do this, the experience can be overwhelming, breathe through it! I believe the time spent is worth it. It will get easier on your second and subsequent trips. I would recommend joining a social media group of parents who travel with their neurodiverse children for additional support. 


Pre-trip preparations


Look for destinations that are known for being accommodating to families with special needs. Many places have quiet rooms, sensory-friendly attractions, and trained staff to assist families. Sesame Street has partnered with Royal Caribbean to make cruising fun. A family I worked with, vacationed annually on Disney Cruise Lines starting when their daughter was 3 years old. She now travels by plane to various destinations in and out of the US.


Familiarize through visualization


Use books, videos, and pictures to familiarize your child with the places you will visit, the means of transportation you will use, and the types of activities you will do. This can help reduce anxiety about new experiences. Additionally, you may create a social story and insert photos of your child smiling within it. That way they see themselves having a good time in that setting. Review this regularly and answer any questions or research with your child to find the answers. For children who are nonverbal (having no means of communication) observe for signs of stress or anxiety, while reviewing the social stories, videos, etc. If they persist, wait or explore a different destination. Maybe start by visiting a family member closer to home. Do prepare your child as described above for this as well to promote success.


Create or find a visual schedule online. Visual schedules are a great tool to help develop executive functioning. When a child knows what to expect, they are less likely to be anxious. They can help children understand what to expect each day of the trip. Include pictures or symbols representing each activity or part of the journey. They also allow you to be flexible as pictures can be moved around when there is a schedule change. For this, I suggest a schedule with Velcro or tape. 


Accommodations and travel arrangements


Reach out to airlines, hotels, and attractions in advance to discuss your child's needs. Many companies offer priority boarding, dietary accommodations, and other support for families with special needs.


If your preferred destination does not offer autism-friendly accommodations, they may be open to suggestions. When contacting even those who have such accommodations speak to them specifically about your child’s needs. Autism presents differently, hence the spectrum. The more they know, the better they are equipped to help you and your family. Choose accommodations that suit your child's needs best. For example, a vacation rental with a quiet space might be preferable to a busy hotel.


Before you leave your place of accommodation to venture out, Identify areas where you can take a break if your child becomes overwhelmed. This can be anywhere from a quiet corner in a museum to a designated sensory room in an amusement park.


Packing essentials: Sensory and comfort items


Pack favorite toys, blankets, or other items that provide comfort and a sense of familiarity. Include headphones, sensory toys, and anything else that can help manage sensory overload in busy or loud environments. Consult with our Occupational/Speech Therapist, Behavior Analyst, or other provider for further assistance. If your child is non-vocal or has limited communication skills, bring along any tools or devices they use to communicate.


Health and safety


Ensure you have an ample supply of any medications, as well as a summary of your child's medical history and contact information for their healthcare providers. Consider using trackers, ID bracelets, or tags with contact information in case your child wanders off. You may also consider adding alarms to doors and temporary latches as another layer of security to keep your child safe.


During the trip


Try to maintain regular meal times and bedtime routines to provide structure and predictability. If there is to be a change you are aware of adjust your visual schedule and discuss it with your child as soon as you know. If something comes up unexpectedly, adjust the visual schedule and review it with your child. Be ready to adjust your plans based on your child's needs and comfort levels. It's okay to skip planned activities if it means avoiding potential stressors for your child. Be on the lookout for cues from your child, to determine if something needs to be adjusted to prevent engagement in a challenging behavior. 


After the trip


Talk about what went well and what could be improved for next time. This can help your child process the experience and can inform future travel plans. Focus on the positive experiences and achievements, no matter how small. I would also suggest you practice focusing on the positive as a daily way of living. You get more of what you focus on. That being said traveling with autism presents its own set of challenges, and every successful trip is an accomplishment.


Conclusion


Traveling with children who have autism may require additional planning and flexibility. With focused preparation, it can be a rewarding experience for the entire family. Keeping in mind your child's needs, seeking out autism-friendly destinations and accommodations can certainly ease the stress. Being prepared for any sensory and communication challenges that may arise. You can create a travel experience that is enjoyable and enriching for everyone involved. Remember, the goal is not to get through the trip, it is to create positive, lasting memories as a family.


Theresa Alexander Inman Brainz Magazine
 

Theresa Alexander Inman, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Theresa Alexander Inman is a highly qualified parent coach with experience in the fields of infant and toddler development, play-based interventions, behavior analysis, and mindfulness. In her signature method, she uses them as a combined treatment modality to meet the unique needs of the families she serves. She believes learning should be fun and involve the whole family and/or village. Theresa is also an Author (How Can I Help My Child Communicate?) International Speaker and Trainer.

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