Updated: Mar 3, 2022
Traveling may be slightly more difficult when you have a child on the autism spectrum, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it successfully. A little advance planning and an excellent safety strategy will allow you to make the necessary transitions while making your time in transit easier to manage.
Autism Spectrum Disorder is also known as ASD and it affects approximately one out of every 59 children within the United States. Any family with kids on the autism spectrum will face unique challenges when planning a vacation. This is because so many kids with ASD struggle when they do not have their regular routines to follow. These struggles do not mean you must skip traveling forever though. Vacations, and other trips, can be very beneficial for everyone in your family, including your child with autism.
You may already be finding yourself traveling and not even be aware of it. All those appointments for therapy and specialized care that are not close to home will have you traveling to nearby areas. You may even head out of town to visit family.
There are many tips available to you that will make your travel with your autistic child easier. However, it is important to remember that no two children are ever the same. Therefore, you must know that the accommodations you need for your child are going to be different than what works for other children. You are the one that must anticipate your child’s needs and sensitivities, so everyone in your family enjoys the travels you will experience together.
The Early Planning Stages of Travel
If you want to be successful during a vacation with your autistic child, you must start your planning early. I have numerous tips that will help you from choosing your destination to addressing your child’s unique needs. But for these tips to work, you must utilize them well in advance of your departure date.
The first tip I want to share with you is the fact that children with autism can feel the stress other people are experiencing. So, if you are stressed, your autistic child will be stressed too. Knowing that crowds can stimulate a child with autism more than a walk on an empty sandy beach is one of the many things you should be aware of. It is things like this scenario that make it necessary for you to plan your vacation carefully, especially if you are traveling for the first time. An amusement park with long lines and fast pass times might not be the best option for your special needs child.
With that being said, I have already mentioned how every child is not the same. So, while one autistic child may hate the sand and the sun, they may love the hustle and bustle and activity at an amusement park. I always recommend choosing a vacation destination that you know your child will love and enjoy.
My second tip is to involve your children in the planning of your family vacation. All your children, even those with special needs, will love having a voice in the planning process. And the end result will be you choosing a destination that is a perfect fit for every member of your family.
Once you choose your destination and make your plans, I recommend finding out how to make your travel experience a good one for your autistic child. I will let you know the different opportunities that are available to you prior to your departure. Some airports offer a walk-through for children with special needs. If you are traveling via train, I will see if you can visit the train station in advance. And I will always book you at a hotel or resort that offers accommodations to ensure your entire family is safe and happy. I can even check into the attractions you will be visiting to see if there are any special passes that will allow your child to enjoy their visit even more.
This is also the time to use social stories to help your child understand every aspect of your vacation. Talk to them about what you will be packing, how you will be getting to your destination, what you will see when you are gone, and where you will eat. You may also want to talk about the people you will meet along the way. All these social stories will assist in reducing your child’s anxiety and can help prevent negative behaviors.
I always recommend spending extra time on social stories for areas where you know your child will struggle the most. Many autistic children dislike the long lines at the TSA checkpoints, while others will not like sleeping in a bed that is not their own. As you are using the social stories, you can talk to your child and see if you can both come up with solutions that will make them more comfortable during your time away from home.
Always Have a Safety Plan in Place
As a parent of a child with autism, you know how important it is to have safety measures in place for everything you do. This is why I like to make sure I have a safety plan in place for everything I do with my family. Some of my safety plans can be used in different scenarios. Other times, I need to create a safety plan by using strategies from multiple plans to get the results I want.
Any child that has trouble communicating with others should always have some type of identification on them in case they wander away. This identification should have your cellphone number on it, so they can reach you immediately. While you can slip a piece of paper in your child’s pocket, a medical alert bracelet or necklace can be a better option if your child will keep it on. Emergency professionals are trained to look for those items when they arrive to help a person out.
I always carry a recent picture of my child on my cell phone. But I also learned of another option for people when traveling. Every morning, you can take a picture of your child before you leave your hotel. This will ensure you have a recent picture and know exactly what your child was wearing that day. After all, if your child is missing, the last thing you will be able to think of right away is what t-shirt you gave them that morning!
Your safety plan should also include you talking to your child about the difficult situations they may find themselves in. This is another time to utilize social stories without scaring your child. Show them what police officers look like, so they know who to approach if they need help. Tell them how they can go in a store and go up to a cashier if they cannot find another person to help them. The more skills you give your autistic child, the better off they will be when they need to advocate for themselves.
Pack Appropriately for Your Vacation
When you start to pack for your upcoming vacation, you are going to feel like you must take everything inside your home. However, I can tell you that you don’t need every single item for your trip! Yes, you will need a few items that your child cannot live without. This may include their favorite pillow, blanket, book, stuffed animal, pajamas, and even a white noise machine.
I recommend packing a couple of your child’s favorite sensory items in a carry-on bag if you are flying. This will ensure your child has the tools they need to relax if they become overstimulated. A few of your child’s favorite snacks should also be thrown into this bag in case the food options in the airport do not appeal to your child. The last thing you want is a hungry and cranky child when you are trying to reach your destination.
I also prefer to pack our shampoo and soap for showering, because I know my child is used to the scents and feel of them. It is one way I know I can keep everyone showered and ready for bed at the end of a long day.
Tips for Road Trips with Autistic Children
One of the most popular ways to take family vacations right now is via amazing road trips. These are not the road trips of our past. Instead, they are fun-filled days that give you time to spend with your family. You can drive for as long as you want each day and stop whenever you feel like it. And you should never feel rushed to leave a destination until you have seen it all.
I always recommend planning ahead when you want to take a road trip with your family. I always make sure I have my car checked out before we hit the road. This usually includes an oil change, fluid level check, and tire pressure check. Since you have little ones, you should also have your car seats and booster seats professionally inspected to ensure they are installed properly.
A road trip is not the time to get any child used to hours of sitting in a car, as the world passes on by. So, if your child is not used to long car rides, start taking slightly longer car rides before you leave for your trip.
You should always have an itinerary before you head out on the road too. This will come in handy because you will know where you are stopping throughout the day and at night. The best part of your itinerary is you will always know the answer when your child asks when you will be there.
Bring a Bag of Sensory Items
A bag of sensory objects can be just as helpful in a car as they are on an airplane. Long car rides are not easy, and while your child might not get overstimulated, they may get overwhelmed. Sunglasses are a must for the sunny hot days and noise-canceling headphones will work for the noise of passing cars and trucks.
Do not discount an iPad or DVD player when it comes to bringing sensory items. If your child loves watching movies, downloading a favorite will keep them busy during the long stretches. I recommend bringing chargers with you, so these devices are always charged up when you need them the most.
Keep Your Routine
It is going to be difficult to stick to a normal routine, but I recommend doing it as much as you can. We all know that children with autism thrive with their normal routines. If you always eat breakfast at eight, keep that same time when you are traveling. Do Tuesdays always involve chicken tenders for dinner? If yes, then make sure they are on the menu for dinner on the Tuesday you are on vacation.
Keep Snacks Handy
Snacks can help everyone in your family when you are out on the road. Low blood sugar can cause crankiness, while hunger will lead to meltdowns. While you won’t want everyone eating the entire time you are driving, a few snacks here and there won’t hurt.
Avoid Car Sickness When Possible
Anyone can be prone to car sickness at any time. But my experience is that autistic children experience it more often. Motion sickness bracelets can be helpful, but so can frequent breaks. A quick stop at a must-see tourist attraction can create a distraction, as can a short game of tag at a rest stop. Keep these stops light and fun, so your child quickly realizes what they can look forward to every couple of hours.
Tips for Traveling Via Airplane with Autistic Children
You may think that avoiding airports is an excellent idea when traveling with autistic children. However, eliminating this one mode of transportation will truly limit the incredible experiences your entire family can have all around the world.
Taking an airplane is actually a little easier than taking a three-day road trip too. Yes, there are a few extra steps you must take to prepare your child. But a couple of hours in the airport followed by a three-hour flight will definitely beat a road trip where you are driving for twenty-four hours or more.
A trip via an airplane must begin with multiple social stories. Failure to share information with your autistic child will result in unexpected events that will overwhelm your child and you. I recommend going over every aspect of the airport. Start with the parking lot, then continue with luggage drop-off, the security checkpoint, and the time you will spend walking along the concourses until you reach your departure gate.
And don’t forget all the experiences when you arrive at your destination. They may appear to be the same to you, but getting off the plane and picking up luggage can be a little more overwhelming for a child with sensory issues.
It is always best to check with the airport you are leaving from, as well as the airline you are flying on, to see if they offer any assistance for people with autism. If you use me as your travel agent, I will do this for you! If an airport walk-through is not an option, try to use as many visual tools as you possibly can prior to your trip.
I always say it is best to arrive at the airport early for your vacation. Yes, it will mean more time hanging out. But it will also mean that you can avoid some of the crowds at the security checkpoint. Plus, this extra time will allow you to calm your child down if something unexpected happens.
Feel free to take advantage of the Air Carrier Access Act, which allows you to have your autistic child screened privately instead of in front of hundreds of people. It is there to provide a positive experience to your child with special needs.
When the airplane takes off, your child will not love the feeling in their ears at first. All the popping will seem strange and may frustrate them. If you can get a drink with a straw, the sucking motion will help keep your child’s ears clear. Other options parents have found to help include chewing gum, sucking on hard candies, and even using a chewing toy. If you forget, your child can always chew on the corner of their blankie if you brought it on the plane. Not the best option, but it is definitely better than nothing if it offers a little comfort.
Bringing snacks to chew on can also offer relief. A few favorite snacks can make your child forget about the ear pressure they are feeling.
I personally talk to the flight attendants before we take off, so they understand my son has autism. This has been very helpful on many flights because they often check in to make sure everything is going well. They have also arrived with the perfect solution to an issue before I can even request it.
You do not need to explain your child’s needs to the people seated around you. But it can be helpful if your child does start to struggle mid-flight. After all, you never know who you may be seated by and one of those people may have tons of experience with autistic children (for example, a special education teacher). While you won’t want to take advantage, having a moment to breathe and regroup can be helpful when you are thousands of feet up in the air!
The most important thing to remember when you are flying with your child is that your main focus is always going to be your child. You are going to want this flight to be one of many, which means it must be a positive experience.
Traveling Via Other Modes of Transportation
As a parent of an autistic child, you are probably wondering what the fascination of trains is all about. I was too, and that is why I did a little research to see why children with autism love trains so much. If you ever have a chance to take a train, or other modes of transportation, on vacation, I recommend you do it!
Yes, there will still be challenges your child will need to overcome. And yes, you will still need to prepare them in advance. But the more experiences your autistic child has, the better they will adjust to new things in the future.
Tips for Traveling Via Train or Other Modes of Transportation
Always share social stories and videos in advance
Always arrive early to avoid the crowds of people in a rush as the departure time gets closer
Bring noise-canceling headphones to control the noise levels
Find a seat next to a window and away from lots of people if possible
Move around as necessary when it is safe to do so
Bring devices for watching movies, listening to music, or listening to audiobooks
When you travel on a cruise ship, you will want to be prepared for motion sickness. Children with autism have motion sickness more than others. It is best to have access to motion sickness medication, as well as armbands.
While you most likely won’t be sleeping on a train, you will sleep on a cruise ship. If you have never been on a cruise ship before, you probably are not aware of how thin the walls are in between the cabins. When I book cruises for families with autism, I always make sure that I choose a cabin location that is far away from the engine room, dining areas, bars, entertainment venues, and even the gym.
If possible, I always recommend traveling off-season when you are taking a train or cruise ship. This will ensure there are not as many people on board. I recommend pointing out train and cruise ship employees to your child, so they know who to approach if they happen to get separated from you.
The best part about traveling via a cruise ship, instead of all the other modes of transportation, is there are kids’ clubs available for your children. As long as you alert the staff to your child’s needs, you should be able to leave your child at the kids’ club for short periods of time. Most cruise ships offer ways of communicating with parents, so you can get back to your child quickly if something unexpected happens.
Staying in a Hotel While on Vacation with Your Autistic Child
Children with autism love to be in their own homes. They do not love staying in hotel rooms or homes they are not familiar with. All those different sounds, sights, and even smells of a new sleeping location can cause both anxiety and meltdowns. Although, my child with autism loves hotel rooms! So, this is another scenario where the situation is dependent on each individual child.
If your child with autism does not love hotel rooms, there are a few things that can make your stay in a hotel better when you are on a family vacation. The first is to make sure you request a room that is far away from the stairs, ice machine, and even elevator. This will alleviate some of the more frequent sounds you would hear throughout your stay. I will make this request for you when I am booking your room, so it is not something you will need to worry about.
Most kids with autism cannot fall asleep with a television on or any other noise. If that is the case with your child, I recommend getting adjoining rooms. This will allow you to deem one room the fun activity room and the other room the sleeping room.
Some hotels offer the amenities that parents with autistic children need, while others do not. I can help you find a hotel that offers alarms when doors are opened, so you can be alerted if your child tries to get out. These hotels have also created sensory-friendly spaces, so you have a spot to hang out when you don’t want to be in your room.
Free Wi-Fi is a must at a hotel, especially since you know your child is going to be using technology during their downtime. After all, you don’t want to run up a high internet bill, just to keep everyone happy!
Since most families are really hungry in the morning, you should always book a hotel room that offers some of the comforts of home. I am talking about a small fridge, microwave, and even a coffee pot. This will allow you to wake up a little more while enjoying something to eat at the same time. If you don’t want to deal with all the food and drinks, a hotel with continental breakfasts is a plus.
Easily Explore Theme Parks with Your Child with Autism
There isn’t much that is autism-friendly when it comes to theme parks. While some autistic children do well at theme parks, others have meltdowns with the noise, crowds of people, and even some of the smells. Thankfully, there are ways everyone in your family can enjoy even the most overwhelming theme park.
The first thing you will want to do when you decide to visit a theme park while on vacation is to check to see what accommodations the theme park offers people with disabilities. I can help you with this, so you do not miss out on the valuable tools available to you. Special passes are available at many theme parks to allow you to skip the long lines for the rides. Other parks offer quiet areas, low sensory areas, and even parades that offer less stimulation.
If your child doesn’t love bright lights or lots of noise, sunglasses and noise-canceling headphones are a must during your visit. This is also the place to make sure your child is dressed in bright colors, so you can spot them easily throughout the day. If your child has never worn the clothes you want them to at the theme park before, I recommend having them wear the clothing a couple of times beforehand. This will ensure you know about any issues with an area that bothers them. A picture before you all venture into the theme park is an excellent idea too, just in case.
Breaks are necessary for anyone when visiting theme parks. The days can be long when you are going on ride after ride and seeing all the different shows. I recommend planning for some downtime each day you visit a theme park. A few minutes in a quiet place can do wonders. And if you see your child start to get overwhelmed, you can always head back to your hotel room for an hour or two.
What to Do When Something Unexpected Happens When Traveling with a Child with Autism
You can be the most prepared parent in the world and something unexpected is still going to happen when you are traveling with your autistic child. That shouldn’t stop you from planning the best you can and then accepting that you will need to calm your child down a few times when you are away from home.
Your main goal when traveling with your child with autism is that their needs always come first. You are going to want them to feel safe, be happy, and enjoy as many moments of your trip as possible. You can do this by continuing to talk to your child and listening to them when they start to feel unsure of their surroundings.
Since you will be in many strange places, you must be prepared for some setbacks along the way. Restrooms can be scary, as can lots of strangers and new spaces. While you can share social stories prior to your trip, you should be prepared if they do not help. An extra change of clothes or two, a prompt to walk quickly past another group, or even a positive word of encouragement as you enter a new space can help a lot.
Bedtimes can be a struggle with a new bed, new sheets, and even new pillows. Your child may wake you up multiple times a night. This problem can be solved with a few extra naps for everyone and a smile on your face.
Foods are always a struggle for families with autism. I recommend packing as many favorite foods as you can. This will ensure you have something your child loves to eat when they are hungry. You should also find restaurants nearby that offer foods your entire family will love.
Your vacation might be plan A, but as a parent of a child with autism, you know that some days you are going to need plans, B, C, and D. You may think you can see half of a theme park in one day when all your child can manage is a few rides. Your plan B might be to take a break and then try returning to the theme park a little later when everyone is well-rested. Of course, plan B might not work and then you will have to see if plans C or D will help you end your day on a positive note.
Traveling with children with autism is a rewarding experience. Not only will it open your eyes to different cultures and experiences, but it will also do the same for every other member of your family. Yes, you will face some unique challenges when you are on vacation. But those challenges are ones that you can and should face. Plus, the rewards are worth all the effort you put into the trip!
The tips in this guide will show you how you can successfully tackle a future travel experience with confidence. I recommend using these tips to prepare your child as much as possible for everything that may happen along the way. A little positivity and flexibility will ensure you all have a fabulous vacation experience.
You are never alone when it comes to planning a vacation with your child with autism. I will be here with you every step of the way to ensure nothing is forgotten or left out of your trip. This will ensure your entire family has a wonderful time! Contact me today or click here to set up a time for us to meet that is convenient for you. Travel is for everyone, so let’s get the ball rolling and have you exploring new destinations with your family soon!