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

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.

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