How to Travel with Children who have Autism

Travel can be an exciting yet anxiety-provoking experience for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Your child may be uncomfortable with flying, routine changes, navigating unfamiliar environments, and sensory stimulation. You must prepare your child and the rest of your family much before the travel date so that you can create memories on every vacation.

Dividing your vacation time into periods and associating tasks for every period can help you become aware of the resources available so that you can plan much in advance. Remember, build a plan of action for the worst-case scenario you may encounter daily. Prepping for holidays much in advance gives your child ample opportunity to do more of what he wants to do.

The Preparatory Period
Your preparatory period leading up to the actual holiday should create safety. In essence, you must inform, acknowledge, and relax before your holiday. Providing airlines with advanced information about your travel with a mention of the likes and dislikes of your autistic child and the possible challenges you might encounter during the flight is a suggested practice that parents of children with ASD should employ. Drafting a one-pager with information about aspects of criticality, such as the following, will save you tons of time and gallons of effort while tackling unknown troubles while on the flight.

  • Diagnosis of your child with ASD
  • Allergies, if any
  • Important medications and medical procedures while in emergency 
  • Behavioral information about your child, such as communication disability, sensory irritability, etc.

In the weeks leading up to the holiday, create a social story that overviews the air travel process with your child. Doing this, you help your child understand the functions of security, safety, and precautions at the airport. If your child responds better to visual stimuli, you can show pictures and descriptions of every procedure you will likely follow before and while you board the plane.

Children with autism are usually taken aback by unfamiliarity. There is no harm in practicing new social situations with your child to improve familiarity in his mind. Teaching stories are a beautiful way to tackle revision. These customized, brief stories help your child identify, understand, and familiarize with a new social situation or behavior. You can get teaching stories like “A guide for air travel with children with autism” by Autism Speaks or create your own.

Teaching stories can be very impactful, as they make an impression in your child’s mind about social situations, people, places, and conversations in your child’s mind. Take another step further for enhanced practice sessions so your child can use the expected behavioral pattern during the holiday. For example, audio and video rehearsal sessions can help your child understand the possible sensory stimuli they may encounter at the airport and while on holiday.

A few weeks before travel, hang a calendar with the date of departure marked on it. Ask your child to check off each day until departure. This daily routine instills a sense of responsibility and safety in your child so he is not flabbergasted by the sudden movement from his familiar setup, home.

Learning how to utilize a calendar visually represents the concept of time. Following calendar dates creates a good habit and leaves a subtle but lasting impression in your child’s memory.

The Memory Equipment
Encourage your child to explain the process on the travel day to you or his toys. This technique demonstrates how much your child grasped the traveling process and exposes the hidden insecurity your child may have. 

If your child has strong verbal skills, you can ask him to verbally explain how the travel day might look like. Asking “Tell me about boarding the plane” questions will help your child connect the dots and be more present during the revision.

Packing Done Right!
Pack all the essentials for your child; there’s no excuse you can give for anything missing. Terminals and airplanes have a limited assortment of food. For the voyage, you must pre-pack meals and snacks of your child’s liking, like fruit gummies and bagels.

Having an item, such as a blanket or a plush toy, that feels and smells like home can create a comfort zone for a traveler with ASD. Hence, don’t wash any comfort items before travel.

Airport Security
To accommodate travelers with physio-diverse and neurodiverse abilities, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) established protocols that allow special accommodations. You can contact the airport personnel to book a practice walk-through of the airport security for your child a day before your travel. Doing this will help your child familiarize with the airport security procedures.

If the airport doesn’t allow mock runs, take photographs of the process and conduct a roleplay at home. The more detail-oriented the drill will be, the more associations your child can form about the process.

Boarding the Plane
Inform the flight attendant that you are traveling with a child with ASD and request them to allow you to board early so your family doesn’t have to wait in the queue. To reduce discomfort during takeoff and landing, ask your child to chew a piece of gum or candy. Use ear plugs to avoid any discomfort in the ears and a safe ear popping.

Allow your child to access the gadgets on the plane while he has toys to play with. For instance, your child may like tactile stimulation while playing with a dough or clay toy.

Placing a digital cloak or countdown timer in front of the child will help your child know how long he should wait till the plane lands.

Stick to the Routine
When you arrive at the location, you must stick to the plan you already designed and ask your child to narrate it, if possible. To avoid unnecessary meltdowns, keep the routine your child usually has while on holiday too. For example, you can save some of his video class on your phone and show it to your child when he usually goes to school.

Be Alert
Anticipate potential temptations and triggers caused by crowded stores, impatient shoppers, and long lines while on vacation. You must stay realistic about sudden surprises and talk to your child about them. If you notice a possibility of a meltdown, prepare your child so you are safe and relaxed.

If your child doesn’t respond well to verbal stimuli, you must learn to communicate with teamwork. Always stay together as a family and teach your child to stop and wait if you are not around. Review the safety plan if someone from your family gets lost. Tag your child with his identity information and your mobile phone number, so you can be contacted if he gets lost.

A more ambitious approach to preparing your child for emergencies is to teach him how to ask for help, which can be substantially avoided if the family always stays together.

Reward with Empathy
To maintain calm and quiet for your child throughout the vacation, it is essential to reinforce good behavior and reward it with praise or a gift. For instance, you can gift your child a toy or a book he likes at the end of a successful flight or cruise.

Things can go haywire despite sticking to the plan and revising it multiple times. Keeping a family wandering emergency plan provided by your therapist based on your child’s daily needs often comes in handy. Talk to your Therapist learn more about child care during travel and equip your family with the failsafe toolkit required for a peaceful and enjoyable holiday.