This is a post by Autism Response Team Senior Coordinator Stephanie De Leon.
Taking a vacation is one of many milestones that every family looks forward to, but for families affected by autism the idea of traveling can be stressful because of the fear of the unknown. However, with a little planning you can make any trip go more smoothly for every member of your family.
To help, I have compiled some tips to keep in mind when preparing for a trip whether it’s via airplane, train or a road trip!
1. Practice makes progress!
Becoming familiar with what sights and sounds to expect during a new experience can help reduce anxiety for an individual with autism. A good way to help your child with autism be prepared for and comfortable with the idea of travel is to use of teaching stories! Teaching stories are customized, very brief stories that can help explain a new social situation or behavior. Adventures with Autism: A Guide to the Airport Experience! is an example of a story used for Autism Speaks’ Blue Horizons for Autism events, which help families affected by autism expand their travel horizons. If possible participating in a realistic “dress rehearsal” can help your child become used to the sights and sounds they can expect, providing an opportunity to walk through their upcoming travel experience.
2. Contact guest services in advance!
Many families are unaware that they can contact guest services at airports, train stations and hotels for additional support. There are many travel-related companies that provide a variety of accommodations like advanced boarding times, special meals, rental equipment, travel companions and pre-registering service animals.
3. Provide choices!
The idea of a new environment can be intimidating for everyone, especially for an individual with autism. Allowing your child to feel they’re in control is one way to relieve that anxiety. One suggestion is having them pack their own backpack to carry with them. They can pack a few of their favorite things such as calming toys, books, iPads (or other devices) and snacks for the trip. This step provides your child with something to feel responsible for and allows them to choose which comfort items they bring along for this new experience. These familiar items will come in handy to reduce stress and boredom during “wait” times.
4. Prepare for sensory concerns!
Unfamiliar noises during travel may be problematic, but packing ear plugs, noise cancellation head phones or music players may help. If your child has difficulty handling crowds or standing in line, ask the gate attendant if you can board early to get settled in a seat quickly or plan to board last, so you spend less time waiting before departing. Also, for plane and bus trips, you might want to try to obtain seats toward the front, where your child might not feel as cramped and crowded as they would in the back.
5. Safety first!
Changing routines and new environments during travel make having a safety plan even more important. If your child tends to wander from safety, make sure to have copies of your family wandering emergency plan. Consider additional safety products such as wearable ID tags to make sure your child has a form of ID on him at all times. For more safety and wandering prevention tips and resources click here. The Wallet Card Project is a free ID tool for teenagers and adults who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). You can download it here.
6. Prep your environment!
When staying in a hotel, it is a good idea to call ahead and ask for a quiet room (think corners!) and request a room with a refrigerator if your child follows a specific diet. You also might want to explain your child's particular needs in advance of arrival to see if there are any additional accommodations the hotel can provide. This will also give you an opportunity to discuss safety precautions such as door alarms and access to pools and bodies of water. If your child tends to wander from safety, provide copies of your family wandering emergency plan to hotel staff. The same goes if you’re staying with a friend or a relative.
7. Family watch system!
Another way to plan for a safe trip is to set a family watch system which may reduce stress and anxiety on the parent’s behalf, as well as other members of the family. Having one person at a time provide one-to-one supervision for your child and rotating that responsibility throughout the trip will help keep your child safe and give you peace of mind. This type of teamwork will allow everyone to navigate smoothly throughout the entire trip and help diminish stress.
8. Reinforce good behavior!
This can be done with the simple reward of praise, a sticker, a small toy or anything else that is reinforcing for your child. You could even consider having your child earn a special reward at the end of a successful drive, flight, or cruise! Remember to try and notice the times when your child is doing a great job and reinforce them with a reward. These positive behaviors might include sitting with their seatbelt, reading quietly or sharing.
9. Keep your routine!
Deviating from a routine can be challenging and stressful for an individual with autism. Try keeping to as normal of a routine as possible when your child Is going to be traveling. If your child likes to do certain activities in the morning and then have quiet time in the afternoon, you should try to follow that routine, even if you are en route. Think of your child's daily routine and the items they like or need for it, and bring them along to make it feel more like home.
10. Create a schedule.
Since strictly keeping your everyday routine during a trip can be tough, creating a schedule will allow your child to develop a sense of a new routine for your trip. Your child can predict what is going to happen next and will relieve some of the anxiety of being in a completely new place. This can be something simple such as 8am-9am breakfast, 9-9:30 bus ride, 9:30-12:30 sightseeing, 12:30 lunch, 1:30 break, etc. You can learn more about using visual supports by downloading the ATN/AIR-P Visual Supports and Autism Spectrum Disorder Tool Kit.
While the thought of travelling can sound stressful, a little preparation can go a long way. By planning ahead, you can make the adventure of travelling much smoother and set your child up for success!
For additional tips to reduce stress when traveling, see the following resources:
- TSA Cares
- Amtrak’s Accessible Travel Services
- Cruises for Adults and Families living with Autism
- Holiday Road Trips: Five Tips to Reduce Stress
- Traveling Tips for Individuals with Autism and Their Families – Community Connections newsletter
- Ten Strategies for Traveling with a Child with Autism, or, How Do We Survive the Trip? By Ann Schlosser
- Travel Trips for Families with an Individual on the Autism Spectrum, By Chantal Sicile-Kira
- Safety Products, including Seatbelt Buckle Guard, from our Resource Library