As much fun as family vacations are, the change in routine can affect everyone’s emotions and behaviors—especially children on the autism spectrum.
“Travel can cause all of us to be overwhelmed and be more sensitive to triggers than we usually are. It requires a change in routine, which can leave some people more prone to being overwhelmed by surroundings,” says Rochester Regional Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders (RRCASD) Director Suzannah Iadarola, Ph.D., BCBA-D, who holds dual appointments in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at University of Rochester Medical Center and Strong Center for Developmental Disabilities.
With help from experts at the Rochester Regional Center for Autism Spectrum Disorders, we’ve outlined 10 au-some ways to make your next trip easier for the whole family.
1. Show and talk to your child about what to expect.
“If possible, try to prepare your child for new sensory information before the trip,” suggests Iadarola. “For example, if you are flying to your destination, show your child video clips of what it looks like to board a plane. Let them hear recordings of a plane taking off or the sound of a train whistle.” RRCASD Parent Advocate Erin Palma, RDN, CDN, agrees with this advice, adding that previewing the places and experiences you’ve planned with your child in chunks may be especially advantageous. “Social stories and multiple conversations leading up to the travel event are helpful,” she says.
2. Take a test run.
American Airlines, Delta Airlines, Autism on the Seas with Royal Caribbean and some other travel companies offer “preview” opportunities that provide children with autism a quieter, supported space to become familiar and practice typical travel routines, such as boarding and eating in an airplane cabin or a ship’s dining room. For more information, see The Ultimate Guide to Air Travel With a Disability.
3. Clear a path for success.
Take advantage of travel services for individuals with autism and other disabilities, such as the Disability Assistance Program at Walt Disney World, the Ride Accessibility Program at SeaWorld Parks, and TSA’s Passenger Support program. The latter, with 72 hours advance notice, gets you access to private airport screening, away from the crowds.
4. Create a visual schedule.
A visual schedule—a familiar at-home support for many children on the spectrum—can be a key part of successful trip preparation, says Iadarola. “If you can, make a schedule of events, so your child understands what to expect.”
5. Prepare a travel tool kit.
A truly “au-some” sensory travel tool kit is one that is thoughtfully personalized, says Iadarola. She also suggests asking what the individual’s challenges are during travel. Ask “What things bother you most when we go on a trip? When are you most comfortable? When are you least comfortable?”
6. Consider possible triggers.
When selecting supports, if your child is not able to communicate, consider a wide range of possible triggers, advises Iadarola. These could include sound (loud or unexpected noises, the ambient noise of crowds), unfamiliar touch sensations (bumping into people in crowded areas, texture of an airline seat, sand), overwhelming sights (trains or planes moving quickly, bright or flashing lights), or new smells.
7. Find a warm welcome.
If it’s your first time venturing far away from home with your child with autism, consider selecting a known “autism-friendly” destination, with specially trained staff and built-in accommodations. This can include theme parks, attractions, resorts (like Beaches Negril and Grand Palladium Bavaro Suites Resort & Spa), destinations, and even vacation rental companies that are Certified Autism Centers. Certified Autism Center, MyVillaKey, for example, is a vacation rental company offering rental homes thoughtfully designed for the comfort and safety of guests on the autism spectrum.
Related Article: Best Autism Friendly Theme Parks
8. Double up for safety and family harmony.
If you’re traveling with multiple children, including a child with autism, get some extra hands. That way, when necessary, one adult can attend one-on-one to the child with autism’s comfort and safety needs, while the other entertains and accompanies others in your party.
9. Make meal time flexible.
Encountering new foods can be a challenge as well. Palma suggests keeping your child’s snacks and meals as flexible as possible during travel. “The additional strain of travel may affect a lot of different areas such as anxiety, sleeping, eating and bowel habits. I would keep small portions of favorite snacks or meals on hand,” she says.
10. Pack your patience.
Along with your child’s favorite foods and sensory tool kit, be sure to pack your patience and understanding. This may mean adjusting the family routine a bit while you’re on the road. Everyone’s stress is heightened during travel, so also remember that some things that your child may tolerate in a familiar environment might become distressing on a trip. Having access to comforting objects or allowing your child to do something that calms them down (reading, rocking, reciting lines from a favorite movie, holding a comfort item) may help them have a more enjoyable experience, says Iadarola.
Writer Jackie Perrin has covered the best of family travel for nearly two decades, for media ranging from newspapers and magazines to TripAdvisor.com. At home and on the go, she manages a crew of companions. Follow her on Pinterest, TripAdvisor and Instagram, @NYfamtravels.