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Kids with Autism: Top Tips for Stress-Free Holiday Travel

December 13, 2021
By: Lisa Freed, Heather Gilmore
Holiday travel tips for autism, Traveling with kid with autism

Finding ways to make your holiday travel plans go more smoothly when you have a child with autism can be challenging. It can be difficult to find tips and strategies that work and help you and your child to not only get through but also enjoy the holiday season.

The holidays can be stressful at times for all of us. Plans are often changing, visitors come in from out of town or you are visiting someone else’s home. Plus, these days you need to figure out how to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic, just to name a few of the stressors that might arise during the holiday season.

On top of the challenges that might arise for most people, children and adults with autism have additional stressors to manage during the holidays. For instance, they might become stressed or overwhelmed due to a potential lack of routine, unexpected changes that occur, or sensory stimulation or sensory overload that is experienced during the holidays. Traveling during the holidays can add an additional level of difficulty for families of children with autism, as well.

Let’s consider some examples of how traveling during the holidays might be stressful for children with autism and their families. Children with autism might have a meltdown in public or during a holiday event. Some children with ASD might even regurgitate unpreferred food or they might get physically ill during travel. Some children might appear to “overreact” to small setbacks, such as having to wait longer than expected or having difficulty finding luggage at the airport. Additionally, toileting can cause difficulties for some children with autism during your traveling activities. For instance, some kids might not like to use public bathrooms. Some children with autism might also become so upset that they become aggressive toward others or they engage in self-harm.

To combat the potential stressors associated with traveling during the holidays with a child with autism, we’ll discuss some tips you can use to help make your holiday travel plans run more smoothly. These suggestions could make your holiday season more enjoyable and less stressful for you and your whole family, as well.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare!

First, prepare your child. Your child may benefit from a variety of different supports to help them travel successfully during the holidays, including visual schedules, social stories, and visual aids.

1. Social Stories

Social stories can be used to write out the steps for traveling, whether that is traveling by airplane, taking a cruise, or driving to visit a relative. Mapping out all steps of the trip can help a child be prepared for what is to come, rather than be caught by surprise. Social stories can also be made into an adapted book, where the trip is made into a story and the child can answer questions about the story by responding verbally or using visual icons as answers. Adapted books can help a child show comprehension of the trip details in addition to listening to the steps of the trip. Bring the social story or adapted book on the trip to use as a reference for your child. Some children may be able to verbally explain or write what they learned from the social story or book to show they understand the details of the trip, as well.

2. Calendars

If the trip is across multiple days, a calendar may be helpful to your child to see when different events are planned, including when you will arrive, what activities you will do, who you will see, and when you will leave.

3. Visual Schedules

In addition to a calendar, a visual schedule for each day may also be beneficial for your child to reference due to the new routine. This could also help limit a child perseverating on when something will happen and give you something to reference rather than repeating yourself to answer your child’s questions. Sometimes a concrete visual, including times if your child understands the concept of time, can be used.

4. Visual Aids

Visual aids, like timers, can help children understand how long until something happens. Especially if you are flying, a timer for when the flight will be over can help give your child a countdown. Other visual aids could be pictures of different places they will be going to and different places they will see. You could also use visuals to help a child communicate in a new or overstimulating environment.

5. Practice Your Holiday Traveling Itinerary

Practice makes perfect, so if possible, practice going on the trip. If you are flying, some airports allow walkthroughs to see what security and the airport are like. You could also pretend, or role-play what going through security, getting on the airplane, and being on the flight will be like.

If you are going to a specific place, like Disneyland, there are many videos online to show your child what things will look like and how they may go.

If you are going to a relative’s house, see if your relative will share pictures of people that will be there and the rooms in the house to familiarize your child with them. Anything you can do to reduce surprises that your child will experience is ideal.

Meet Your Child’s Needs

Your child will be in a new place and around new or different people than they are used to. They will need to cope with these changes, including the noises, the pace of events, and the overstimulation that they’ll experience. Make sure to pack your child’s favorite things that help them stay or regain a sense of relaxation and calm, whether it be a chew necklace, electronics, a weighted blanket, etc. Noise-canceling headphones and music can also be calming to some children.

Identify a Quiet Space

Children may need a quiet space to retreat to during the trip whether that’s in a family member’s home or in the hotel or home you are staying in. Designate that right away, and place items in that place that will help your child relax so that your child can go there when needed to take a break. This will help your child know what to do. They are more likely to feel like they have a safe place to go when they need to get away from noise or stimulation.

Use Electronic Devices Intentionally

Electronics can also help keep children busy when they must wait in lines, take transportation, or otherwise occupy themselves while adults are busy or when there are limited opportunities for them to move around or engage in other activities. Consider using electronic devices, such as allowing your child to use their smartphone or tablet, to help ease their discomfort while you travel for the holidays.

Exercise

Some children would also benefit from exercise before long plane or car rides, or before social gatherings. Children may enjoy jumping on the trampoline, going to the playground, swimming, etc. to meet their sensory needs and reduce pent-up energy before long rides.

Prepare Food

Children who are picky eaters or prefer certain foods would benefit from you packing these items for the trip, if possible. When your child is familiar with the foods they’ll be eating and they don’t have to experience getting too hungry, they will be much better off during your holiday travel plans.

Give Them Some Control

Just like us, children with autism like to be involved and feel that they have control during the holidays. Where you can, give them choices of the times that things happen, the order in which things happen, and/or when something will end. Even if the choices have small differences (like waking up at eight or waking up at eight-thirty) giving them a sense of control and choices can ease their distress. This will help them feel included and a part of the plans, rather than them simply being expected to just go along with plans set without their input. They can also help you pack to make sure you have brought things that they want or things that would help them to stay calm.

Safety Plans

Make sure you inform relevant people about your child’s diagnosis, behaviors, and needs when appropriate. Hotel staff, family members, cruise ship personnel, flight attendants, etc. should all be informed so that they can support you and your child and offer help if needed. If your child elopes, is self-injurious, or aggressive, having a plan in place to address these things can put everyone at ease and help to address any challenges that might arise. Your child may have more unwanted behaviors due to the change in plans and routines, so being prepared for them to happen rather than hoping they do not is essential.

Your child can also wear a medical alert bracelet or carry an ID card in case they get lost on the trip. This way they can be reunited with you if something were to happen. Especially for children who cannot communicate verbally with an unfamiliar adult, an ID bracelet or card could guide the adult to get help. This is especially important for children who wander or are attracted to water.

Take Care of Yourself

The holidays and traveling, especially with a child with autism, might not be easy. These tips will hopefully make it easier for you to travel as a family during the holidays but accept that there still might be some challenges that arise. Make sure to take time for yourself, have family members assist you, or swap off caring for your child with your significant other to get a break. It can be helpful for you to take some time alone before the kids wake up or after they go to bed, but it’s also very helpful to find times during the day to have some personal time, as well. Find ways to take care of your own physical, emotional, and mental health needs during the holidays.

A Note About COVID-19

The rules for wearing masks and being vaccinated vary greatly by place, state, and country. Do your best to research what you will need when traveling, especially if your child with autism does not tolerate masks well. It is a good idea to practice mask-wearing at home to get them used to wearing a mask for longer periods of time. This also gives you a chance to see what masks your child likes best and then you can plan to bring those on the trip. Your child may have to wear a mask during your travels, especially while flying, so this is important to practice. If your child is not vaccinated or not wearing a mask, make sure that you have documentation from a doctor with you in case it is needed. You don’t want to be stuck unable to do something due to not having a document or item you may need. If your child does not tolerate wearing a mask, be sure to contact the relevant individuals to ensure you address this prior to your travel plans.

Role-playing and practicing what places and situations may be like with the COVID-19 pandemic would also be a good idea prior to traveling. Social stories and adapted books can help educate your child and test their comprehension of what they need to do or what they might see. Also make sure to practice staying with an adult, following instructions, requesting the bathroom, and using coping skills in new environments. If you practice these skills in your home, community, or at a friend’s house, your child would be more likely to generalize their skills to a family member’s home, a hotel, cruise ship, flight, or other vacation.

The best thing you can do while traveling for the holidays is to be proactive in planning ways to prevent challenges from arising, be in a relaxed state of mind, and try to enjoy your travel plans with your child! Stay positive, problem solve as needed, and enjoy your holidays with your family.