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Traveling with a Child with Autism

August 16, 2021
Family holding hands on beach

Traveling with children can be stressful. Whether your family is traveling to go on vacation or to visit relatives or friends during holiday season, traveling can bring its own set of challenges. Traveling with a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can involve unique experiences that not all families encounter.

Some of these unique experiences may be in the form of challenging behaviors your child might display. Other experiences might relate to your child’s sensory experiences and the sensory issues that come up while traveling. For instance, they may get overwhelmed by loud noises or they may feel stressed in crowded places. These are just some things to think about when it comes to traveling with a child with autism.

Causes of Stress for Children with ASD During Travel

Traveling with a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be stressful for the child as well as for the parents. Some children with autism struggle when their daily routine gets interrupted or when things happen that they don’t expect. Some kids with ASD might get overwhelmed by going into new and unfamiliar settings. Traveling might also be stressful for children with autism because of the excessive sensory stimulation they must endure while traveling.

We will look at some tips for how to help your child with these potentially stressful experiences and for how to make traveling more enjoyable for your whole family.

Mode of Transportation

Traveling is different for everyone, of course. Your family may travel by airplane, by car, or by train or public transportation like a public bus system or taxi.  There are different things to consider in order to best support a child with autism in these different modes of transportation. For instance, flying in an airplane requires that the child be able to stay in one place (or at least in a very small space) for a long period of time whereas traveling by car does offer the opportunity for the family to take stops so your child can get out of the vehicle and move around more freely from time to time throughout the trip.

Social and Communication Skills for Travel

There are also some differences in social and communication skills that may be helpful for your child to understand and utilize based on which mode of transportation is being used while some of these types of skills will be similar no matter what setting your child is in. It is recommended to teach your child about appropriate and inappropriate ways of talking to strangers, such as what they should or should not say to the driver of the taxi or to someone, they encounter at a rest stop.

For instance, your child should not share personal information with random people they come across when your family stops at a rest area unless they are lost or can’t find you, of course. In the case of your child getting lost, that might be an example of a time you would want them to tell someone their name, their parent’s names, their parent’s phone number, and things like that.

Tips for Traveling with Kids with ASD: Individualize!

It’s important to remember that every child is unique. Every child has their own abilities and their own needs. Keep that in mind when reviewing the recommendations that we will provide regarding traveling with a child with autism. Some recommendations may not be suitable for every child. For certain recommendations, it can be helpful to modify the activity or suggestion to suit your child’s needs and abilities. For example, if a child cannot verbally communicate with others, you may need to adjust the recommendations that involve communication skills to better suit their abilities.

Preparing for Travel with a Child with Autism

There are many different strategies that you could use as the parent of a child with autism to help your child be more prepared for the experience of traveling. Overall, it is helpful to inform your child about the upcoming plans, help them understand what it will be like, answer any questions they may have, and be prepared yourself so that you are less stressed, as well. When parents are stressed out, kids tend to feel it and they are more likely to get stressed out, too.

Use a Calendar

If you already use a calendar for your family’s activities, especially if the calendar is displayed where everyone can see it (or at least where your child can see it), mark your travel plans down on the calendar. Talk to your child about when the travel plans will occur. Look at your calendar with your child frequently and regularly check in with them about how much longer it will be before you go on your trip. Be sure to do this in a way that doesn’t make it more anxiety-producing. You don’t want to make your child worried about the trip; Instead, you want to inform them about the trip coming up, so they are more likely to be comfortable with it when the time comes.

Using a calendar is helpful for children with autism because it is a concrete and visual tool that helps them better understand time while also providing more structure to their life, so they don’t get overwhelmed by unexpected events as often.

Role-Play/Pretend Play

It can be helpful to play pretend if your child is able to follow along with this activity. By acting out what might happen during your trip, you can help your child be more comfortable when he or she is really in the situation. This recommendation can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Of course, you’ll need to modify this to suit your child’s needs, abilities, and preferences, as well. You might play with your child with a set of dolls or cars and narrate a story about something related to your travel plans.

An example of this could be, if you are pushing a Hotwheel car around, you could pretend your family is in the car and say, “Yay! We are on our way to ___[your travel destination].!” And add in statements about your trip and what might happen. Making it exciting and fun will help your child associate more positive feelings with the trip, as well.

Develop or Read a Story (with a Theme Related to Your Trip)

You can create a social story which involves creating a story made of words and/or pictures that represent the things that your child will experience during your travels. This can be a way for your child to get more exposure to what they can expect on the trip as well as what is expected of them. For instance, the story might include who is going on the trip, the stops that you will make during the trip, the rules expected of your child during the car ride, and what rewards or positive activities your child can look forward to.

There might also be some published books that might help your child. For example, there are a few books about flying on an airplane that you can find online.

When it comes to using stories to help your child prepare for traveling with your family, consider what parts of the travel experience you want your child to learn more about and to get more comfortable with. If your family will be flying on an airplane, do you want your child to learn about the security process at the airport, how to handle baggage, what expectations will be in place for safety and seating on the plane itself, etc.?

Plan Ahead

A helpful tip for any family who is traveling is to plan ahead. This seems simple but when it comes down to it, traveling with a family can be complicated. There are a lot of things to remember for every family member. There is a long list of things to pack, traveling plans to be made, errands to run, kids to care for, and more. If you’ve ever traveled with your family before, it’s likely that you may have felt behind or like you are scrambling to get everything done at the last minute before your family has to leave for your vacation or for the trip you are taking.

With that being said, when parents do try to be proactive at planning, packing, and preparing for their travels, their children, including their kids with autism, will be much better off for it. This process reduces the stress on the parents, helps the kids to be calmer and more relaxed, and makes everything run more smoothly.

Think About Basic Needs

When it comes to going on vacation or traveling with kids, especially the bigger your family is, the more likely it is that basic needs may get overlooked from time to time. This is not to make any parent feel bad. It just happens and its okay. One child may need to go potty half an hour after you leave home. Another child might get hungry sooner than you anticipated because they didn’t eat a good breakfast. Kids get overly tired when they stay up late on vacation.

This is all okay, but it can be helpful, especially for your child with autism, when you try to be proactive in addressing basic needs. Try planning potty stops. Meal plan for snacks, breakfast, lunch, and dinner if you can. Have at least some foods prepared and easily accessible for when you’re in the car or when you’re on the go and need to eat. Also, if your family is staying up late, anticipate how lack of sleep might affect your child’s behaviors.

Traveling with a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder

We addressed just a few tips for traveling with a child with autism spectrum disorder. As a recap, ways that you can help support your child with autism when your family decides to travel include:

  • Using a Calendar
  • Role-play/Pretend Play
  • Develop or Read a Story
  • Plan Ahead
  • Think About Basic Needs

Traveling with children with autism can be successful and fun and enjoyable for the whole family. To support your child with autism, be mindful about how you will individualize the recommendations we’ve given you to your child’s own unique preferences, needs, and abilities as well as to the lifestyle and travel plans of your family.