9 Ways to Make Traveling Easier for a Child With Autism

9 Ways to Make Traveling Easier for a Child With Autism

Follow these smart tips for easier travel with a child who has autism.

By: Judy Koutsky

Children with autism or autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have challenges in social interactions, verbal and nonverbal situations, and may have repetitive behaviors. Traveling, especially during a busy holiday time, can be tough on parents in the best of situations, but traveling with a child with special needs takes a bit more planning to ensure a positive outcome. Here are some simple tips to help things run smoothly.

1. Involve your child in the planning. Think of it first and foremost as traveling with your child. Leave the “with autism” label off the sentence. Then do what parents do when they need to soothe children in unusual surroundings -- bring some familiar items. “Have your child Google Earth the trip. Make stories and pictures about it. Get their input on what they want to pack – even nonverbal kids rise to this,” says Lynette Louise, a special needs advocate who is board certified in neurofeedback and a mother of four autistic children. “Leaving them out of the loop sets them up for anxiety. Include them in the preparations but do it as if you expect success.”

2. Don't strive for perfection. Just plan to do your best. You know your child better than anyone and you know his or her triggers and calming techniques. “People will stare and question and judge, but at the end of the day, they aren't the ones who can help your child,” advises Tara Kennedy-Kline, author of Stop Raising Einstein and mom to a teen on the spectrum. “So set up a schedule and go with the flow. If you will be going to amusement parks or places with lines and lots of walking, call ahead to find out their special needs policy and take any paperwork you need to make your trip as enjoyable as possible for your family.”

3. Plan for loud noises and over-stimulation. “If the parental sounds are soothing and consistent, the over-stimulation is seldom a big problem,” says Louise. “So in challenging places, become a chatty Cathy to keep the focus, and do it with gentle soothing tones.” Also, headphones can be helpful in loud places. Make sure to bring along your child’s favorite music or book on tape. Make a tent out of a blanket and let him hide under there while he listens to music or watches videos.

4. Make plane rides easier. Pack pillows, favorite stuffed animals, snacks, games -- whatever you use at home or in school, take it on a plane. “It's also good to alert the staff that your child may cry or make noises, but you have this completely under control and will ask them if you need assistance,” says Kennedy-Kline. “Don't focus on what your child will not be able to control. Focus instead on what they have complete control over and let them do that.”

5. Prepare for airport security. “Security can be challenging; take your paperwork with you and plan ahead,” encourages Kennedy-Kline. For example, don’t give your kids too many items while waiting in line. That's more to fight over when you have to take it away and put on the security belt. “Instead, let your kids know they are in control and safe. Plus, keep your voice low and calm and try to avoid embarrassing them in public as this will only serve to escalate the situation.”


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6. Plan for food issues. “Bring your own food and bring some of their favorites,” says Louise. Now is not the time to be regimented on how much or little your child eats. Make it easier on yourself and them. Also, if your child likes to chew and then spit it out, make sure to bring a baggie. “If they are in the window seat, no one will be bothered,” adds Louise.

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7. Consider siblings. Try to plan an activity just for them. Even if that means splitting up for some one-on-one time. “Fair doesn’t mean equal, so if one child has their heart set on an activity or adventure that the other child can't or won't participate in, make arrangements to do it without them,” explains Kennedy-Kline. “There are plenty of special accommodations made for our special needs kiddos … we need to remember that our neurotypical kids have needs too.”

8. Educate family members. Prepare family members by sending videos and articles. Tell them what they will see and what they can expect. “If they don't understand, explain it. But don't talk about your child while they are in the room,” advises Louise.

“You may find they are not comfortable going out to dinner, but would be thrilled to make your family’s favorite meal and then go for dessert or a walk around their neighborhood,” says Kennedy-Kline. “Often people are just afraid to say something wrong or not be able to handle the situation. The key here is communication and transparency. Talk honestly.”

9. Have fun. “If you think it will be hard, it will be. I traveled everywhere with my four autistic kids and it was usually great,” says Louise. “I think your expectation sets the tone. So be prepared, go with the flow, and remember, vacations are fun, so plan for a good time.”

What are your tips for traveling with a child who has special needs?

Judy Koutsky is the former Editorial Director of KIWI magazine, a green parenting publication. She was also Executive Editor of Parenting.com, AOL Parent and BabyTalk.com. Follow her on Twitter @JudyKoutsky.

Image ©iStock.com/noblige

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