Traveling with children with Autism

This time of year many people travel to visit family. Things might be a little different this year but nonetheless it's best to have a plan in place in case you do plan to take a trip somewhere.

Traveling with children who are anxious, wary of change, or otherwise challenging can be daunting, precisely because it does what we expect vacations to do—take us away from the routine of home and expose us to new sights and sounds.

The temptation is to stay close to home to avoid adverse and unpredictable reactions and the possibility of meltdowns in public places. But the truth is: a kid with anxiety, autism, or any other hurdle is nevertheless 100% kid.

There's a lot to consider as it is - weather, traffic, connecting flights, packing, and normal preparations. For some families, the prospect of traveling also means considering how to make the journey less stressful for your child with autism or sensory needs.

TAKING A ROAD TRIP?

When traveling with an autistic child, sensory supports for a road trip are essential. Be sure to pack a portable sensory toolbox of tricks that will provide the necessary sensory inputs to help your child regulate and combat motion sickness and sensory overload.

You may not realize all that your sensory system is processing when you ride in a car, but it is a whole-body experience! The motion of the car activates your vestibular system and that input is affected by the speed of the car and the characteristics of the road (curves, hills, bumps). Even the time of day and the visual presence of oncoming car lights versus daylight distractions outside your car window plays a role in how your body processes that vestibular information.

In the contained space of a car, everything is heightened. The smells and noises coming from the car's passengers that would otherwise be diminished in a larger space are suddenly bombarding your olfactory (smell) and auditory (hearing) systems.

If you've read our blog on sensory meltdowns, you'll understand how the cumulation of all these sensory stimuli can result in a "traffic jam" in your central nervous system!

Proprioceptive sensory tools like weighted lap pads and familiar chewy or crunchy snacks will have a calming and reorganizing effect on little ones. Some of our favorite road trip essentials target sensory systems to combat motion sickness and sensory overload.

Keep these in mind:

  • comfortable sensory-friendly clothes
  • calming music or sound reduction headphones
  • chewy, crunchy snacks
  • water bottle with a thick straw for vigorous oral input
  • weighted lap pad (https://sensoryjungle.com/products/weighted-lap-pad-for-kids-with-soft-minky-fabric-blue-3-pounds)
  • essential oils
  • preferred sensory fidgets (https://sensoryjungle.com/products/colorful-stretchy-strings-for-anxiety-stress-relief-6-pack)

IT'S TIME FOR TAKE-OFF!

Air travel is stressful for everyone, especially during the peak holiday travel weeks! I can't think of a more anxiety-producing, complex environment to navigate this season than a busy airport, but hopefully this year they won’t be as congested.

From managing luggage to navigating the long lines at check-in, and passing through TSA security checkpoints, there are a lot of transitions and crowds that would challenge any sensory system...and you haven't even gotten on the plane yet!

The same sensory issues that we talked about for car rides are present for plane trips, but now your child is surrounded by the noises and smells of other people, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, in an even-more cramped space than their luxurious car seat!

When flying with an autistic child, it's important for you to plan ahead to make your child’s travel experience (and yours!) a minimally-stressful one. Luckily, there has been a recent surge in public awareness and airport service accommodations that families can take advantage of well in advance of your actual travel dates.

Wings for Autism/Wings for All are airport “rehearsals” specially designed for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities.

The programs are designed to alleviate the stress that families experience when flying with an autistic child or a child with intellectual/developmental disabilities. It provides the opportunity to practice entering the airport, obtaining boarding passes, going through security, and boarding a plane. Airport, airline, Transportation Security Administration professionals, and other personnel also have the opportunity to observe, interact, and deliver their services in a structured learning environment.

Be sure to check out The Arc’s website for more information on Wings for Autism at your local airport.

A quick web search for "Wings for Autism" will provide you with related resources specific to airlines, social stories, and bloggers that have experienced the program first-hand with their child. Whichever airline and airport you choose, take some time to research what accommodations are available to you.

Some tips specific to air travel that will help manage your airport experiences are:

  • Pack a sensory tool kit - just like we talked about for car travel!
  • Practice your trip - social stories with actual photographs of what to expect at the airport are great to introduce the environment and routine.
  • Give yourself extra time
  • Look for quiet corners within the airport's waiting areas
  • Take advantage of boarding options - board early or late depending on your child's needs
  • Choose travel clothing that is familiar, preferred, and comfortable!
  • Pack familiar foods

BEST PLACES TO GO WITH KIDS WITH AUTISM

I’m sure it will come as no surprise that the thought of traveling for some families can be so daunting that they don't venture too far from home!

As the prevalence of autism continues to increase, the resort and hospitality communities are educating themselves and offering families additional supports to encourage positive travel experiences for children with autism.

Some businesses are claiming "autism-friendly" designations that indicate different levels of autism training for program staff in hospitality venues. Unfortunately, there is no standardized training to advise these designations so you'll need to do some research on exactly what this means based on the program you're considering.

This definition from Autism Friendly Spaces highlights that autism-friendly spaces "accommodates and supports the sensory, communication, and social/emotional needs of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder." The criteria AFS employs to determine if a space is autism-friendly is:

  • The Staff or people otherwise responsible are aware and able to offer effective assistance
  • The sensory stimuli are at tolerable levels
  • Adequate supports, visual and other, are available
  • Individuals with ASD have successfully used the space

Some cruise lines, destinations, and programs are choosing to acquire a more define “Certified Autism Center” recognition by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES).

Check out the popular and family-friendly Beaches Resorts. They recently partnered with IBCCES to become the first resort in the world to complete the required training and Autism Certification. They have specially trained employees and offer fun and engaging activities, along with custom food options. The goal is to provide a positive and memorable experience for families.

Along with this certification, businesses have access to online training modules, on-site review of their facilities, and a designation that is marketed to families as a higher level of autism awareness and service. Again, the weight and relevance of these credentials should always be considered alongside the specific needs of your child and family.

WHERE SHOULD YOU STAY? 

The kind of vacation your family chooses will range based on your individual preferences and needs (relaxation, adventure, theme-park; remote campsite versus resort hotel; warm temperature versus cold climate; value/budget versus luxury) but within those destination choices, you'll want to identify the characteristics that would appeal to your child while also allowing the rest of your family to enjoy themselves too!

  • Does your child do well in crowded environments or quieter spaces?
  • Is your child more interested in fast, thrilling rides or the rhythmic experience of the ocean waves?
  • Does your family need access to hotel amenities like WIFI, swimming pools, laundry, kitchenette, or a specific room layout to mimic familiar routines in a home-away-from-home?
  • Does your child do well waiting in long lines or need special accommodations to minimize wait-time?
  • Will your family engage in planned resort activities or be more laid back in each day's activity?
  • Will you need access to childcare through a resort's children's program?
  • Depending on how you've answered those questions to yourself, you might have some preliminary vacation ideas in mind.

WHEN SHOULD YOU GO?

  • Most families have to plan their vacations around school breaks or summers off. Typically those mid-year vacations are centered around prime holiday travel times. However, keep that in mind when you're selecting a vacation location in case some locations are more crowded than others.
  • Depending on your child's level of comfort with busy environments, consider vacation locations that are off-peak. Think about visiting ski-resort towns like Vermont or Colorado in the summer, or exploring the museums of a bigger city in the winter. Resorts will be less crowded and less expensive, and any amusement park lines will be shorter if you don't mind forsaking the prime weather forecast for these conveniences.

BEST TO PLAN AHEAD

  • Regardless of where you travel, how you get there, or when you choose to vacation, these trips take a significant amount of advance planning!
  • When you have a child with autism, your family's considerations can be compounded by sensory needs and individualized accommodations like social stories, transition aids, and pre-teaching of new routines and expectations.
  • If you're overwhelmed by where to start your travel planning, you might be able to find guidance with the help of a travel agent. The same credentialing agency that oversees certified autism centers offers training programs for travel agents to become certified autism travel professionals. A Certified Autism Travel Professional (CATP) is defined as a professional who has demonstrated that they are both knowledgeable and capable of providing support and travel-related services to an individual on the autism spectrum as well as their family (IBCCES).

TAKEAWAYS

There is a lot to consider if you are planning to travel with a child with autism. Sensory-informed planning is the key to reducing travel stress. Be mindful of sensory supports and environments along your journey, and be proactive in meeting your child's need for routine, familiarity, and predictability when traveling to new places. When in doubt, research autism-friendly locations with a little help from trained professionals but always keep your family's unique vacation needs and preferences in mind.

Traveling with children with Autism