While the idea of packing up the kids for a much-needed family vacation may sound luxurious, anyone who has spent an extend amount of time in a car or on a plane with small children knows how difficult it can be. Keeping kids happy and entertained in the face of traffic jams, flight delays, and sicknesses can make even the calmest parent shrink away in fear, and if you’re traveling with an autistic child, the additional layers of stress and worry can feel overwhelming.
But it can be done.
Thanks to all of the parents and caregivers who have walked the walk before you, there are heaps of travel tips to make traveling with an autistic child easier, allowing you and your family to enjoy the vacation you all deserve.
Will it be easy?
But with some planning and preparation, travel and autism CAN go hand-in-hand.
Here are 7 tips to help make traveling with an autistic child easier.
CONSIDER YOUR DESTINATION. Before you start thinking about car and plane rides, pay special attention to WHERE you are traveling. Will you be staying with family or friends, or in a hotel? Will there be a quiet place for your little one to retreat to when he feels overwhelmed? If you have a picky eater, will you have access to grocery stores and a kitchen so you can prepare his favorite foods? If not, have you scouted out the restaurant options to ensure there is something he will be able to eat? There are so many little things to consider, and while you probably won’t be able to find a destination that meets all of your child’s specific needs, make sure to choose a vacation spot that won’t exasperate the things he struggles with the most. If noise is an issue, consider renting private accommodation via AIRBNB instead of risking a noisy hotel. If your little one is prone to meltdowns when he’s hungry, make sure to choose a place where you will have access to foods he can tolerate. If your child has sensory processing challenges, water parks and beach vacations may not be your best option.
PREPARE YOUR CHILD. Once your vacation destination has been selected and your tickets are booked, take the time to prepare your child. Show him where you’re going on a map. Count down the days on a calendar to foster feelings of excitement. Purchase books with photographs of your destination, as well as things you might see along the way. National Geographic has a lot of kid-friendly options, like their Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas and their Kids Beginner’s World Atlas. And if you’re traveling by plane for the first time together, grab a plane play set to make him even more excited!
CREATE A VISUAL SCHEDULE. One of the hardest parts of traveling with an autistic child is that it requires changes in routine, particularly on travel days. A great way to alleviate the stress and anxiety that this brings is to create visual schedules – one for the days you are traveling, and another for the days you are on vacation. Creating these in advance of your vacation will help you discuss and practice what will happen ahead of time, and allowing your child to add fun things to his schedule will give him a greater sense of control while also giving him something to look forward to. The SchKIDules Visual Schedule is a great option as it is lightweight for travel and includes a dry erase magnetic board for greater flexibility.
BE STRATEGIC WITH YOUR FLIGHTS. Flying and autism don’t typically pair well together, particularly since you cannot predict flight delays and cancellations, but there are things you can do to set your child up for success:
- Opt for direct flights over connecting flights wherever possible.
- Check-in online to avoid long line-ups at the airport.
- Give yourself plenty of extra time so you aren’t rushing and can properly handle meltdowns if and when they happen.
- Pack a pair of noise-cancelling headphones in your carry-on bag to make loud noises more bearable.
- Call the airport/airline ahead of time to see if there is a quiet area in the airport for your little one to decompress before getting on the plane.
- If you have a high energy child and/or your little one is a sensory seeker, make sure to get as much energy out as possible before boarding your flight. Go for a long walk (noise-cancelling headphones will make this easier if noise is a challenge), find a quiet area where you can throw a ball around or run sprints, or write down a bunch of things for your child to look for (DIY Airport Scavenger Hunt, anyone?) to keep his mind occupied.
BE PREPARED. When packing your carry-on luggage, make sure you prepare for every eventuality as you never know what will happen between the time you leave the house and the time you arrive at your destination. The more prepared you are, the more in control you will feel.
Here are a few things to include in your carry-on luggage:
- Medication. You never know when your child is going to hurt himself, spike a fever, have an allergic reaction to something, develop diarrhea, or start projectile vomiting when you’re nowhere close to a medical clinic, so never (ever) board a plane without a miniature pharmacy in your carry on luggage including things like Tylenol, Advil, bandaids, Polysporin, Gravol, Benadryl, throat lozenges, and cough drops.
- Pajamas. Sounds weird, I know, but if you’re traveling during naps or at nighttime, putting kids into their PJs is a great way to help them settle down to sleep. Not only are they more comfortable, but since putting on pajamas is a normal part of their sleep routine, it helps signal to their body that it’s time to settle down and rest.
- Snacks. This is especially important if you have a picky eater. You never know when a change in weather or an unexpected flight delay is going to leave you stranded for hours on end, and since behavior can worsen when we’re hungry, it’s better to have MORE food than not enough. Squeeze all of your child’s favorite foods into some of these inexpensive bento box containers, and invest in a couple of these PackIt Freezable Lunch Bags to ensure nothing spoils.
- Clothes. In a perfect world, you would bring a change of clothes for everyone as you never know when a child will get sick, have an explosive diaper, or knock a drink into your lap, but at the very least, take a couple of outfit changes for your child to ensure he isn’t stuck in wet and dirty clothes when disaster strikes.
PACK DISTRACTIONS. While iPads and stickers and play doh might go a long way in giving you 20 minutes of peace and quiet to prepare dinner, you’re going to need a lot more than that to keep your kids entertained on a long car ride or flight, so do some research before you start packing. You can find my favorite airplane games for kids HERE, my favorite DIY travel activities for kids HERE, and my favorite developmental toys for kids with autism HERE. I’ve also included some quick picks below!
- Peaceable Kingdom Sticker Fun. These reusable stickers are good for hours of entertainment, and they have so many themes to choose from. I like the airplane theme when we travel, but you could just as easily go with “Mermaids”, “Funny Faces”, or “At the Zoo.”
- Busy Books. There is probably a busy book for your child’s favorite movie or television show, and since they come with a figurine and a playmat along with a story, they are so much more than just a book!
- Spot It! Spot It! is fun and provides a ton of learning opportunity. You can play with up to 8 people, so it’s great for a group (or a family seated in an airplane row.)
- Melissa & Doug Sticker Pad Sets. In my experience, there is something universal about kids and stickers. They just love them! (And even as a grown-up I can still kinda see why.)
- Magnetic Go Snakes n’ Ladders. This travel game is perfect for the plane because the magnetism means you won’t lose tiny pieces under your neighbor’s seat!
RELAX. Whether you’re traveling with an autistic child for 30 minutes or 30 hours, it won’t be easy. No matter how prepared you are, something will go wrong, so take a few deep breaths, crack open those snacks, and remember these words by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
‘Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could. Some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day. You shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.’
I hope these tips for traveling with an autistic child help you feel less anxious about that family vacation you’ve been dying to take. Plan ahead and be prepared, stop worrying about what your fellow passengers are thinking or saying about you and your family, and accept help when it’s offered. Also? Have fun. You and your family deserve it!
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