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How to Travel With an Autistic Child

Insider Guides
by Abbie Mood Jan 20, 2012
The changes and unfamiliarity of travel can be especially difficult for children with autism. Here are some considerations for making it less stressful on everyone.

AFTER WORKING WITH PRESCHOOLERS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS for several years, I’ve had many questions from parents who want to travel with their children over spring break or summer vacation, but are nervous about how their kids might handle the experience. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Plan ahead.

Predictability and routine is crucial to most children with autism. Preparing your child in advance by running through the whole itinerary several times will reduce his or her anxiety and stress.

Drive past the airport and talk about the process. While you might not consider every single thing that occurs on a trip to the airport, think about:

  • Driving to the airport
  • Parking the car
  • Riding the shuttle or walking to the terminal
  • Getting tickets and/or checking luggage
  • Waiting in line for security, and going through security (don’t forget to take off your shoes and put your stuff in the bins, and be prepared if the TSA agent wants to search you)
  • Collecting your belongings and putting your shoes back on
  • Finding your gate
  • Finally sitting back down.


You may want to create a checklist (with pictures for younger children), but be sure that if you do, every single item on that list can be checked off.

Create a social story.

Social stories are used for children with autism for a variety of reasons, one of them being what to do and how to act in certain situations. Ideally the story has photos of a child, so if you are going to grandma’s house, using pictures of activities your child did last time her or she was there would be ideal. If you are going somewhere new, search online for pictures of people doing things in that place.

If you can find a way to incorporate a character your child loves (Dora the Explorer, Thomas the Train, Handy Manny), even better!

For example, if you are going somewhere that has a beach, you could write a story about a little girl (or boy) who went to the beach. Show photos of the activities that the child could do at the beach. You could mention that he or she didn’t like the sand, but it was okay to sit on a blanket. You could talk about the waves and the noise they make, and about how if they don’t like the water, you can stand at the edge or stay on the blanket.

The goal is to prepare your child for what is likely to happen and what he or she can do to be socially appropriate and to cope with a new situation. Read the social story daily leading up to the trip and take it with you if you need it there.

Book a direct flight.

The less the transitions and changes, the better.

Contact the hotel.

Explain that you have a child with special needs who may need special accommodations such as a quieter room, a room on a certain floor, or a special diet (if you are at an all-inclusive resort).

Consider your luggage.

If your child has sensory needs, bring your own soap, pillowcases, bedding, and towels – you never know what the hotel bedding might feel like to your child. Bring extra everything just in case something gets lost, and don’t pack the one-of-a-kind favorite Thomas train in the checked bag. Pack some familiar or favorite snacks just in case the airline doesn’t have something your child will eat.

Make a plan for when you arrive.

Create a schedule. For younger children, this can be a picture schedule. For older children, it can be written. Either way, have something so your child can predict what is going to happen next. Even if he or she needs something simple (8-9 breakfast, 9-9:30 bus ride, 9:30-12:30 sightseeing, 12:30 lunch, etc.), a schedule will relieve some of the anxiety of being in a completely new place. The web has plenty of sites where you can find printable schedules.

You may even need to create a mini-schedule for certain events, such as a museum, listing the order of the exhibits and prepping your child for what he or she is going to see.

Have a back-up plan.

Make sure you have a back-up plan in case it rains or in case there is an unexpected event, and be able to adjust the schedule accordingly. Maybe you leave a blank space in between each item, or maybe you just use a “surprise” icon (question mark, or a surprised face) to indicate that something different is happening.

Give your child a “job” that relates to his or her interests.

If your child is really into history, have him or her take photos to create a book when you get home. If your child loves the color red, have him or her document everything red that you see.

Cater to their interests.

This can be tricky, because you could end up at a boat exhibit for hours a day every day, but be sure to include some activities that you know your child will love. Save them for the last couple days if you can, and remind them the whole time about what’s coming up: “Today we’re going to this museum, but in two more days we’ll go see ____.”

If your child can’t wait multiple days, try your activity in the morning and his or hers in the evening. This is where the schedule will come in handy because you can remind them that there is only a certain amount of time for each activity, so you will have to leave at _ o’clock.

Most of all, have fun traveling with your child.

No matter where your child is on the autism spectrum, get out there and do the things you want to do together. Preparations and accommodations can be made to create the best vacation yet, it just takes a little extra time and a little extra planning.

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