icons8 star 52

Traveling can be an enriching experience for families, offering new sights, sounds, and experiences. However, for families with children with autism, it requires extra planning and consideration to ensure a comfortable and enjoyable trip for everyone.

In this post, we'll explore practical and thoughtful tips to help families with special needs plan and enjoy their travels.

Table of contents:

  1. Understanding Autism and Travel
  2. During the Journey
  3. Handling Changes and Delays 
  4. Coping Strategies and Support

Understanding Autism and Travel

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects individuals in different ways, but it commonly includes challenges with social communication, sensory processing, and a preference for predictable routines. Travel, by its nature, introduces new environments and changes in daily routines, which can be overwhelming for someone with autism. Recognizing these challenges is the first step in planning a successful trip.

Pre-Trip Preparation

tick red svg
Choosing the Right Destination:

Select a destination that aligns with your child's interests and sensory preferences. Quiet countryside retreats, beaches with gentle waves, or theme parks during off-peak seasons can be good options. Research the destination for its autism-friendliness, such as hotels with special accommodations and attractions that offer sensory-friendly experiences.

tick red svg
Involving Your Child in Planning:

Involving your child in the planning process can help them feel more comfortable and excited about the trip. Show them pictures or videos of the destination, discuss the activities you'll do, and let them choose some of the places they'd like to visit.

tick red svg
Creating a Visual Schedule:

A visual schedule, much like a detailed calendar, can provide a sense of predictability and routine. Include pictures or symbols for each activity and travel step, such as packing, traveling by plane or car, checking into the hotel, and visiting attractions.

tick red svg
Packing Essentials:

Include items that serve as comforting companions, like favorite toys, snacks, and sensory tools such as noise-canceling headphones or weighted blankets. Moreover, pack a travel kit with essential items such as important documents, medical information, and an identification bracelet.

During the Journey

Managing the Airport and Flights

Airports and flights pose a unique set of challenges, especially for children with autism who may be sensitive to noise, crowds, and disruptions in routine. To make this experience more manageable:

  • Informing the Airline: It's important to communicate with the airline ahead of time about your child's needs. Many airlines are accommodating and may offer services such as priority boarding, special seating arrangements, or assistance during the flight. This can help reduce waiting times and make the overall experience less stressful.
  • Preparing for Security: Airport security can be confusing and intimidating for a child with autism. Prepare your child by explaining the process beforehand. Use simple, reassuring language to describe what will happen, from putting bags on the conveyor belt to walking through the metal detector. Familiarizing them with these procedures can help reduce anxiety.
airport lounge SBI 300930893 1 scaled

  • Choosing Flight Times: Booking flights during less busy times, such as mid-week or late evenings, can mean fewer crowds and a quieter experience. This can also increase the likelihood of getting seating arrangements that suit your child's needs, such as window seats for visual stimulation or aisle seats for easier movement.
  • Engagement and Comfort: Bring items that will keep your child engaged and calm during the flight. This could include favorite toys, books, a tablet loaded with games or movies, and headphones. Also, consider comfort items like a favorite blanket or a pillow to make the seating area more familiar and comforting.

Road Trips as a Travel Option

Road trips offer more control over the environment, which can be beneficial for children with autism. However, they require careful planning:

  • Planning Breaks: Regular breaks are essential, especially at places that are quiet and not too crowded. These breaks give your child a chance to stretch, use the restroom, and have a snack in a calm environment. Planning these stops in advance can ensure that you find suitable locations along your route.
  • Familiar Entertainment: Bring along entertainment options that your child enjoys. This could be a playlist of their favorite music, audiobooks, or portable games. Listening to familiar sounds can be soothing and make the journey more enjoyable.
  • Comfortable Environment: Make sure the car's environment is comfortable and safe. This includes adjusting the car's temperature to a pleasant level, using sunshades if needed, and ensuring your child has a comfortable seat with their favorite cushion or car toy. The goal is to create a space where your child feels secure and at ease during the journey.

Cruises as a Travel Option

Cruises can be an ideal choice for families with children with autism, offering a controlled, all-inclusive environment with a variety of activities and amenities. However, the unique nature of cruising requires special planning:

  • Selecting the Right Cruise Line: Research cruise lines to find those that are more accommodating to families with special needs. Some cruise lines offer programs specifically designed for children with autism, including sensory-friendly environments and activities. Staff trained in special needs care can also provide additional support and peace of mind.
  • Preparing for the Cruise Experience: Familiarizing your child with the cruise experience beforehand can ease anxieties. This preparation might include showing them pictures or videos of the ship, discussing the types of activities available, and explaining what living in a cabin will be like. If possible, visiting the cruise terminal before your trip can also help your child acclimate to the new environment.
  • Onboard Activities: Look into the variety of activities offered and choose those that align with your child’s interests and sensory preferences. While cruises offer activities like swimming, shows, and kids’ clubs, be mindful of your child's sensory thresholds. Inquire about quieter, less crowded times for pools or play areas, and check if the ship offers sensory-friendly shows or events. Some cruise lines now offer autism-friendly programs and activities designed to help children connect with peers in a safe and supportive environment.
  • Dining Options on Board: Cruise ships typically have a range of dining options. Before boarding, review the dining choices and consider any specific dietary needs your child might have. Many cruise lines are accommodating with meal preparations, so don’t hesitate to discuss your child’s dietary requirements with the staff. Dining during non-peak hours can also help avoid crowded and noisy environments.
  • Managing Crowds and Sensory Overload: Cruises can get busy, particularly during meals, shows, and disembarkation at ports. Plan to navigate these situations by identifying less crowded areas on the ship where your child can take a break. Having a quiet, familiar spot to return to, like your cabin, can offer a retreat when needed.
  • Safety Considerations: Given the unique environment of a cruise ship, it’s important to take extra safety precautions. This might include briefing your child on ship safety, discussing what to do if they get lost, and considering the use of a GPS tracker or identification bracelet with your contact information.
Letter of intent for Special Needs 8 2

Guide for Writing a Letter of Intent for Families with Special Needs

This guide provides you with essential tips for crafting a Letter of IntentPerfect for families navigating the complexities of planning for a special needs future.

At the Destination

1. Maintaining Routines

When in a new environment, keeping to familiar routines can be a cornerstone of comfort for a child with autism. The unpredictability of travel can be mitigated by adhering to established routines. This includes:

  • Meal Times: Try to have meals at the same time as you would at home. This predictability can be calming.
  • Bedtime Rituals: Follow the same bedtime routine, whether it’s a story, a specific lullaby, or a nightlight. Bring familiar bedding or sleepwear to make the sleeping environment more recognizable.
  • Daily Structure: If your child is used to a certain sequence of activities during the day, replicate this as closely as possible. For example, if mornings usually involve quiet play, followed by a snack, try to maintain this order.

2. Sensory-Friendly Activities

Children with autism often have specific sensory needs and preferences, and new environments can sometimes be overwhelming. To manage this:

  • Tailored Activities: Choose activities that suit your child’s sensory preferences. For example, a child sensitive to loud noises might enjoy a quiet nature hike more than a bustling city tour.
  • Sensory-Friendly Options: Many tourist attractions now offer sensory-friendly hours or days where stimuli like lights and sounds are reduced. Museums, zoos, theme parks, and theaters often have such options.
  • Balance and Downtime: Ensure there’s a balance between activities and rest. Over-scheduling can be overwhelming, so include downtime in your itinerary for relaxation and recuperation.

3.  Dining Out

Eating out can be a significant challenge, especially if your child has specific dietary needs or is sensitive to noisy or crowded environments.

  • Restaurant Research: Look for restaurants that are known to be quieter or that offer private dining areas. Some restaurants may also have sensory-friendly dining times.
  • Menu Planning: Review menus online beforehand to ensure there are suitable food options for your child. If your child has a restricted diet, consider calling the restaurant in advance to discuss their needs.
  • Timing: Dining during off-peak hours can mean fewer people, less noise, and a more relaxed environment, making the experience more comfortable for your child.

4. Safety Measures

Safety is a crucial concern, particularly in unfamiliar environments where children with autism might wander or become lost. Simulation training can be instrumental in preparing these children for such situations, enhancing their safety and well-being.

  • GPS Trackers: These devices can be attached to clothing or worn as a wristband, allowing you to quickly locate your child if you get separated.
  • Meeting Point: Establish a familiar meeting spot in case of separation. Make sure your child knows how to find and recognize this spot.
  • Identification Tools: Consider tools like ID bracelets with contact information and any important medical information.
  • Staff Interaction Training: Teach your child how to identify and approach staff members for help. Role-playing this before the trip can be beneficial. Some families carry cards to hand out to staff, explaining their child’s condition and what kind of assistance might be needed.
book 2 svg

Coping Strategies and Support
Empty heading

 1. Coping Strategies

Coping strategies are essential for children with autism, especially when they're in unfamiliar environments like during travel. When overwhelmed, your child might experience sensory overload, anxiety, or distress, and having effective coping mechanisms can be a lifesaver in these situations.

One of the most effective coping strategies is teaching your child deep breathing exercises. This technique can be both calming and grounding. You can practice this with your child before your trip, making it a fun and engaging activity. The key is to make them inhale slowly through their nose, hold the breath for a couple of seconds, and then exhale slowly through their mouth. This exercise helps in regulating emotions and reducing anxiety levels. It's a simple yet powerful tool that your child can use anywhere, whether they're on a plane, in a hotel room, or at a busy tourist attraction.

Another important strategy is having a designated quiet space for your child to retreat to when things get too overwhelming. This could be a physical space like a quiet corner in a hotel room or a more portable option like a small tent or a blanket that can create a temporary personal space for them. In this space, your child can engage in calming activities like reading a favorite book, playing with a preferred toy, or just enjoying a few moments of solitude. The idea is to create a sensory-friendly environment where your child can decompress and regain their composure.

Incorporating these coping strategies into your travel plans can make a significant difference in how your child experiences and enjoys the trip. They offer a sense of control and security in situations that might otherwise feel chaotic and unpredictable to a child with autism. Remember, the goal is to ensure that the entire family, including your child with special needs, has a positive and memorable travel experience.

 2.  Seeking Support

Seeking support while traveling with a child with autism is a crucial aspect of ensuring a smooth and enjoyable experience for the whole family. It's important to remember that you're not alone in this journey, and there are people and services available to help you.

When you're at a hotel, don't hesitate to speak with the staff about your child's needs. Many hotels are increasingly aware of the challenges faced by families traveling with children with autism and are often prepared to offer assistance or make special accommodations. This could range from providing a quiet room away from noisy areas, to ensuring that your room is not disturbed for housekeeping at certain times if your child needs uninterrupted rest. Informing the hotel staff about your child's needs can also help them understand any specific behaviors and respond appropriately, creating a more welcoming and inclusive environment.

Similarly, when visiting attractions or taking tours, reaching out to the staff or tour guides can make a significant difference. Many tourist attractions now have policies and programs in place to assist visitors with special needs. This might include offering a fast track to avoid long queues, providing detailed maps and information about quieter times to visit, or even arranging for a private viewing area for shows or events. Tour guides can also be informed about your child's needs so they can adapt the tour accordingly, perhaps by including more breaks or avoiding overly crowded spots.

It's essential to communicate clearly and advocate for your child's needs. Most people are willing to help once they understand the situation. Carrying a simple information card or a letter from a healthcare professional explaining your child's condition can be helpful in situations where you need to quickly convey your child's needs without going into too much detail.

Remember, seeking support as a traveler is not a sign of weakness, but rather a practical and necessary step in ensuring that your travel experience is as stress-free and enjoyable as possible. By engaging with hotel staff, tour guides, and attraction employees, you can create a supportive and understanding environment that caters to your child's needs and allows your family to fully enjoy your travels.

Traveling with a child with autism requires extra planning, but with the right preparation and mindset, it can be a rewarding experience for the entire family. It offers opportunities for your child to explore new environments, develop coping skills, and create lasting memories. Embrace the journey with patience, flexibility, and an open mind, and you'll discover the joys of exploring the world together. FYI, AutismSpeaks also has some resources. 

Remember, every child with autism is unique, and what works for one family may not work for another. Be prepared to adapt these tips to fit your child's individual needs and preferences. Happy travels!

The Austism Voyage blog is committed to sharing valuable information with our readers as well as practical insights and resources that can help families prepare for success, especially those with special needs.

About the Author(s)

Michael Pereira
After spending years in Corporate America, Michael was hit with COVID and suddenly realized the importance of having a plan that extended beyond just the usual Business Plans. This realization became even more significant when Michael's son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in 2022.

Success message!
Warning message!
Error message!