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  • Writer's pictureHadley Tarantino, M.A.

Traveling with a Child with Autism

April is Autism Awareness Month.

Spring and summer breaks usually call for a fun family vacation. Parents with children with autism may find traveling to be extremely challenging and difficult. They may take shorter trips than desired or forego vacation plans altogether. Traveling with children with autism is not an easy feat; a lot of preparation goes into planning a trip and carrying out an itinerary. This process can be very stressful for families. But there is hope! Parents with children with autism do not need to cancel their plans or feel constrained to a life without travel while their children are young. Parents can help ease their child’s nerves and ensure they feel happy and safe outside of the home in a variety of different ways.

Children on the autism spectrum may experience and show different traits, such as communication deficits, difficulty with social interaction, and repetitive patterns of behavior. Families can prepare for the upcoming travel season in a multitude of ways to address these potential issues. Each family is different, and some ideas may work better for some dynamics more than others.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Preparation is an essential part of traveling with children with autism. A common trait found in children with autism is an inflexible adherence to routines. Travel is an immense adjustment and change. A new location, weather climate, and culture can all be shocking for a child familiar with a very strict routine. To ensure a smooth transition to a new location, prepare for the trip in advance as best as possible. Begin by talking to the child about the vacation as soon as it is planned. Incorporate conversation about what the destination will look like and feel like. If there are big travel plans involved, like flying in an airplane or going on a boat, show the child pictures and videos of other children in the same experience. Read books about travel and the particular destination to prepare the child for what is to come. Drive to the airport a few days in advance to accustom the child to the process of flying. All of these small ideas can be helpful in creating a minimally stressful vacation.

Maintain some of the same rituals from home.

Children on the autism spectrum typically follow strict, ritualized patterns of behavior. These patterns of behavior can include greetings, eating food, or washing hands. There may be specific ways in which the child prefers to carry out these tasks. Extreme distress at small changes to a routine is common. It is important to maintain some traditions from home as the family travels. If a parent reads the child a certain book before bed, try packing that specific book to maintain the same ritual on vacation. This may contribute to allowing the child to feel safe even though the family is not at home.

Think about the travel destination, and include itinerary activities that work well for the child.

Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment may be present in children with autism. If the child is particularly sensitive to sensory stimuli, parents may decide to avoid highly interactive museums or high-sensory environments. The location of the vacation may also be considered when planning a trip. New York City may not be the best first family trip if a child is highly sensitive to sound and sensory stimuli. Be considerate of different available travel locales, and which ones will fit best with the family dynamic and child’s lifestyle. There are many different choices to choose from when it comes to deciding where and when to travel. Decide between rural or urban, island or city, and domestic or international. These are all important questions to consider when traveling with a child with autism.

Start small.

Preparation is crucial. Day trips can be the ultimate preparation for a larger family vacation. There are many different places to visit within a few hours’ drive from home. A day trip can be an excellent way to ease the transition process of travel. The child can become more comfortable with longer car rides, family time, and deviations from everyday life. Fun car games and musical sing-alongs allow day trips to be the perfect shift into longer vacations. Without the hassle of hotels and figuring out sleeping arrangements, the child can realize a day away from home can be a fun, safe, and new experience. When day trips become an easier and simpler process, parents can feel confident there will be minimal distress on a lengthier two-week vacation.

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