7 Simple Ways to Make Travel Easier with Autism

7 Simple Ways to Make Travel Easier with Autism

Are you busy planning for a family vacation this summer, but anticipating the travel experience with more anxiety than enthusiasm?  If you have a child who struggles with flexibility, remaining emotionally level, and controlling impulses, you may be recalling from past experiences that – as excited as everyone was to get to the Magic Kingdom, LEGOLAND®, the beach, or Grandpa and Grandma’s house – the trip there and back was not an idyllic experience.  Many children may find unique experiences such as vacation travel, punctuated by the lack of routine and coping with unfamiliar events, somewhat difficult to navigate.

The traits of flexibility, leveled emotions, and impulse control fall into a category of skills called executive functions.   Your child may find it difficult to adjust to the change in routine that travel brings and/or interact appropriately while traveling – not because of a lack of effort or desire to do well, but due to a lack of executive function (EF) skills.  EF is a set of cognitive functions that help us to be more mentally flexible, less impulsive, able to control our emotions, and capable of planning and problem solving. One way to remember the types of skills that fall under the category of executive functions is to remember the acronym FLIPP, which stands for Flexibility, Leveled Emotionality, Impulse Control, Planning, and Problem Solving (Wilkins & Burmeister, 2015). These five skills are ones that are consistently evident in people who have well-developed EF skills. Another component of EF is working memory, which works in concert with the other skills by supporting individuals in holding information in the mind long enough to process it, make a decision, and then act on that decision.

The good news is that there are some very easy-to-use strategies that can go a long way toward helping our children navigate the complex expectations that go along with vacation travel and developing skills that will help make those journeys more enjoyable for all.  Fill your travel tool box with these strategies you can use before, during, and after your family vacations and come back with wonderful memories and enthusiasm to plan your next trip!

Before the Trip

Before you leave for your trip, a little advance preparation can go a long way. Providing support by helping to make the travel experience more predictable is a great investment of time. Strategies that help children know what to expect, and how to behave in specific situations, can make the travel experience less stressful and much more enjoyable. Social narratives are a wonderful strategy for providing objective statements through which children with ASD and related disorders can make sense of expectations.

A Power Card is a type of social narrative that uses a circumscribed interest or passion to teach and reinforce social, behavioral, or academic skills (Gagnon, 2001). A Power Card consists of two components: a scenario which describes a situation that is difficult for the child’s hero, role model, or special interest, and a card that shows how the child can use the same strategy in the scenario to solve a similar problem. For instance, Joey is extremely interested in anything linked to Middle Earth and the book, The Hobbit (Tolkien, 1966).  His parents used the following scenario: “Bilbo is a hobbit who enjoys staying at home. However, sometimes Bilbo goes on a trip, which is a big adventure. When Bilbo goes on a trip, he does his best to do what he is told. He brings his favorite activities to do when he is bored and he uses calming routines when he is feeling frustrated. Just like Bilbo, it is important for children who are going on a trip to listen and obey, read or play games when bored, and take deep breaths and count when frustrated. Bilbo shares his tips for an enjoyable trip in the Power Card.” The related power card included the following tips:

  1. On a trip it is important to listen and obey your parents when they tell you to do something.
  2. If you get bored, you can read a book or play on your portable gaming system.
  3. If you get frustrated take a few deep breaths and count from 1-10 and then 10-1.

Another type of social narrative is a simple story that outlines what the child can expect from the new situation, along with some guidelines regarding how to behave in the novel situation. One of the authors successfully used this strategy with her 19-year-old son when traveling cross-country for a family wedding, where he was going to be a groomsman for the first time. Each morning a new story was written and presented, and each story outlined what was happening for the day and what the expectations were. For instance, on the day of the wedding, the story stated the following:

Today is the wedding! You will take a shower at 10:00 in the morning — make sure you use lots of soap and borrow some of dad’s deodorant after you dry off.  You will wear your jeans and T-shirt to the hall. Once you’re there you will change your clothes — Tux Time! When you’re standing up front, try to keep your hands down. If you need to drum, use your fingers to drum on the sides of your legs. After the wedding is the reception, where we will be eating a big meal. Use your best table manners when you’re eating.  After the reception you’ll drive back to the hotel with mom and dad.

These stories were extremely valuable in increasing flexibility and decreasing emotional outbursts, caused by confusion and frustration. Social narrative stories are easy to use and are a great preventative strategy for all ages.

During the Trip

Waiting is an inevitable part of travel, and for a child who has difficulty with flexibility, having to wait can be especially challenging and result in inappropriate behaviors.  Waiting has to do with time, and concepts related to time are abstract and can be difficult for many children.  Let your child know what the expected wait time behaviors are (playing a game on your tablet, coloring a picture, quietly reading a book, etc.) and pair the verbal instructions with a wait card (Figure 1).  This is an effective visual support strategy that provides a concrete cue to help your child manage wait time.  For example, for a child whose patience is wearing thin during a long flight while waiting to be served a meal, placing a wait card on his tray lets him know that he is expected to use appropriate wait time behaviors, and that there will be an end to the wait time as the wait card is replaced with his meal.  Instructing a child to wait verbally may be effective for many children — but pairing that with a visual cue can make a huge difference!  For children who process information visually, if they can see it, they can better understand it.

“When will we get there?”  “How much longer will we be delayed at the airport?”  “When will the highway reopen?”  For children who struggle with controlling their emotions, not knowing when an activity will end or when the next transition will take place can cause stress and anxiety, resulting in inappropriate behaviors.  Visual countdown timers help place boundaries on activities and are especially useful for those situations when adults can’t control specifically “how long.”  A countdown timer (Figure 2) is an environmental modification that increases structure and predictability, making it a helpful tool if the timing of a transition or an activity needs to be flexible (Hume, 2008).  This can be easily made using a couple of 3” by 5” index cards.  Use one card for the countdown strip base and the other to cut out five 1” by 1” pieces.  Write the numbers 1 through 5 on the small pieces and attach to the countdown strip with Velcro® or paper clips.  Taping a small envelope to the back of the countdown strip provides a place to store the numbers after removal from the strip.

To use the timer, take the numbers off at intervals. State “Now you have four,” “Now you have three.” etc., continuing to use the number cards until all done. The beauty of this timer is that we as adults can control the length of time between moving the number cards. Though we may not know how long we have to wait outside until we can enter the museum for our tour, go through security screening at the airport, or when the late bus will arrive, etc., we have a way to help structure undefined periods of time, helping our child understand that time is passing and that there will be an end to the situation.

Another strategy that can contribute to a more peaceful trip is the use of a visual scale (Figure 3) to monitor voice volume. A visual scale is used to make abstract ideas more concrete and to show that there are often various levels of a behavior. An easy way to make a visual scale is to use a 3”x 6” piece of card-stock. Using a hole punch, make one hole in the middle of both 3” edges, in the center, about 1/2” from the edge. Place a bead on a chenille strip (pipe cleaner), lace each end of the strip through each hole, and secure on the back with tape. When using a visual scale to monitor vocal volume, show the child, using the scale, where his current volume is. Then show him where it should be. As the child’s voice approaches the desired level, communicate this by reflecting the change on the visual scale.

After the Trip

Throughout your trip, and after, make sure to notice when your child is behaving appropriately and reinforce her for doing so, a terrific strategy to help her develop impulse control. Tell her what she is doing right, so that she’ll be more likely to do it again.  Using a punch card (Figure 4), much like the one you may get as part of a “loyalty program” at your local coffee house, provides a format that will allow you to regularly reinforce your child when she makes good choices.  Your child works towards some desired reward as you check off boxes each time your child makes a good choice or demonstrates the kind of behavior you’d like to see more of (for example, choosing to keep her feet still while riding in the car rather than kicking the back of the seat in front of her).

A powerful strategy that can be used both before leaving on a trip and upon returning home, is what is called SOARR (Wilkins & Burmeister, 2015). SOARR stands for Specify, Observe, Analyze, Respond, Reflect. SOARR is a very versatile strategy that can be used either before or after an activity to help support a child in thinking through the appropriate responses in a particular situation. When used before an activity, the adult coaches the child through imagining what they might observe, analyzing the most appropriate response, and committing to respond in the most socially acceptable manner.  When used following an activity, the parent (or other adult) coaches the child through the following questions:

  1. What was the specific situation or activity?
  2. What was happening in the situation? How were other individuals behaving?
  3. Based on the observation, what do you think would have been the most appropriate response?
  4. What was your actual response in the situation?
  5. What did you do well? What could have been improved? What did you learn? What might you do differently next time?


Although EF deficits can greatly impact behavior, leading to stress and anxiety in both children and adults, these easy-to-use strategies allow individuals with EF deficits to increase their flexibility, remain emotionally level, and control their impulses in a variety of travel settings.

For an in-depth look at executive function, check out FLIPP the Switch:  Strengthen Executive Function Skills (2015) (Figure 5).  This practical book is written for parents and educators by parents and educators. The target audience is anyone who works with young people aged preschool through young adult who are disorganized, inflexible, impulsive, and who struggle with planning or problem solving. Readers will learn about EF and how EF skills contribute to success in school, at home, in the community, and in work environments. Most important, readers will receive specific instructions, templates, and how-to scenarios for 25 strategies matched to EF need.  This book is indispensable for anyone who wants to help students and children – including those who do not have a diagnosed disability but struggle with executive function skills – develop the ability to link behavior to its effects, self-regulate, and manage emotions in a healthy way.

Carol Burmeister has a life-long passion for working with individuals with specials needs, their families, and the schools and community settings that serve them.  Her professional experience includes serving as a paraprofessional, general education teacher, special education teacher, program specialist, university instructor, and consultant in a wide variety of educational settings. Carol participated as a reviewer in the National Professional Development Center on Autism Spectrum Disorder’s 2014 update on evidence-based practices.  The publication she co-authored with Sheri Wilkins, FLIPP the Switch:  Strengthen Executive Function Skills, reflects her wide-ranging experience within the field of education.

Sheri Wilkins, Ph.D. has dedicated her professional career to serving students with disabilities and building the capacity of educators to better serve this unique population. After her son sustained a mild traumatic brain injury in a car accident in 2010, Sheri had first-hand experience in the power of environmental modifications and metacognitive strategies in supporting people who struggle with executive functions. It was this experience that led her to write FLIPP the Switch: Powerful Strategies to Strengthen Executive Function Skills with her friend and co-author, Carol Burmeister.  Sheri participated as a reviewer in the National Professional Development Center on Autism Disorder’s 2014 update on evidence-based practices.

Connect with FLIPP the Switch on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/FLIPPtheSwitch/

Connect with Sheri and Carol at: http://www.inedsolutions.com


Gagnon, E.  (2001).   Power Cards:  Using special interests to motivate children and youth with Asperger Syndrome and autism.  Shawnee Mission, KS:  Autism Asperger Publishing Co.

Hume, K. (2008). Transitioning between activities: Online training module. In Ohio Center for Autism and Low Incidence  (OCALI), Autism Internet Modules, www.autisminternetmodules.org.  Columbus,   OH: OCALI.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1966). The Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Wilkins, S. & Burmeister, C.  (2015).  FLIPP the Switch:  Strengthen Executive Function Skills.  Shawnee Mission, KS:  AAPC Publishing.

This article was featured in Issue 48 – Connecting and Communicating with Autism

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