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Five Tried and Tested Travel Tips for Your Autism Family

February 17, 2021


Does the idea of holiday travel as an autism parent fill you with dread? Check out these top tips tried and tested by a busy mom.

In the autism world of parenting, the worries that accompany holiday travel can be overwhelming; I mean, just traveling in general is stressful, but when you tackle on the holidays, it catapults the stress onto another level.

Five Tried and Tested Travel Tips for Your Autism Family

For autism parents, our world has trained us to see different circumstances that could happen before they do, and we do our almighty best to catch them before they surprise us—but gosh darn it, sometimes they still do!

Such surprise circumstances could include but are not limited to the following:

  • a major meltdown in a very public area
  • a sudden regurgitation of an unliked food at a restaurant caused by a “weird” texture
  • a small fall that yields a very large outburst of tears and high-pitched screaming
  • or a need to “make a poop” when bathroom facilities are nowhere in sight

When the holidays warrant some type of travel whether by car or plane, near or far, we must arm ourselves with the inevitable and the unexpected. Just know you are not alone in this.

Let’s ease those travel quandaries together with some tried and tested travel tips:

1. Plan a smart route

Traveling by plane? Choose an itinerary that works to your advantage. Research all possible routes to your final destination, considering pricing factors. Does a flight with one or two stops make more sense than a nonstop route without a break? Look at the layover time. Does your layover require you to deplane and change gates? If so, look at the gate changes and map it out before to ensure you and your family have a comfortable amount of time to walk from one gate to another.

In these instances, using a phone app to help you can be a worthwhile tool. Take a look at these handy apps to make you a “smarter traveler”: 9 Airport Apps You’ll Actually Use.

Or are you making your way by car? My young ones are prone to motion sickness and have an opinion about everything they eat, but a few interesting road sights can bring on a refreshing spike of curiosity.

Randy McNally planning tool (the company known for making printed maps when navigation was non-existent) allows you to create and manage your full driving itinerary based on your specific preferences. This is where you can include the kids by involving them to be a part of the navigational process.

2. Create a visual calendar

My son had recently been diagnosed with ASD and was new to ABA (applied behavioral analysis) at age three. I had a baby girl just fifteen months younger, and my oldest was ten years old. We decided it would be a fantastic idea to take a 12-hour road trip from Northern California to visit the city of Seattle, Washington. Hey, why not, right?

Although T was still young and very new to ABA tools, I had already been using various aids to assist with easing his day by day schedule—one of which was a visual calendar. I knew that, although not a guarantee, keeping a regimented schedule and sticking to that even on the road (as close to possible) was going to be key.

Using the same laminated visual cards, I placed them in order of our day’s events, secured by a large binder ring my son could take with him on the road. Turns out the natural excitement of seeing new sights was so entertaining for him he had a very minimal dependency on his visual calendar, but if he asked, I had it on me.

3. Practice the plan

If this is your child’s first time flying or if you are not familiar with your departing airport, taking the time to visit the airport could ease some anxiety for both of you. It is always calmly reassuring to know where you are going, where to park, and how to navigate through an airport before the day of travel. If you are at ease, then most likely your kiddo will be too.

Make it a fun field trip like a pretend run-through but without hauling your luggage. If you plan on parking in the Economy parking lot of the airport, which is typically the cheapest on-site parking, being able to ride on the shuttle (if one is used) could be a cool highlight, plus it is free and will be able to circle you back around to your car.


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Keep in mind, if you have a few flight options from nearby airports, the cheapest flight may not always be worth the money saved. On a flight to Disney World, we purchased tickets for our family of five from a slightly further airport to save over $50 per ticket. Saving around $250 total is a lot, but in the end, we realized the layout of the airport and the drive dealing with bay area traffic was not worth it. Always be sure to weigh your options and choose what will work for you, not against you.

4. Create a schedule that works for you and your child

Holiday time can already be a stressful time of hustle and bustle. Our kiddos are the first to pick up our energy no matter how good we think we are at covering it up (they know).

Before our road trip to Seattle, we took our even younger kiddos on their first flight to my hubby’s home state of Alabama. My youngest was still on the bottle, which meant we were flying across the country juggling the unpredicted actions of an infant and a toddler.

If your flight time is longer, try breaking it up into smaller, manageable chunks. Otherwise, if it were my kiddos, they would be stuck to their gadgets the whole time. However, for my T, his engagement to the screen makes him prone to migraines, so minimizing this was my objective.

Every 45 minutes can be changed to a different activity. This can be applied for cars or flights by finding games that work for either. Ideas include:

Screen Time/Movie
Card Game
Snack Time
Read
Sensory Activity

Writing—a writing tablet for each child and/or create individualized binders with writing paper and writing tools

Of course, if there is one particular activity that engages your child, then go for it. With my dude, he just loved staring at the live flight map inching its way further across the country. So remember, sometimes simple is the best course of action.

5. Pack and plan for the unexpected

This mantra is probably already built into your DNA by now, but this piece is such a crucial part no matter if we are going to the neighborhood park or on a cross-country trip.

Ensure your emergency bag or carry-on bag is accessible. Extra outfits for all family members are a must. Vomit bags should be ready for an unfortunate action. Place towels rolled underneath the seats of the car as well for any need.

Besides the necessary items like medicines, on a flight large clips and small blankets are a great idea; should you need to create a dark space over your child’s seat, you can makeshift an enclosure as posted on this blog: “Baby Can Travel” which includes some additional useful traveling tips.

Communicate with your child about the upcoming travel and involve him/her as much as possible so he/she becomes familiar with each part of the travel planning. Use a digital or printed map and highlight the car or flight course. Find sights of interest along the trip and take the time to learn about them.

Create a travel binder with the map, sketch paper, pencil pouch, and anything else that will highlight his/her interests. Take him/her with you on your grocery trip and let him/her pick out his/her favorite snacks.

Plan, practice, and let him/her participate in the planning. Happy traveling!

This article was featured in Issue 112 – Understanding Diagnosis & Disorders

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