Traveling with Children on the Autism Spectrum

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Many parents of individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder dread traveling or often avoid it altogether. Most people with ASD do better with routine and structure and a break from that (vacation) can often lead to stress and even meltdowns. Additionally, traveling by air can include having to navigate a multitude of unpleasant experiences from airport security procedures, moving sidewalks, and boarding tunnels to cramped seats, unfamiliar noises, and lots of strangers. Experts indicate that preparation and practice is the key to a successful flight and travel.

Here are some strategies for making the individual with ASD feel as comfortable as possible and the journey more bearable.

  • Let the airline know in advance that you’ll be flying with a person with ASD. Request bulkhead seats; they feel less confining and they reduce the possibility of a child kicking the seat in front of him/her.
  • Three days before your trip, call the Transportation Security Administration’s hot line, TSA Cares (855-787-2227; open Mon-Fri, 9am-9pm EST), which can act as an intermediary with airport customer care and help you navigate security checkpoints.
  • Before your trip, talk with your child about what to expect. Go over the details of the travel: how you’ll get to the airport, wait in line, go through security, find your departure gate, get on the plane, buckle seatbelts, and spend time onboard. Flying to See Janet: A Fun Guide to the Airport Experience is a book you can use to prepare children for the unfamiliar sights and sounds of the airport experience. You can also write your own social story.
  • Make the first flight a short one, if possible, with no more than an hour or so in the air. If you need to take a long flight, ask the airline if food will be served. If so, consider requesting a special meal, such as the gluten-free option. Alternatively you can bring food from home or purchase meals at the airport after you pass through security. Take gum or hard candy, particularly if your child is nonverbal and can’t tell you his/her ears need popping.
  • Notify the airline in advance that you will need to pre-board, then arrive at the departure gate early and make your request again, just to be safe. Boarding early will give you the extra time to get him/her settled and comfortable before the other passengers get on.
  • Carry documentation of the individual’s diagnosis, in case airport or airline staff request it. Pack any item that might be soothing to him/her during a rough patch. If the individual is sensitive to loud sounds, bring noise-cancelling headphones. Consider multiple ways for them to stay occupied during the flight, and come armed with extra books, toys, fidgets, DVDs, and electronic recharging accessories. Pack a change of clothes in case of spills.
  • If you will be staying at a hotel, it’s important to call ahead and request adjoining rooms or anything special you might need. In addition to bringing your child’s familiar bedding and blankets; don’t forget protective padding or disposable underwear if he/she has an occasional night time accident. Requesting a room at the end of a floor helps to avoid unpleasant noises like elevators opening and closing. It may also be worth the extra money to stay in an apartment or condo rental so you can have more space and even prepare your own food. Websites like let you rent apartments in popular cities.
  • If you are vacationing at a theme park, Disney World and many other theme parks have special passes or wristbands for families who are traveling with a person with special needs. The passes allow your family to bypass long lines and gain entrance at the front of every entry gate (go first on all the rides), which can be a huge source of distress. Call in advance and ask for special-guest relations. Family-friendly theme park vacations can be a great choice because they have hotels that are often very accommodating to families of individuals who have a disability and tend to be forgiving of tantrums, anxiety and other behavior. Because sensory issues are common in people with ASD, you may want to bring along earplugs or headphones to mute the sounds or visit during off-peak weeks, when crowds are smaller.
  • Make sure the individual with ASD is wearing identification. Include his/her name and diagnosis and your cell number and anything that a person might need to keep him/her safe and calm until you are reunited. If it is a problem for them to wear it, try pinning it to the back of the shirt. It may also be helpful to carry a recent photo of the individual to show police in case he or she wanders off.

Article written by Zonya Mitchell, PsyD., Neuropsychologist at the Fay J Lindner Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

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