Travel can be physically and emotionally challenging for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and sensory processing disorders. They may have difficulty with routine changes, over-stimulating environments, and feeling a loss of control. However, there are things you can do before and during your travel that can make things easier on the whole family.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
When planning a trip away, choose a mode of transportation that is easiest for your child. For example, if your child is great in the car, choose a destination that you can drive to. If your child does not like being in the car, but loves trains, plan a trip that allows you to travel by train. Pick destinations with your child’s interests and dislikes in mind. If your child is afraid of people in costumes, a trip to Disney World will likely not be a success. But if your child loves Legos, a trip to Lego Land will probably be a huge hit.
Before traveling, talk to your child about the trip and read stories relating to the mode of travel and your destination. Go step-by-step with the preparation and discuss everything from how you will get there to what you will do and see there, as well as where you will be staying. Answer questions about whether he will have his own bed, if you will eat at restaurants, and if he will be able to bring his own toys. If you are flying, talk through the process of getting through the airport and what the rules are in the airport and on the plane. If your child has limited language, use videos or stories with detailed pictures. If your child uses a visual calendar and/or schedule, make sure to have icons relating to the trip for use throughout the vacation. You can ask your Verbal Beginnings team to help prepare social stories and visual supports.
Take Advantage of Airport Services
If you are flying to your destination, research the airports you will be traveling through. Many airports have special check-in and security lines for families traveling with children. Some airports offer special assistance programs, sensory rooms, and play areas for families with children to use prior to their flights. Some airports allow you to bring a child with ASD to the airport days, weeks, or months in advance, to practice going through security and see what the airport is like and may even have planes you can board with your child to practice. Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport offers a tour once a month called “path of a passenger,” which allows kids to follow the path of a passenger. Their “wings for all” program allows families with children with ASD to participate in a “dress rehearsal” before traveling. Baltimore-Washington airport has an observation gallery open to the public and play area for kids past security.
Pack with Intention
Pack favorite snacks and drinks and have them in a handy location for longer train rides and flights. Even when food is served on board, it’s better to have food that you know your child will like in case the food being served is not preferred or is offered at inconvenient times.
Pack a carry-on bag just for your child. Along with extra food, pack extra clothes in your carry-on baggage in case of mishaps, whether it be sickness or spillage. Have your child pick some favorite small toys, books, and games to add to the bag. These can be used on the train or plane, as well as while waiting at restaurants. Add some new surprises for him to open and explore during the trip. Try having your child pick a new small toy from each destination you go to. This tradition allows your child to be excited about going somewhere new and lets him or her go home with a souvenir from each trip. Tablets, iPads, and/or portable DVD players can help long travel go more smoothly for your child. Before the trip, download your child’s favorite shows, movies, and sensory and educational games. Since there will be times when the tablets cannot be played with volume, have your child practice using headphones. Over the ear, traditional headphones will likely be the most comfortable for children. Soft fleece headband headphones are also available for younger kids and kids with sensory processing disorders.
Don’t Forget the Sleep Schedule
When it’s time for your child to sleep, follow their normal bedtime routine as much as possible. If your child has difficulty sleeping with lights on, try to block light as much as possible. You may need to get creative. It also helps to schedule your travel with your child’s sleep times in mind. If your child naps during the day, try to schedule time back at your hotel for naps. Having a well-rested child will make the exploration time much more fun and engaging for everyone in the family.
With preparation and practice, traveling with your child with ASD can be successful and lead to some great family memories. Got a tip to share or add to the list? Let us know what’s worked for you!
By: Tamar Varnai, MA, BCBA, LBA, Clinical Coordinator at Verbal Beginnings