Traveling With Autism

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I’ve seen and heard my share of children's tantrums in the autism clinic over the years, but I’ve never thought about the obstacles that families traveling with an autistic child have to deal with. What happens if a child with autism starts a tantrum at airport security or in the confines of a long flight? I imagine that’s not much of a vacation for anyone, especially the family. Families of autistic children are faced with a multitude of daunting symptomatic behaviors that may be exacerbated by unfamiliar environments. Foresight and preparation make traveling with autism possible and less problematic. I’ve put together some brief tips to help troubleshoot potential obstacles encountered when traveling with a loved one that has ASD.

For starters, if you have a choice, keep your destination simple depending on your child's, tolerance of transition. You may prefer to start with day-tripping at first to build up the child's ability to handle longer periods of travel. Minimize surprises by telling the child what to expect, or make a “travel book” with pictures of different parts of the journey, including waiting periods that may be taxing. Showing pictures of the destination, airport security check-in, and other environments helps the child to know what’s coming. Try to mimic as much of the journey in advance like a “dress rehearsal” for the real thing. If flying is in the mix, check with airlines and airport security in advance about possible “special assistance” options. Have activities planned for passing the time on board the plane and also make sure the child with autism has proper identification such as a medical ID bracelet, and photo identification.

When scoping out travel accommodations think in terms of your autistic child's needs. Do they prefer a quiet atmosphere? Hotels will sometimes honor such requests as a quiet room away from active and sometimes noisy lobbies if booked far enough in advance. Destination-friendly choices are important to consider in the context of medical needs and allergies for your family members. A friend who vacationed with her child who was “on the spectrum” told me about their Big Bear trip years ago. They were unaware prior to the trip that their child had a skin allergy to pine. As a result, the mountain air and greenery became torturous for him. On another trip the mirrored elevators at the hotel, in all their visual overstimulation, created another obstacle for him. Keep reward systems and favorite items or toys on hand as well to help alleviate stress and help the child to cope with challenging environments. It also is a good idea to keep photos or videos of the trip to replay afterwards to help the “special needs traveler” to prepare for future adventures.

It’s also very important to maintain an inventory of hard-to-find medical item for those times when it may not be convenient to search for a drug store. Make a checklist of those items to take along and schedule an appointment for your loved a month in advance to address any medical needs well in advance. It may also be advantageous to find the closest hospital to your destination in case of emergency— a call to the hotel’s concierge before the trip may provide that information.

I hope these ideas on facilitating travel for ASD individuals will help and inspire the spirit of adventure in the hearts of parents who customarily shun the idea of vacations due of their inherent challenges. When it comes to traveling with a family member or individual with autism, the extra effort in planning and preparedness will pay off in the long run and perhaps vacationing will become an experience they look forward to. Here’s wishing you all a “Bon Voyage!”

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