Last holiday season we all found ourselves very much in pandemic mode and many of us made the tough decision to cancel holiday travel plans. Trips to see our friends and family were pushed back, and we have eagerly awaited a time where we could reunite and go on adventures together again. While pandemic concerns are still very much at play, with vaccines available, and lower infection numbers in recent months, many families are finally able to dust off their suitcases and plan a much-needed family vacation.
As excited as we all are to finally go on that long-awaited vaca, the truth is, traveling during the holiday season can be kind of stressful. Families with small children know all too well the time and effort that goes in to planning to be away from home for a few hours, much less a few days. Those stresses exist for all families, but they tend to be amplified when one of our loved ones is diagnosed with autism. Rigid routines, sensory sensitivities, and restrictive diets, among other things, can add another variable to travel that parents need to be responsive to and plan for. Additionally, fear of not knowing what may occur in a new environment and not being able to control the environment (like at home), may lead to some apprehension. Afterall, part of the reason we all love to travel so much is because it breaks up the monotony of our day-to-day lives and adds an element of adventure. It’s important to remember that not all kids crave that same type of adventure, but with a little bit of planning, families can be sure to arrange for a memorable vacation for all members of the family.
Even though making the decision to travel might feel scary, parents should know that there are many benefits to traveling with your child on the autism spectrum. Family travel is credited with helping to reduce the feelings of isolation that may occur due to the strict routines your child has been living by (Covington, 2021). Travel can help push past feelings of isolation and expose the family to new environments, cultures, sensory experiences, and individuals that your child may not have had access to before. This exposure can also make it easier to travel in the future and help desensitize individuals with autism to sensory sensitivities in a more naturalistic way. Traveling is also a great life skill that incorporates many other life skills, such as social interactions, tolerance for differences between cultures and people, using money, planning, and many other skills that kids may not encounter during their normal day to day routine. The importance of these skills cannot be emphasized enough because mastery and generalization of these skills will lead to greater satisfaction and independence for your child as they get older.
Another more obvious benefit of traveling is the opportunity for your family to connect and bond….uninterrupted. How often during a typical work week is every important person in your child’s life able to “unplug” and “be present”? With school, extracurriculars, employment responsibilities and sibling needs, a typical week can be pretty distraction-rich. Family travel is a great chance to bring your family closer together by spending uninterrupted time together creating life-long memories.
Now that we have talked about why we should travel, lets discuss some tips on how we can travel that might help make it the most enjoyable experience for you and your family. For starters, how do you plan to get to your destination? Will you be taking an airplane? If this is your child’s first time going to an airport, you will probably want to prepare them for the various steps of air travel ahead of time. This can be done through discussions and social stories, but it would also be helpful to actually practice these different activities before your travel date. If you live near an airport, you can take the opportunity to expose your child to the many sounds and visuals of travel in a fun and relaxed way. That way, when you have a strict time-line and a flight to catch, your child will have already been exposed to this new environment.
Also, there aren’t many adults who look forward to going through the security screening line. Imagine if you were a child and you were presented with this experience without any preparation or understanding of why your favorite things are being taken away and scanned, why wands are being waved all over your body, and why your body, or your family’s body, is being patted down? Sounds pretty scary, right? Talking about the security check with your child beforehand and practicing the steps can be a great way to get ready for the real experience at the airport. TSA even has a program that allows individuals with autism to come in and go through the process for a practice run, and if you contact TSA 72 hours ahead of time, TSA Cares will arrange for your child to have additional supports once they arrive at the airport. Click here for more info. Contacting the airline ahead of time is also recommended so that they can be filled in on any special assistances you will need as well as arrange to have your child board the aircraft first. Once your family gets on the plane, get all of your child’s favorite things ready and accessible, and prepare for takeoff.
Whether you are traveling by plane or by car, you will definitely also want to take some time planning for what you will bring keep your little one comfy and entertained. If your child likes the tablet, make sure you have your batteries charged, chargers packed, and extra devices and batteries when available. If there are any sensory considerations, make sure you brought your child’s favorite headphones, blankets or any other items that help your little one feel comfortable. Keeping these items easily accessible throughout your travel will be really important, so put them in your carry-on, and not your checked bag, and try to remember not to pack them in the far back of the car for those long road trips. Additionally, while we are on the topic of packing, kids with autism do really well when they are given choices. Families often find it helpful to make their child part of the packing process, and it’s advised to allow them to have some say over what gets packed, or even what bag is used. Giving your child choices throughout your trip will also go a long way. For example, your child can choose to take the elevator or the escalator. They can pick a window seat or a middle seat. Kids like to feel like they have choices, and a family vacation will be filled with options galore.
Living in Florida we are fortunate that we don’t have to drive or fly very far for our vacations. Floridians have some of the world’s best theme parks and vacation destinations right here in our backyard. It’s no secret that Disney World is known for being the most magical place on Earth, but many parents are surprised to learn upon their first visit, that a full day at Disney can be pretty exhausting. There is so much to do and see (and so many lines to wait in), that you might feel like you ran a marathon by the end of your first magical day. Luckily, the people at Disney recognize that kids with autism might find it particularly difficult to wait in those long lines, or to experience all of that sensory input. For that reason, Disney offers a long list of accommodations to assist your family during your time at their parks ranging from ride swapping (to allow all the adults to ride on a ride), to line waiting accommodations, and “quiet spaces” away from the sensory stimulation. They also have published a guide that gives great planning suggestions such as to practice waiting in a line prior to leaving for your vacation, using reinforcement (rewards) for good behavior, showing your child videos of rides beforehand, and making reservations for meals to make sure your family always has a comfortable place to sit. Another very important recommendation that applies to all travel, not just trips to theme parks, is to make sure your child has something on their person that will identify them and help authorities find you should you get separated.
As mentioned a moment ago, social stories are known to be a great way to help kids prepare for new places and activities, and videos and pictures can be helpful as well. Another helpful tool for families when they travel are visual schedules. Visual schedules help kids plan for what’s coming next, and oftentimes they are more effective than just telling a child with autism the day’s itinerary. A visual schedule can contain pictures, and/or words, and it should be unique to your family’s needs. For example, a visual schedule for a child’s first flight might include pictures of the child getting dressed, the car ride, the airport, security check-in, the airplane interior, baggage claim, a taxi, and the final destination. Reviewing the schedule the night before, and the morning of, will help your child plan, but as you move through the day’s activities remember to reference the schedule often.
A final pointer related to travel has to do with preparing your extended family and friends to help your child be successful during your vacation. Holidays are a wonderful time to reunite with loved ones we haven’t seen for a long time, and these less-familiar people offer a perfect opportunity for your child to work on generalizing all of the amazing skills they have been working so hard on at home. Starting with communication, it is a good idea to fill your family in on how your child communicates and let them know how they can help your child when your child is having trouble. For kids that are using PECS, sign language or an electronic device, carve out some time to teach your family how to understand what your child is saying so all that beautiful communication continues to expand while you are away. Additionally, while you will not be able to extensively train your family on a precise behavior plan, it’s advised that you let your family know some of the behaviors that you have been working on, and what responses have led to the most success at home.
If your child has been attending Applied Behavior Analysis therapy (ABA), call your family before your trip and share some of the tips and procedures you learned during your caregiver support sessions. Most adults react to tantrums by doing whatever it takes to turn the tantrum off. For example, if your family member sees your little one kicking the wall because they can’t reach the cookies, they might try to “help” and just get your child a cookie. Once the cookie is in hand, the crying stops, so Aunt Karen pats herself on the back and will be more likely to respond to your child’s challenging behavior with reinforcement in the future. Even worse, now your child has learned that that behavior is in fact useful, and that functional communication isn’t always required. If Aunt Karen had just a little bit of information beforehand, she would have prompted your child to say “help”, the cookie would have still been delivered, and the behavior would have still turned off. Not to mention your child would have just practiced generalizing their communication skills with a new person in a new environment. That would have been really amazing, and totally doable.
Thankfully, fall 2021 has brought all of us an opportunity to finally pack our bags and make memories with our families again. Because traveling has so many benefits for families with exceptionalities, it’s important to prioritize making travel plans, even if there will be a few extra considerations to keep in mind. Theme parks, hotels and airports usually will have accommodations that they can make for you ahead of time, so don’t forget to call and let them know what you need. Keep your focus on spending time with your child and making memories with them, take some steps to make them feel comfortable and supported, and you can’t go wrong. Here’s wishing you and your family safe travels and happy holidays! Bon Voyage!
Covington, T. (2021, August 10). Traveling with autism – the zebra. Traveling with Autism: How to Handle Safety, Transitions, and Time in Transit. Retrieved November 18, 2021, from https://www.thezebra.com/resources/driving/traveling-autism/.
Disney. Services for guests with disabilities. Retrieved November 22, 2021 from https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/guest-services/cognitive-disabilities-services
Transportation Security Administration. TSA cares: Screening Individuals on the autism spectrum. Retrieved November 22, 2021 from https://www.tsa.gov/videos/tsa-cares-screening-travelers-autism-spectrum-0