From Planning to Fun-Having: 9 Travel Hacks for Kids with Autism

For many of us, vacations are a fun time to get away, spend time with family and friends, and relax. But for kids on the spectrum, vacations can be the exact opposite because it means messed up routines and schedules. This doesn’t mean your family shouldn’t ever give it a shot, though! Kids with autism deserve to explore the world around them just as much as any other kid. You just need to be mindful and prepared. Here are some ways you can navigate the tricky waters of travel.

Before You Go

Planning and preparation is a vital aspect of ensuring any trip goes smoothly, but it’s extra important when you have a child on the spectrum. Here are some steps you might like to think about taking.

1. Take the location into consideration

Back view young family of four on tropical beach

If you don’t already have an idea in mind as to where to go, think about places and situations your child would do well in and be most relaxed in. A sandy beach? The crisp, cool air of the mountains? A head-clearing wooded area, where you can take a lovely hike? Another option is to think about your child’s interests. If they’re fascinated with American history, for example, a relaxed, flexible, easygoing trip to Washington D.C. is an idea.

You can also consider going to a family-friendly theme park. Not only are they understanding in the face of meltdowns, but places like Disney World also offer special perks for autism families, like wristbands that allow you to cut through lines.

2. Prepare your child ahead of time

This one is as important as it is obvious. Talk to your child about the trip as soon as and as frequently as you feel is necessary. Discuss the plan and what will happen each day, including travel days; be as detailed as possible. Role play what you may do (going to the beach? Spread a towel on the ground and bask in the sun for a bit!). Show your child pictures of the location—including the hotel you’ll stay at—or look up videos on YouTube. Knowing what to expect may help reduce anxiety.

3. Pack right!

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For many children on the spectrum, it is vital that they have everything they can’t live without, whether it’s an iPad, a stuffed animal, or an action figure. It’s also not a bad idea to bring some ear plugs or noise-canceling headphones to block out sounds, especially if there might be a lot of sensory input where you’re going.

To eliminate the disconcerting, “what am I forgetting?” feeling that’s all too common when packing, make up a checklist ahead of time of all the things you need to bring, crossing them off as you pack them in the suitcase.

Is your family sharing suitcases? If so, consider using the color-coding system that one brilliant autism mom devised. In essence, assign each family member a color and ensure all their belongings are in that color. Get the details here.

When Traveling

Let’s be completely honest here: traveling is not the fun part of vacationing for most people. But there are several ways you can make it run a lot more smoothly for a child with autism.

4. Bring lots to do

In flight entertainment

When it comes to traveling, there’s a lot of sitting around to do, and it often lasts for a few hours. Boring, right? To eliminate this, make sure your child has plenty to do throughout the trip. One autism mom, while flying to Asia with her kids, wrapped gifts for her children, one for every hour they’d be on the plane. Each gift was something that could keep them occupied, from a coloring book and crayons to a DVD. That way, her children not only had something to look forward to every hour, but they also had something new to keep them busy every hour. Genius!

5. Request priority boarding

Waiting in lines is an inherent part of plane boarding…and it’s often very difficult for kids on the spectrum. To avoid this, request priority boarding. This eliminates waiting in line and also ensures you’re settled in the plane before swarms of people begin swamping those narrow aisle.

6. Practice going through security before the big day

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Security procedures can be intimidating, even for someone who isn’t on the spectrum. Before the day you’re set to fly, call up the airport, tell them your child has autism, and ask them if they can take a practice run through security so they know what to expect. Airports have been known to allow this. If yours does not, prepare your child as best you can and then tell security your child has autism when you get to the airport.

When You Get There

You did it! You got through the planning and preparation stages, and now you’re here! Time for some autism-friendly fun!

7. Plan for downtime

little boy looking at touch pad lying in bed of hotel room

Too much activity can trigger meltdowns for some kids with autism. If yours is one of them, be sure to plan for breaks and downtime. For example, if you’re going to Disney World, a few hours in the park followed by a few hours of quiet time in the hotel can prevent children from getting overwhelmed. Remember you don’t have to do everything!

Also be sure to gauge your child’s mood throughout the trip. You know your child better than anyone, so watch for signs that they’re becoming distressed. And if the signs start to show up, it may be time to make a change of plans. That being said, keep the trip flexible to allow for quick escapes like this.

8. Be prepared for the worst

Safety first! If your child is prone to wandering, give them some sort of ID, like a medical bracelet. If this is out of the question due to sensory sensitivities, consider an ID you can attach to their coat zipper or shoelaces. Another option (especially good if they tend to take off their clothes while overwhelmed!) is to write on their arms in permanent marker or give them a temporary tattoo. Information in the ID may include their name, allergies, and your phone number. Also consider mentioning that they have autism, especially if they are nonspeaking.

In case your child gets lost, also take along a recent photo of them so you can show police what they look like. A picture on a phone can work, but it might be even better to have a physical, printed photo so you can give it to them.

9. Take lots of pictures!

Positive young family take a selfie photo near antique olonnad

A vacation is a fun time to create family memories, so capture those moments! They are precious. After the fact, your child will also be able to look through them and smile. Bonus: if you go on another vacation with your child, you can show them the pictures from this trip and remind them how much fun you all had!

Did we miss anything? What are your tips and hacks for traveling with an ASD child?

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A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.