With travel season gearing up, many families are preparing to go out of town for vacations or other excursions. Traveling with any small child is not for the faint of heart, but parents of autistic children face additional challenges when it’s time to hit the road. To learn more about the condition, and get tips for traveling with autistic children, I spoke with Cristy Pierce a psychologist and board certified behavior analyst for D&S Community Services.
Pierce understands the unique difficulties that may occur when autistic children are taken out of their home environment. “Routine is hard to maintain while traveling,” Pierce says. “Consistency is hard to manage when you’re not in your own home.” As Pierce further explains, autism is a disorder which starts in childhood and results in deficits in social communication as well as restricted behavior inflexibility. For example, autistic children may need to eat their plate of food in a specific order. Furthermore, the condition may manifest in behaviors such as hand slapping or walking back and forth — things that may be out of place in an airport, for instance. For children who thrive on routine and rigidity, the unfamiliar environments and schedules associated with travel can be particularly troubling. However, there are a few ways parents of children with autism can help make travel easier for everyone.
1. Keep Lists
Organization is key. Pierce recommends keeping a list of all the things you might need for traveling, especially your child's individual needs. This includes nutrition, medications, or toys that help your kid self-soothe.
2. Accept Help
Pierce also recommends accepting as much help as possible, whether it's coming from a spouse or family member. There are even businesses that are willing to make accommodations for individuals with autism, and you can plan activities accordingly. For instance, if you plan to see a show on vacation, look for children's theaters that put on weekday productions that attract smaller crowds.
3. Bring Noise-Canceling Headphones
"Air travel can be stressful because there are the expectations that you will remain seated and keep your seat belt on in a tight, confined area with others who may not understand the situation," Pierce says. She advises parents to avoid sitting in the back of the plane (it tends to be the loudest area), and bring noise-canceling headphones to counteract the noise and chaos of air travel.
4. Keep Engaging Activities On Hand
If your kid has specific activities that help him stay engaged, then Pierce suggests bringing these along when possible. Whether it's a handheld video game or a coloring book, keeping your kid focused and busy on an activity is a good way to promote relaxation and comfort.
5. Opt For Autistic-Friendly Destinations
If it's one of your kid's first vacations, then you may want to start small. As Pierce noted, a large amusement park with noisy crowds and chaos may not be the best choice, but a less stimulating environment, such as a beach resort, could be doable.
6. Respect Your Child's Limits
Going out all day every day on vacation might not be feasible. "For an amusement park, you may only go for two hours, or just for certain rides, and know when to leave and the individual is no longer having fun," Pierce says. "Having an enjoyable time for a short period is better than a long awful time." Recognize and respect your kid's limits.
7. Manage Expectations
Whether you are traveling for a vacation or to fulfill family obligations, maintain reasonable expectations of your autistic child. If you have to go out of town for a funeral, for instance, you kid might not make the entire ceremony, as Pierce explained. Greeting visitors for a few minutes instead might be the best course of action for everyone. Overall, acknowledging and accepting your kid's comfort level will go a long way toward making the trip pleasant for everyone.