This holiday season will find many families traveling near and far. Whether you're traveling for the holidays or for fun, whether by air or car, these trips can be exhausting and anxiety-producing.
There's a lot to consider as it is - weather, traffic, connecting flights, packing, and normal preparations. For some families, the prospect of traveling also means considering how to make the journey less stressful for your child with autism or sensory needs.
Car rides with kids with autism
Sensory supports for a road trip are essential! Be sure to pack a portable sensory tool box of tricks that will provide the necessary sensory inputs to help your child regulate and combat motion sickness and sensory overload.
You may not realize all that your sensory system is processing when you ride in a car, but it is a whole-body experience! The motion of the car activates your vestibular system and that input is affected by the speed of the car and the characteristics of the road (curves, hills, bumps). Even the time of day and the visual presence of oncoming car lights versus daylight distractions outside your car window play a role in how your body processes that vestibular information.
In the contained space of a car, everything is heightened. The smells and noises coming from the car's passengers (perfume, anyone?) that would otherwise be diminished in a larger space are suddenly bombarding your olfactory and auditory systems. If you've read our article on sensory meltdowns, you'll understand how the cumulation of all these sensory stimuli can result in a "traffic jam" in your central nervous system!
Proprioceptive sensory tools like weighted lap buddies and familiar chewy or crunchy snacks will have a calming and reorganizing effect on little ones. Some of our favorite road trip essentials target sensory systems to combat motion sickness and sensory overload.
Keep these in mind:
comfortable sensory-friendly clothes
calming music or sound reduction headphones
chewy, crunchy snacks
water bottle with a thick straw for vigorous oral input
weighted lap buddy/stuffed animal/lap pad
preferred sensory fidgets
For more information, check out this resource from Your Kids OT blog to see how the car travel experience might impact your sensory child and all of the different sensory systems.
Flying with kids with autism
Air travel is stressful for everyone, especially during the peak holiday travel weeks! I can't think of a more anxiety-producing, complex environment to navigate this season than a busy airport.
From managing luggage, to navigating the long lines at check-in, and passing through TSA security checkpoints, there are a lot of transitions and crowds that would challenge any sensory system...and you haven't even gotten on the plane yet! The same sensory issues that we talked about for car rides are present for plane trips, but now your sensory child is surrounded by the noises and smells of 300 other people, at an altitude of 10,000 feet, in an even-more cramped space than their luxurious car seat!
If your child has autism, it will be important for you to plan ahead to make your child’s travel experience (and yours!) a minimally-stressful one. Luckily, there has been a recent surge in public awareness and airport service accommodations that families can take advantage of well in advance of your actual travel dates.
Wings for Autism®/Wings for All® are airport “rehearsals” specially designed for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities. The programs are designed to alleviate the stress that families who have a child with autism or intellectual/developmental disabilities experience when flying. It provides families the opportunity to practice entering the airport, obtaining boarding passes, going through security and boarding a plane. Airport, airline, Transportation Security Administration professionals, and other personnel also have the opportunity to observe, interact, and deliver their services in a structured learning environment (thearc.org). Be sure to check out The Arc's website for more information on Wings for Autism at your local airport.
A quick web search for "Wings for Autism" will provide you with related resources specific to airlines, social stories, and bloggers that have experienced the program first-hand with their child. For example, Jet Blue offers a "special assistance" page on their website that offers accommodations for a range of disabilities. For people with autism, Jet Blue's website states, "If you or a traveling companion has Autism, upon request we can provide, disability seating, pre-boarding and time to get settled before the other customers board the aircraft." (JetBlue.com). Whichever airline and airport you choose, take some time to research what accommodations are available to you.
This survival guide from Understood.org outlines 10 supports that are relevant for all travel plans. Some tips specific to air travel that will help manage your airport experiences are:
Pack a sensory tool kit - just like we talked about for car travel!
Practice your trip - social stories with actual photographs of what to expect at the airport are great to introduce the environment and routine.
Give yourself extra time
Look for quiet corners within the airport's waiting areas
Take advantage of boarding options - board early or late depending on your child's needs
Choose travel clothing that is familiar, preferred, and comfortable!
Pack familiar foods
Best places to go with kids with autism
After all that we've written in this article thus far, it will come as no surprise that the thought of traveling for some families can be so daunting that they don't venture too far from home!
As the prevalence of autism continues to increase, the resort and hospitality communities are educating themselves and offering families additional supports to encourage positive travel experiences for children with autism.
Some businesses are claiming "autism friendly" designations that indicate different levels of autism training for program staff in the hospitality venues. Unfortunately, there is not standardized training to advise these designations so you'll need to do some research on exactly what this means based on the program you're considering.
This definition from Autism Friendly Spaces highlights that the space "accommodates and supports the sensory, communication, and social/emotional needs of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder...The criteria AFS employs to determine if a space is autism friendly is:
The Staff or people otherwise responsible are aware and able to offer effective assistance
The sensory stimuli are at tolerable levels
Adequate supports, visual and other, are available
Individuals with ASD have successfully used the space"
Some cruise lines, destinations, and programs are choosing to acquire a more defined "Certified Autism Center" recognition by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). Along with this certification, the business has access to online training modules, on-site review of their facilities, and a designation that is marketed to families as a higher level of autism awareness and service. Again, the weight and relevance of these credentials should always be considered alongside the specific needs of your child and family.
Where to stay
The kind of vacation your family chooses will range based on your individual preferences and needs (relaxation, adventure, theme-park; remote campsite versus resort hotel; warm temperature versus cold climate; value/budget versus luxury) but within those destination choices you'll want to identify the characteristics that would appeal to your child while also allowing the rest of your family to enjoy themselves too!
Does your child do well in crowded environments or quieter spaces?
Is your child more interested in fast, thrilling rides or the rhythmic experience of the ocean waves?
Does your family need access to hotel amenities like WIFI, swimming pools, laundry, kitchenette, or a specific room layout to mimic familiar routines in a home-away-from-home?
Does your child do well waiting in long lines or need special accommodations to minimize wait-time?
Will your family engage in planned resort activities or be more laid back in each day's activity?
Will you need access to childcare through a resort's children's program?
Depending on how you've answered those questions to yourself, you might have some preliminary vacation ideas in mind.
This article from Applied Behavior Analysis Program Guide outlines some of the common vacation spots and the range of supports that they offer for families of children with and without autism. Again, if having an autism-friendly or certified center for autism is reassuring for you when making your travel plans, you can always cross-reference these resources!
When to go
Most families have to plan their vacations around school breaks or summers off. Typically those mid-year vacations are centered around prime holiday travel times, however. Keep that in mind when you're selecting a vacation location, as hotels will be busier and this may pose a challenge if your child is overwhelmed by crowded environments.
Depending on your child's level of comfort with busy environments, consider vacation locations that are off-peak. Think about visiting ski-resort towns like Vermont or Colorado in the summer, or exploring the museums of a bigger city in the winter. Resorts will be less crowded and less expensive, and any amusement park lines will be shorter if you don't mind forsaking the prime weather forecast for these conveniences.
Planning Ahead of Time
Regardless of where you travel, how you get there, or when you choose to vacation, these trips take a significant amount of advance planning! When you have a child with autism, your family's considerations can be compounded by sensory needs and individualized accommodations like social stories, transition aids, and pre-teaching of new routines and expectations.
If you're overwhelmed by where to start your travel planning, you might be able to find guidance with the help of a travel agent. The same credentialing agency that oversees certified autism centers offers training programs for travel agents to become certified autism travel professionals. "A Certified Autism Travel Professional™ (CATP) is defined as a professional who has demonstrated that they are both knowledgeable and capable of providing support and travel related services to an individual on the autism spectrum as well as their family" (IBCCES). For more about this designation, check out this article here.
Tips and Takeaways
There is a lot to consider when planning your family's next vacation. Sensory-informed planning is the key to reducing travel stress for your child with autism. Be mindful of sensory supports and environments along your journey, and be proactive in meeting your child's need for routine, familiarity, and predictability when traveling to new places. When in doubt, research autism-friendly locations with a little help from trained professionals but always keep your family's unique vacation needs and preferences in mind. Happy travels and let us know where you end up!