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“Are We There Yet?” Traveling with a Child with Autism

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“Are We There Yet?”

Traveling with a Child with Autism

by Pamela Levac

Autism Asperger’s Digest November/December 2007


Family vacations can be stressful under the best of circumstances. Throw a child or two with autism into the mix, and it can seem overwhelming and perhaps easier to just stay home. But more and more families who have children with autism spectrum disorders are traveling to all kinds of destinations near and far. Though vacationing with a spectrum child requires a good amount of planning, it can be a fun and rewarding experience for the whole family.

Preparation is key when traveling with a child with autism. It is essential to begin planning the vacation long before the actual date of departure. There are many things to consider, from getting the child acclimated to the idea and the destination to choosing appropriate lodging or ensuring your child will have familiar food available. When making travel and hotel plans, take into account your child’s particular sensory issues. Book rooms on the quiet side of the hotel, arrive at less-crowded hours, or bring along a kit filled with ear plugs, familiar toys, video games, snacks, comfortable clothes or whatever else might be needed to ease the transition. Talk to your child about the upcoming trip and involve him or her in making plans. Have the family explore the destination beforehand: visit internet sites, get library books, travel brochures, and perhaps even request photos of the hotel room you’ll be staying in. Some parents create story books that describe the vacation from start to finish, including each day’s activities. If you are driving, map out a route for your child to follow, with all the stops (including breaks!) marked along the way. This can ease travel anxieties and make a long trip more palatable to the concrete thinking mind of the spectrum child. Be sure to talk about the vacation frequently to calm worries and rev up excitement, or read your travel story book regularly.

As every parent of a child with ASD knows, routines and predictability are like air and water for a child who doesn’t handle new situations easily. And, travel to unknown destinations can literally starve these kids of the familiarity that is their lifeblood. Go back to your story book and be sure to emphasize things that will remain the same. We’ll still eat meals together; you’ll have your favorite T-shirt; there will be your beloved cereal for breakfast. If vacation involves a repeat destination year after year, for instance to a family condo, the transition turmoil will get better with time. Peggy, mother of Eric who has autism, says “The first few times you go someplace new, it’s hard. He wants to come home so badly. But each year it gets easier.” Danielle, the mother of Pierre and William, both with autism, takes her family on an annual car trip to visit relatives at Christmas time. She offers the following advice: “Keep the events as simple as possible. They like to do the same things every year. Create new traditions.”

Airports, planes and trains can be sources of fascination, distress, or both for children with autism. Peggy says, “Eric finds airports and planes to be interesting, but delays, long lines and schedule changes are difficult.” Some delays are unavoidable, but traveling off-peak, bringing along books on tape, hand-held video games or puzzles can help. Scan the area for a quiet space to retreat to when you notice signs of overload. If you can talk to airport personnel ahead of time or bring a copy of your child’s diagnosis, you may be able to sidestep waiting in long lines. If you must wait, one of you can take the child aside to distract her with stories or a snack

Choosing to travel as a family alone or with other people is also an important consideration. If you do decide to vacation with others, Peggy recommends traveling with people who “get it.” Pair up with friends or relatives who you know can deal with your child’s need for space, regularity, simple routines and familiar food. Also make sure you travel with someone who can handle meltdowns without getting upset or offended. Somewhere, sometime, they will occur.

Danielle strongly believes that spectrum children should not be hidden away. “The world is vast and diverse. Because individuals with autism tend to not want to socialize by nature, I believe it is important to impose the reality of having to accept and deal with the fluctuations of daily life.” Though it may be challenging at times, it is worth getting out there and seeing the world, both for the child with autism and for everyone he meets.

More and more families are enjoying the comfort and familiarity of travel options arranged specifically for people who live with children or adults with ASD. One such venue is a cruise run by Autism on the Seas (http://www.alumnicruises.org/Autism/Autism_Home.htm). Director Michael Sobbell decided to offer these cruises as a simple business venture, but he says the overwhelming positive response from parents has been heartwarming. The cruise ships have an Autism Group Specialist on board, and even cater to a child’s special dietary needs. There are opportunities to dine with other families or children with autism. Activities for the whole family, such as bingo, are adapted so everyone can have fun together. Sibling celebrations offer the brothers and sisters of spectrum children a chance to socialize and maybe share some of their highs and lows. There are social gatherings for teens with autism, and even respite time for parents. It’s a supportive environment where families can build new friendships and feel comfortable.

Sometimes it might be necessary to consider traveling without your spectrum child. Peggy has two adopted daughters fromChinawho do not have autism. She would like to travel with them to their birth country unencumbered by the significant adaptations they would need to make for Eric. Peggy fears the long distance, the very unfamiliar sights, sounds and food ofChinawill be too much for Eric to handle. She doesn’t want her girls to be stuck in a hotel room watching TV on a once in a lifetime trip. So, even though it is a difficult decision to divide the family, she and her husband will travel toChinawith their daughters. As for Eric, he’ll spend time with favorite relatives while they are away, and Peggy plans to take him on a special train trip toVancouverwhen they return fromChina.

Finally, if at all possible, don’t skimp on those fundamental things that will make or break your vacation. It’s worth paying a few extra dollars for a seat in first class or a nicer hotel room with free movies, if this will make your child’s (and therefore your family’s) trip easier and more enjoyable. Anticipating vacations is often half the fun. With spectrum children, a month or two (or three) of anticipation, careful planning and preparation can make all the difference. Bon voyage!

Helpful Resources

>Making Peace with Autism: One family’s story of struggle, discovery and unexpected gifts by Susan Senator. Trumpeter Books, December 2006.

>”How to Plan a Vacation with Your Autistic Loved One” by About.com’s autism guide, Lisa Jo Rudy. http://autism.about.com/od/copingwithautism/ht/vacationstep.htm

>UK Guardian’s website has a helpful travel section: http://travel.guardian.co.uk/article/2005/jan/08/userstraveladvice1



Pamela Levac lives in Canada where she writes, paints and mothers her children. She is fascinated by the workings of the brain and has a keen interest in Autism Spectrum Disorders.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2007. All Rights Reserved.

Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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