Crowds, lack of routine, unpredictable sights and sounds—travel certainly has its challenges. It can be especially stressful for kids on the autism spectrum.
It can also be daunting for their parents. Beyond the tall task of planning a family trip, parents of children with autism must anticipate a child’s potential triggers in new surroundings, make advance arrangements for special services, and figure out how to adjust support strategies from home for the rigors of travel.
But they don’t have to do it alone. A growing number of resources—from autism-certified travel agents to a program that coordinates airport “rehearsals”—connect families with services, and expert tips can help with troubleshooting and thinking through travel preparations. A great vacation awaits.
Selecting a destination: Autism-friendly theme parks, cruises, and more
From Disney World to Dollywood, many popular family destinations are tuning in to the needs of guests with autism. The website Autism Travel (autismtravel.com) lists an array of theme parks, water parks, resorts, and more that have been designated as Certified Autism Centers by the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES). To earn the certification, these facilities have completed staff training in autism sensitivity and awareness, set up quiet areas for kids who need a break from sensory overload, and offer sensory guides explaining how each ride or attraction may affect sensory processing issues. The long list includes Beaches Resorts, Sesame Place, the Mall of America, and the Georgia Aquarium. AutismTravel.com also includes a roster of travel agents who specialize in autism-related needs.
Even if a family’s dream destination doesn’t have a certification, it’s worth asking if they provide assistance for guests with autism. Many parks have passes for guests who are unable to wait in long lines, allowing them to return to a ride at a specific time instead. Families should call in advance and ask for special-guest relations.
There are also excellent options beyond dry land. Autism on the Seas (autismontheseas.com) partners with Royal Caribbean, Celebrity, Norwegian, Disney, and Carnival Cruise Lines to offer extra support for kids with autism on select cruises throughout the year. Their free services for families include respite care, modified children’s programs, reserved seating, and private sessions at some of the ships’ most popular venues.
Appropriate lodgings: Comfortable stays for kids with sensory sensitivities
Many children on the spectrum are sensitive to stimuli like loud sounds, bright lights, and the taste and texture of certain foods.
Families booking a hotel should ask for a room at the end of a corridor, away from elevators, swimming pools, and other noisy areas. In Austin, the Wyndham Garden Hotel features nine “thoughtful” rooms, designed for families with children on the autism spectrum; in St. Petersburg, TradeWinds Resort is designated as special needs-friendly.
A vacation rental is another good option as it allows families to prepare their own meals, which can be important for kids with food aversions or special diets. In addition, there are now some vacation homes purposefully adapted to kids with special needs. In Orlando, VillaKey’s sensory-friendly vacation homes have earned certification from the IBCCES and are centrally located near the area’s top attractions and theme parks.
No matter the lodging, if a child has sensory sensitivities, families may consider bringing bedding from home along with comfort items like noise-cancelling headphones or a sound machine.
Explaining travel plans: Teaching stories and other strategies
New environments can be particularly stressful for kids with autism, but knowing what to expect helps. Experts recommend that families talk early and often with their children about travel plans and look through photos and videos of the destination. Teaching stories—customized picture books or visual aids—can show kids what to expect from new social situations, like flying or taking public transportation. Autism Speaks offers a downloadable “Taking an Airplane” teaching story (www.autismspeaks.org/traveling-autism).
Other pro tips for families: Make a calendar to count down the days until the trip, and start packing early to give kids a concrete idea of their destination—a bathing suit for the beach; hiking boots for a national park. Children on the spectrum often feel better when they have a sense of control, and travel preparation is an opportunity for just that. For instance, parents might get their child involved in picking out some favorite items to pack and be responsible for, like toys, books, and snacks for the plane.
Practice runs: Scouting trips and airport “rehearsals”
There’s nothing like a field trip to the airport—or train station or park entrance—to help a child get familiar with new sights, sounds, and smells. This can include taking the shuttle from the parking lot; exploring areas that are accessible without a ticket; watching how the lines work; using the restroom; and pointing out security personnel.
Wings for Autism (www.thearc.org/wingsforautism) coordinates airport “rehearsals” for children to practice going through security, waiting in line, and boarding a flight before the actual day of travel. Even if an airport isn’t on their list, it never hurts to call the customer service department and ask: Smaller airports have been known to set up practice runs for families with special needs.
Special services: Who to contact to arrange support
TSA Cares (www.tsa.gov/travel/passenger-support), a service of the Transportation Security Administration, assists travelers with disabilities and medical conditions during the security process; for example, passengers with autism may be screened without being separated from their traveling companions. TSA recommends that families contact the helpline (tel. 855/787-2227; email TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov) at least 72 hours ahead of their flight for information about what to expect.
Families can also reach out in advance to guest services at the airport, train station, or anywhere else they’ll be visiting, and ask if they provide special services for guests with autism. Accommodations like early boarding and special meal options are often available.
To prepare for all of the above, parents should share travel plans with their child’s doctor. In addition to obtaining any necessary medical notes, this is an opportunity to discuss safety measures such as wearable ID tags and, if their child has a tendency to wander away, the family emergency plan.
After arriving: Tips for the itinerary
Travel tends to be light on routine and heavy on surprises, which can be distressing for kids with autism. After arriving at their destination, parents may want to set aside time with their child each day to map out what’s going to happen next. Visual schedules that include photos, drawings, and written words can be handy: First, breakfast, then a bus ride, then a park, then a break.
And of course, the same strategies that work at home can be modified for success on the road. For example, if afternoons at home usually include a couple hours of quiet time, a family’s travel itinerary might include a similar break.
Finally, tailoring plans to a child’s special interests—from fire stations to science museums—keeps them engaged and motivated to try new things. With every travel milestone, the challenges will pale in comparison to the fun.