3 Tips for Stress-Free Traveling with ASD

Preparation makes travel enriching for children with autism.

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There is plenty of potential stress for families traveling with children on the spectrum. However, ASD specialists and therapists agree that with adequate preparation, families can build wonderful and memorable travel experiences together.

Preparing children with ASD for travel

Children with ASD are highly sensitive to environmental changes and new situations. Familiarizing them with the travel process can help reduce anxiety and create a sense of safety.

Laurena Chen, an occupational therapist at Sprout in Motion, recommends using visual schedules and social stories to decrease anxiety related to the unknown. 

“Screenshot actual photos or videos of where you’ll go in your travel itinerary, including the airport and security checks. Put them all in a Word document and have it on your phone to go through it with your child, just like a bedtime story, and continue reading this story with them until you fly — or even in the car as you’re going to the airport.”

Wincy Leung, an occupational therapist and team lead of the occupational therapy department at Watchdog Early Educational Centre also emphasizes the importance of preloading.

Wincy suggests incorporating travel-related books, videos, and visual cues in the preloading process as children tend to prefer visual input. Creating social stories and using sequencing cards can further enhance a role-playing process.

Other visual cues that Wincy suggests include highlighting or circling travel dates on a calendar at home, as well as putting up images of your hotel and the tourist destinations you plan to visit.

Role-playing can also be useful in helping expose your child to airport procedures.

Crystal Lee, a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA), recommends parents recreate an airport experience before traveling.  “Move suitcases around at home,” says Crystal. “Role-play staying calm during line-up and incrementally increase the duration of waiting.”

Crystal also suggests recreating cabin experiences at home.  “For turbulence simulation, have your child sit on a chair, stand behind and mildly shake it, then reinforce your child positively for staying calm.”

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Creating a travel calendar prior to your trip can help with the preloading process.

Accessing airline assistance for travelers with ASD

Reach out to airport staff at both your departure and arrival locations and contact your airline at least 48-72 hours before your flight to request special accommodations, such as securing a seat for your child in a quieter part of the cabin, away from the lavatories, engines, or galley areas.

Airports can be overwhelming for individuals with ASD, with challenges such as noise, crowds, unfamiliar languages, and the sensory experience of security checks.

Seek available assistance and inquire about the possibility of using a separate fast-track security line. To facilitate this process, carry a copy of your ASD-related disability documentation, which the staff at the check-in counter may require for verification.

Having face masks on hand can be helpful, and Laurena suggests adding essential oils, such as lavender or peppermint— whichever your child tolerates and prefers — to help reduce sensory overload at the airport.

“Test it out at home, don’t do this suddenly on the day of travel,” she advises. 

Ensure your child has secure identification, such as a tag with your contact information, as children with ASD may tend to wander.

Locators like Apple AirTags can help track your child's location but simple methods, such as using a skin-safe marker to write your contact information on your child's arm, also work. The important thing is to have a visible means of identification for your child in case you get separated.

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Scented face masks and AirTags are items you could pack in your child's backpack.

Keeping flights stress-free for travelers with ASD

Noise-cancellation headphones, snacks, familiar clothes, and games can help your child feel more settled once you've boarded.

Dr. Andrew Adler, a licensed psychologist and the Clinical Director of Adler Family Centre, suggests planning activities to reduce anxiety. “Make a visual schedule with a specific duration for each activity, such as watching a movie for the first hour, then napping for the next few hours, then coloring for half an hour.”

It may be beneficial to pack your meals or, at the very least, bring snacks.  Occupational therapist Wincy recommends bringing a water bottle with straws, as sucking and blowing can facilitate regulation. Chewy snacks can also alleviate ear pressure during the flight. “Crunchy snacks are also good to provide oral sensation for regulation,” she shares. 

Ensure you bring extra clothes to keep your child warm. Vests are an excellent option because they provide compression and warmth without causing overheating.

When traveling with children with ASD, it's crucial to focus on the positive aspects and celebrate the joy of exploration. These tips can help make travel experiences more comfortable and enjoyable for your child with ASD.

 

Visit  Resources here to download our curated list of essential travel items. 

 

Takeaways:

  • Consider seeking professional advice for personalized recommendations.
  • Increase familiarity through travel-related social stories and sequencing cards.
  • Practice travel situations through role-play.
  • Pack your child’s favorite toys, books, and games.
  • Bring snacks, noise-canceling headphones or earbuds, and sunglasses for the journey.
  • Pack a sleep bag with familiar bedroom items and daily toiletries.
  • Notify airlines, airports, and hotel guest services for assistance.
  • Consider vacation rentals for accommodations that may offer a more controlled environment.