Traveling with an autistic child poses challenges that might have you avoiding it altogether, but here are five adjustments for a stress-free trip.
Tips for traveling with a child with autism
Having an autistic child doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy family vacations or road trips at all. It just means your child has specific needs relating to travel that need accommodating.
1. Carefully consider your destination.
List out your autistic child’s current needs. What is their day-to-day routine like? Do they rely on electronics to self-regulate, communicate, and stick to their routine?
If your child’s routine is regulated via an Echo Dot, your destination will need WiFi, which requires electricity. Camping is a valid option if your autistic kid can go without their typical routine, but long-term traveling should maintain their routine as much as possible.
Noise sensitivity might mean big cities are off limits, while a fear of water might mean no beach.
If they have a lot of medical equipment, that definitely calls for electricity. Other considerations include the nearest hospital, approximate response times or distance to your lodging from the fire department, and cell reception.
Look into activities at each destination to determine what your autistic child might be into, or you and your spouse. Worst case scenario, you take turns engaging in activities you’re interested in, individually. If this doesn’t work for you, hiring a nanny or bringing along a relative to help out might work best.
Search for autistic-friendly activities.
Ask autistic adults, other parents of autistic children, or Facebook mommy groups for autistic-friendly places to go. Some cities are goldmines for activities.
Dallas, TX, where I’m from, has a science museum + splash park (Perot Museum), aquarium and zoo (Dallas World Aquarium Zoo), LEGOLAND, and several similar attractions throughout the metroplex.
2. Give plenty of notice and time to prepare.
Surprises often create a lot of anxiety in autistic people. They are generally not fun.
Prepare your autistic child for minor changes to their routine from the moment you decide to travel. Spur-the-moment travel plans will not give you the opportunity to do this. Either way, the goal is to prevent as much stress and anxiety in your autistic child as possible since these two factors will create meltdowns.
Aim not to spring anything on your child, unless they have repeatedly displayed that they enjoy surprises. Business and medical travel plans are less predictable and more spontaneous, so they can’t be helped, but do try to keep them to a minimum if you can help it. If they enjoy video games and you can find a way to gamify spontaneous traveling, do it if it works for your family.
3. Pack their essentials.
Essentials go beyond your neurotypical basics of a toothbrush and enough underwear. An autistic person’s essentials includes stim toys, comfort items, first-aid supplies, vitamins, and any medications they may be taking.
If you want to go one step further, pack the smaller items into a carry-on bag or small backpack that can stay with them. That way, you’ll have a “survival kit” for your child on standby, wherever you are. This is also a great tactic to have around the home and when you go out.
Make sure to pack your child’s favorite blanket and/or a pillow as well. As silly as it might sound, pillows and blankets have particular sensory inputs as well, and the smell of home will be equally comforting.
4. Consider the timing and be flexible.
If your autistic child is a morning person, plan your activities in the morning, and vice versa if they’re an evening person.
Actual travelling, whether by vehicle or plane, is less predictable and controllable, so work with this however you can. If your child is more willing to do what you want them to do when they’re too tired to do anything, maybe traveling at night is better.
That said, anything can happen to postpone an autistic child’s routine, even at home, so preparing for this event is crucial. It falls in line with managing your expectations and being flexible.
Even if you plan fun activities, your child might not be up for them. You could submit yourself to a meltdown, or relent and rest at the hotel. Be prepared to have to cancel an activity, especially if it’s back-to-back, because your child might be more sensitive to their new, temporary environment. This isn’t about giving in to a tantrum; it’s about adapting.
Autistic people often do not adapt to new environments easily and need extra time to recoup after overstimulation. Familiarity helps, but it can also further trigger. Sometimes, they just need to disappear to a room by themselves for a bit.
5. Unsubscribe from the way travelling “should” be.
The neurotypical notion that travelling should be a certain way is disappointing everyone, even the neurotypicals. It’s not about the “shoulds”. Traveling is about enjoyment, seeing the world, going outside your comfort zone and exploring diversity outside your home environment.
When you let go of how traveling should be, you learn the possibility of virtual traveling. An agoraphobic traveler used Google Streetview to visit remote destinations — all from the comfort of her home.
You also start to unlearn how it’s not true that you “have” to go in the ocean when you go to the beach, or that you “have” to visit a theme park just because there’s one in the city you’re visiting. Traveling doesn’t have to be a particular way in order to be perfect. It just has to work for you.
If your family enjoys traveling, even if it doesn’t look like normal family traveling, your family’s travels are valid. They still matter – even if you photoshop your family portrait into snowy mountains (as I have done this for mine).
Do you travel (or avoid it) with your autistic child? Tell us about your experiences in the comments below.