Autism Vacation Care: Travel Tips
for Supporting Children with Autism
Vacations are an exciting time for families, but this excitement can also bring challenges for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Travel can alter the processes that help your child feel safe and comfortable, such as their daily routine, a familiar environment, and having controlled stimuli. However, with proper preparation and packing, you can reduce any stress placed on your child with autism, ensuring that the whole family enjoys their vacation.
Let Them Know What to Expect: Social Stories
A great tool for helping your child with autism prepare for your family journey is to create a social story to read with them. Social stories are just that — stories to aid your child in understanding what to expect from a certain situation — and in this case, it’s traveling. You or your child’s caregiver should begin by laying out key points to get across to your child about anything they may experience while traveling and how to behave in parts of the trip.
Then, write those ideas in first or third-person story form, such as “I get in the car and mom turns the car on,” and put them in chronological order. Adding printed or drawn pictures can boost your child’s engagement during story time. Practicing reading the story to your child and asking them what they’ve learned can help them be fully ready (and even excited!) to travel.
Personalize a Travel Bag
Having a bag with at-the-ready items for your child is one of the first things parents should do to get ready to travel with their family. This is especially true for kids with autism and airplane travel! Stocking your airplane carry-on and your go-bag for the car with comfort items, familiar foods, ear plugs or headphones, and favorite activities can help your child not feel overstimulated while traveling.
Create Comfort in Unfamiliar Environments
Packing comfort items, like a favorite toy or blanket, puts familiarity in your child’s hands, which is important for establishing a sense of normalcy in an environment that can feel uncertain or scary. Giving them a cozy piece of home to hold and smell while in the car or on a plane can minimize anxiety and help establish a safe space for them.
Another way to soothe your child with autism’s nerves when traveling is to provide the kind of stimuli they like and minimize the kind they don’t. Having handheld activities for tactile stimulation and noise canceling headphones or earplugs to reduce stressful auditory stimuli can make your child more comfortable. Engaging in things like coloring or electronic games while blocking out unwanted noise allows your child to pass the time and tune out their overwhelming surroundings.
Prepare Snacks and Meals in Advance
When it comes to food, children can be very picky eaters — and this is no different for kids with ASD! That’s why it’s important to have familiar snacks and meals prepped for the ride or flight based on their individual needs and eating schedule.
Supplying chewy snacks and treats like gummies for kids who need oral sensory stimulation gives them a simple (and delicious!) way to cope with the process of travel. These goodies can also prevent ear-popping on a plane when changing altitude, which can produce a sensation they may dislike.
While it can be difficult to pack meals while traveling, preparing something like a non-refrigerated sack lunch that includes some of your child’s favorites is a great choice. Once you reach your destination, you can find places to eat that offer food your child enjoys. Browsing restaurant menus online ahead of time can make finding places to eat easier for your family.
Tools for Success: Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA)
No matter how much pre-vacation planning you do for your child with autism, one of the best things to aid them through the travel process is using the tools learned in individual ABA therapy. This treatment is designed to help your child with autism adapt to new situations and engage in ways that alleviate their feelings of uncertainty and discomfort.
If your child is already involved in an individual ABA therapy program, ask their therapist to review key aspects and tools for thriving during travel. Your child and their ABA therapist have an established connection to communicate these important tips. If your child is not involved in individual ABA therapy, explore your ABA options before embarking on a family vacation as part of the trip-planning process to help your child deal with complex stimuli.
Help Awaits to Get You Ready to Go
Through individual ABA therapy techniques, meal prep, and comfort items that remind your child of home, packing and preparation can make all the difference when it comes to a successful vacation. The Cardinal Center for Behavioral Analysis provides resources that can help you stay ready. Don’t delay the fun any longer!
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