I’ve been a mom for 11 years and taken hundreds of trips with my kids. I didn’t say vacation, since anyone who has traveled with children knows the difference between a trip and a vacation. There is nothing relaxing about traveling with children. Traveling with a child who has autism adds an entirely new layer of difficulty. My son is 8 years old and was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. After years of therapies, we don’t notice his quirks very often. Until we travel. Then everyone around us notices. He needs to be the first one to board. He needs to have the window seat. He needs the cabin pressure to stay consistent or his ears hurt. He needs the compassion of the person in the seat in front of him, who will get kicked no matter how hard I work to prevent it from happening.
Success in traveling with a child with autism is possible, but it does require planning. Here are some travel tips so it’s a smooth trip for the entire family:
1. Map it out: About a week before we leave we talk about the trip and mark each day off the calendar as it gets closer. Each day we put something else in his suitcase, and then the night before we leave we pack a bag of his favorite things to take with us.
2. Plan for the worst: Separate from the bag I pack for Will, I pack a bag for myself. In that bag I have a few new cars (his favorite toy), his favorite snack, a reusable water bottle, a change of clothes and lollipops should his ears start bothering him. I also pack wipes and baggies in case he gets a nosebleed. I pack the iPad (the holy grail of travel toys) and a charger that can be used on the airplane.
3. Speak up: In advance of flying, call the airline. Many have policies to help flyers with disabilities and all are willing to accommodate special needs. When I get to the gate, I always tell the gate agent that my son has autism and explain how he likes to board first. Most of the time, he gets his wish and boards before anyone else. If he has to wait, then it’s not usually very long – typically after the first class flyers. Getting settled into our seats first makes the whole flight easier.
4. Pay for what matters: If your child likes a certain seat, pay the extra fee to get it. That’s money well spent. When you travel with kids, you are only as happy as your most unhappy child. The window seat has saved many of our trips.
5. Communicate: I make eye contact with the person who sits in front of my son and explain he has autism and we will do everything we can to keep him content during the flight, but please understand it’s hard for him. Every single time, we’ve been met with nothing but compassion.
6. Offer rewards: I don’t love the idea of bribing children, but this isn’t regular life. Traveling is hard. When Will has gone a half hour or longer without kicking the seat or getting upset, I give him one of the cars from my bag. He knows I carry goodies and that he will get them when he’s “done a great job.” Never underestimate the power of small treats.
Jose Levy, a board certified behavior analyst at D&S Community Services in Texas, offers additional insight on traveling with a loved one with autism. Levy recommends that when you can, take someone with you for support. “You will want, and need, some time for yourself. This person can help you with that. Even a five minute breather can be a physical and emotional boost. Build in time for yourself so you can recharge.”
Levy also recommends being flexible. “Now that you are at the beach, at a relative’s home or at the amusement park; things may have begun to unravel. Now is the time for your backup plan. Are you able to adjust the plan, take an extra break, change the order or the day’s agenda? Do you have distractors, extra snacks or can you find a quieter space to let the meltdown run its course? Give your loved one, and yourself, time to regroup, adjust and move forward. Have an exit strategy. It stinks, but sometimes it is better to throw in the towel. Be willing to do that if the time comes.”
Also, build on successes. Levy says once you are back home and back in your routine take some time to reflect on the trip. What worked? What didn’t? Thinking about this can help you plan your next trip. Repeat things that were successful and think about how to adjust to help things there were not successful become more so for the next trip.
Traveling with a child with autism takes more work than traveling with neurotypical kids. Other children may not get your attention in-flight. But what they get, what you all get, is the chance to build family memories that include everyone when you can travel together and take family vacations.