Traveling With an Autistic Child: The Ultimate Guide
“Just wait until their bedtime to leave. That way they will sleep most of the trip!” Raise your hand if you’ve heard that. Now raise it again if you tried and it failed! *Raising both hands!!* Traveling with an autistic child (or two!!) is not an easy task. Of course there are exceptions to every rule, but I have not personally met one parent who says their child on the spectrum loves to sit for hours on a trip. Mine certainly don’t. But I have learned some great lessons through trial and error, meltdowns and tears.
Want to know my secrets?! I thought you would!
Tips for Traveling with an Autistic Child
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Every child is different, but there are some general rules that will make travel much less painful for everyone. Whether you’re driving or flying, it still requires a lot of sitting. We all know that’s not easy for our kiddos. I’m not going to promise a perfect trip, but these travel tips should make your experience much more pleasant.
1) Prepare you child
There are several ways that you can prepare your child for a trip. The main idea is to give them a head’s up, so they know it’s coming, and what to expect. The first thing to do is put a visual aid on your calendar. Draw or print out a picture that will depict your travel plans. Each day, show your child what day it currently is, and count down the days to your departure, explaining what the image means.
You can also prepare a simple social story, using images off the internet, or photos you have from a previous trip. Make a simple story that tells the child details about your upcoming travel plans. Some things to include in your story are:
- your method of travel
- how long you will be gone
- places and/or people that you will visit
- how the child may feel during the ride (Be honest, Mom! But don’t be terrifying!)
- what they should do if they are feeling uncomfortable in their seat
- how you will get back home
- what will happen once you return home
Children on the spectrum tend to adapt much better when they know what to expect, and have some sense of control. Preparing your child in advance will accomplish these two things, and get your vacation started on the right foot.
2) Try to operate on your child’s schedule
Some trips are unplanned, and some flights are much more expensive than others, so this is not applicable in all situations. But if you are planning a trip that has some flexibility, try to leave when your child is typically at their best. You don’t want to follow the popular protocol of leaving when they are worn out and ready for bed. Autistic kids struggle enough with sleep, so unless your child happens to be the fairy tale kind that actually sleeps in the car, please don’t wait until bedtime to leave the house…you will regret it.
Hitting the road or boarding the plane when your child is cranky is just asking for trouble. If you leave when they are generally calmer and more content, it is usually less traumatic. No, they may not sleep a wink during the travel time, but they will likely be more interested in activities along the way, and less easily irritated.
3) Plan stops into your drive time
If you are traveling more than an hour by car, be sure to plan stops along the way. My boys can’t handle more than an hour in their car seats…and that is at their very best. I typically plan a 15 minute stop every 45-60 minutes. Yes, it’s a lot of stops, but it helps us all to stay sane! Even if you only pull into a gas station and let them walk around for 5 minutes, it will help to have a quick break. Offering an incentive when they get back in the car will help transition back to travel mode.
Hint: These breaks are a great time to use your first-then board! You can do something like “First walk, then ride” when getting out of the car, and “First seat, then treat/reward/fun activity” when it’s time to get back in the car.
4) Leave hungry
Unless it’s going to cause your child to enter monster mode, let them get a bit hungry before you leave. That way, some of your travel time can be used up by eating. It doesn’t work for everyone, but it definitely works for my boys, who don’t eat many foods in the first place. Chicken nuggets, veggie straws, crackers, yogurt bites, cereal, fruit or vegetable slices, and many other simple foods can be put into snack cups for the road or air. I always use these snack cups to avoid spills. If your kids are better openers than mine, this snack cup is much harder to take apart!
5) Give your child sensory breaks
If you are traveling by air, get up every 30 minutes or so, and walk up and down the aisle of the plane. If the flight attendants are snarky, just walk your child to the lavatory and back to your seats.
Even while your child is in their seat (by road or air), there are some ways to give them sensory breaks.
- stretchy strings
- play dough
- chew toys or chewable jewelry
- listen to ASMR sounds or calming music
- crunchy snacks
- fidget toys
- weighted lap pad
- vibrating stuffed animal
- light-up toys
- water timer
- personal fan
- silly putty/therapy putty
6) Provide activities along the way
This takes a bit of planning and preparation, but it will make a world of difference in everyone’s stress level! When traveling with an autistic child, you want to make extra-sure that you bring along plenty of things to keep them busy. You can purchase some cool travel toys, or set up some simple DIY activities. And of course, I have ideas for each! Here are some of our favorites:
Travel toys & tools for autism:
- Water Wow
- Marble maze
- Poke-a-Dot books
- Quiet book
- Magnet tin activity set
- Design & Drill travel kit
- Squigz (my kids stick these to the windows and go nuts over them!! They could use a flat plastic plate too.)
DIY travel kits for autism:
- DIY travel LEGO kit
- Magnets in lunchbox
- Play dough kits (Add play dough and small objects to a multi-compartment box. Stamp, create, build, etc.)
- DIY felt book (no-sew video tutorial)
- String busy bag
- I spy bag
If nothing is working, just use your iPad! I typically save the screen as a last resort, because it only keeps my boys’ attention for so long. But make sure you bring along a portable DVD player or iPad with your child’s favorite movies or games, to whip out when all else fails.
7) Make it comfortable
Just prior to boarding the plane or getting into the car, use some calming essential oils like lavender, Roman chamomile, frankincense, bergamot, or ylang ylang. This will help relax them a bit. To avoid unnecessary discomfort along the way, try these options:
- Place a piece of memory foam in their seat to add a bit of cushion
- Bring a blanket or fan (or both!) to keep your child’s temperature comfortable
- Offer them a neck pillow (this one is super soft)
- Bring an eye mask along
- Dress comfortably – turn shirts inside out if necessary
- Don’t forget the headphones!
- Use slip-on shoes, so your child can easily pop them off while riding, and put them back on quickly for stops
- Place a tiny pillow behind your child’s lower back, to support their lumbar spine
- Bring chewing gum if you are flying, to help with ear popping
If all else fails, don’t hesitate to use the appropriate dose of children’s Motrin or Tylenol, if your child responds well to it. Traveling long distances can cause minor aches and pains, as we all know. And those minor irritants can quickly become major issues. Keeping them as comfortable as possible will help make the trip smoother.
Enjoy your trip
Traveling with an autistic child is not for the fainthearted. Being prepared, comfortable, and entertained will lessen the chances of meltdowns along the way. So strap in for safety, and use these tips to make the most of your next trip!