top of page

Travel Tips: Traveling With Autistic Family Members

Updated: Jun 3, 2023


 
 

Summer is beginning, which means lots of time for family and friends to travel and visit, whether it's down the street, across the country, or around the world!


No matter the time of year, traveling can be challenging for those with Autism, with the changes in location, break from normal routine, sounds and photosensitivity, and more. It can be intimidating for family members to prepare for a trip, especially when unsure of any outside factors that may make or break the vacation. But, even though traveling and planning trips for Autism families can be intimidating and sometimes overwhelming, it is doable with the right tools in place.


 

Step 1: Research and Preparation


Step 2: Planning Your Trip


Step 3: Packing the Essentials


Step 4: Staying Organized


One Last Thought


Additional Resources


 
 

Before leaving for a trip of our own, we always do research and prep work beforehand. This usually consists of deciding on hotels, activities, or restaurants to visit, as well as getting a clear idea as to what the environment might be like. Or maybe we research the way that we'll get there -- by car, by plane, maybe by boat. We decide what kind of clothing we'll pack, what toiletries or other necessary items to bring, and we research the area we'll be visiting in order to get a clear idea of what the environment will be like.


Those with Autism Spectrum Disorder need the same amount of research and prep work as anyone else would. They need to research the location they'll be visiting to get a clear idea of what the environment will be like, as well as what hotels, activities, or restaurants they'll be visiting. They'll need to decide what kind of clothing to pack, and what toiletries or other necessary items might be needed.


The list of needs between disabled and non-disabled people is very similar. We all have needs and wants, and we all search for understanding and comfort in unfamiliar situations. Using that understanding to prepare those around us with ASD for trips may seem like something very small, but in reality, this could make or break a vacation experience for them in the long run.


Different support needs will require different types of preparation. There are many different tools that can be used in the lead-up to leaving, each having its own unique way of assisting those that may need it.

 
 

Social Stories


Preparing with social stories is a great way for those with high support needs to have an idea as to what they will be encountering on the trip. YouTube has many great social stories about flying in an airplane, checking into a hotel, traveling for long distances, and more! Or, if you'd prefer, you can always make your own!


Social stories are stories written with teaching in mind. They tend to be step-by-step guides on a topic that is focused on something that the learner is working on understanding -- riding a bus, flying on a plane, their first day of school, etc. If you cannot find one that fits your needs, tailor one for yourself and your learner!


Some Social Story Examples:


You can also consider using a site like AbleEyes to find video modeling examples, as well as 360-degree virtual tours of specific locations to assist in gaining a better understanding of what your experience will be like.


Travel Blogs and Guides


For those with lower support needs, consider watching travel guide videos on YouTube, or researching blogs or Instagram posts made by people who have traveled to your vacation spot. These can be great to showcase what the location has to offer and can be a wonderful tool in helping decide possible activities or answering questions about what might be in store once you arrive. Involve your learner in the experience! This is also a great opportunity to work on life skills such as money management, planning, and booking necessary items for your trip.


Sites like Autism Travel and A Day In Our Shoes are great examples of Autistic-centered sites that can help with great tips and reviews of the accessibility of certain travel destinations.


Maps, Brochures, Itineraries


Maps, brochures, and other visual aids are a great tool to use for your trip. Allowing those with ASD to follow along the trip visually is not only a good support tool, but can also be very fun and educational as well. Consider purchasing local maps of the area so that you can follow and map out your trip progress, or create an itinerary that can be checked off as each item is completed. This will not only help with expectations of the trip itself, but can also serve as a visual reminder of the trip timeline.


You can keep track of the distance traveled, what time you'll be expected to arrive and leave, as well as what activities you'll be participating in during your stay!


Before your trip, also consider marking a calendar with your departure date in order to count down to your trip to better visualize exactly how much longer you will have until leaving.


 
 

Now that you've looked at where you'll be visiting and have prepared those you'll be traveling with for what they should be expecting, the next step to consider is planning.


You might already have a general plan for your trip, and this step can always be your first rather than your second, but this section will focus more on the finer details of planning: breaking down the details on your itinerary, ways to adjust your routine while on the road, stressors, and how to plan for what might arise.

 
 

Limiting Your Itinerary


Planning as many activities as possible within the span of your vacation can be very tempting. When you travel to a new place, or even somewhere you've been to before, not seeing as many of the sights as possible within the limited time you have may seem like something that would be wasted if it isn't done. However, when traveling with an Autistic person, limiting your itinerary can sometimes be the best possible thing for your vacation in the end.


Overstimulation can come in many forms. There's noise, photosensitivity, crowds... But burnout from the stress of too many activities is also a very real factor to consider as well. Consider making your goals for the trip small; maybe one or two big-ticket items per day, with the flexibility in between to make it to any other possible spots as well. If it feels like the day can be continued, then throw in a few more activities! But if not, remember to be considerate of overstimulation and burnout, and take breaks wherever needed.


Micro-Routines, and the Role They Play


Routines are an important part of any Autistic person's life. A disruption to those routines usually comes with consequences, whether they be big or small. And travel is definitely a big disruption to those routines. Taking someone out of their element and adding in multiple new factors such as new modes of transportation, time zone changes, crowds, and much more can throw anyone off-balance, especially someone with Autism.


Hunter Hansen states in a video about traveling while Autistic that in some situations, compartmentalizing routines down into "micro-routines" can help with the change. Simply having very small things that can be focused on -- preferably parts of a regular routine from home -- that can be performed in any new place that you might be in, just on a smaller scale.


His example was coffee. "Part of my routine and coping is being able to make sure I have coffee," he says in his video. "And it's not just having the coffee. ... I would wake up earlier than my wife and kids and make sure I could have a cup or two, and that way I still felt like I was in my home element, like I was getting ready for the day. And I know it sounds insane that I was waking up at 6 AM on my vacation, but I needed that little extra step just to kind of lock myself into place."


Finding a micro-routine for your vacation may look different for each person and their needs. However, if you find something that works, and you can bring with you into your own space, it can be that little extra step to lock everything in place for the day.


Stressors, and How to Prepare


Stressors happen. No matter the person, no matter the location, and no matter the circumstances, stressors are a natural part of all of our lives.


In some cases, we cannot prepare for them, and may not even know that they're stressors until we're already well-past aggravation. But, there are some that we can recognize and acknowledge, and even make a contingency plan to prepare for.


Before heading out on your vacation, consider making a list of any known stressors that may arise on the trip. These can include things like crowds, noises, restaurants being closed, missing any appointments, etc. Take the time to discuss possible ways to help if any of these situations arise -- can you pack extra snacks in case the restaurant you wanted to visit is closed? If you miss an activity appointment, can you find another time to go? Was it really that important to make it in the first place?


Understanding what stressors may arise and finding a possible solution -- or accepting that not all solutions will work -- is one way to prepare both yourself and the people that you're traveling with for these things to arise.


And when problems do arise (which, of course, they inevitably will), it is important to remember that that is okay.


Prepare to be flexible on your trip. Prepare for things to go wrong, and stressors to arise. This way, you'll be better equipped to handle them when they do!

 
 

So you've prepped and you've planned, and now it's almost time to leave. Next step: packing.


Packing for any trip can be so daunting. Remembering each item that's needed, worrying about forgetting something important, and finding all of the necessary space and the proper luggage to ensure everything fits. It can be a challenge to get a family trip together; especially when you have to remember all of the essentials. How can you make sure that everything is packed properly, and that everyone involved is satisfied with the result?


 
 

Reevaluating the Meaning of Essentials


The terms "essentials" and "necessities" vary greatly from person to person. What may be a vital piece of someone's itinerary may not even be considered for another's. And although you may not consider something to be "essential" or "necessary", that does not mean that someone with Autism might feel the same way.


Sometimes, we find ourselves at a point where accommodation isn't at the forefront of our minds. We get swept up in things, and the wants or wishes of those around us are left to the wayside. However, we should always do our best to make a conscious effort to acknowledge the feelings and opinions of the people in our lives; especially those with Autism. There are always weight, size, and space requirements to consider when traveling, and sometimes not everything can be accommodated at all times. But doing our best to acknowledge the wishes of others and doing our best to make the attempt to accommodate them wherever possible is something that we should always consider.


Why Bring Sensory and Comfort Items?


Sensory needs are important. For those with Autism, this may include self-soothing sensory stims, fidget toys, favorite stuffed animals, or something entirely unique to them. These items are very important to consider when packing for a vacation. Why should they need to go without their sensory items just because it may not be something that we deem necessary ourselves?


In a new and overwhelming environment, comfort items are a must-have. Does it matter if you bring along a stuffed animal to your family dinner if it means that the person bringing it has a great experience? Or would it be better to keep the stuffed animal at home, or at the hotel, even if it means that the person who would like to bring it has a bad night, full of frustration and anxious energy?


Take a moment to consider the things in your life that are important to you, and bring you comfort on a daily basis. If those things were taken from you by someone, how would that make you feel?


Fidget toys, sensory items, and comfort items are all important things to remember to save room for. Make a list of all items that you and the person you are traveling with will be taking on your trip. Consider, as you do, making two columns: one for items that are absolutely necessary to the person writing the list, and one that they would like to take, but would be okay with leaving behind. Use the list that is drawn up to help with packing.


Don't Forget Your Headphones!


Headphones! One of the most used and, arguably, one of the most important items that we own when traveling. They can also be incredibly helpful for people with Autism in both everyday and travel scenarios!


Traveling brings with it loud sounds, such as crowds, airports, amusement parks, and more. Overstimulation can happen if the environment is too loud. However, noise-canceling headphones (or earplugs or in-ear earbuds if there are no sensory issues with them) can be a great way to assist in preventing overstimulation.


Some good resources for choosing noise-canceling headphones and earbuds if you don't already have a pair:

 
 

Getting all of your documents in order before leaving is as important as any other step here. Reviewing your documents with the people you're traveling with, going over safety, and staying as organized as possible is a task in itself.


But there are tools that are at our disposal to help with situations like these.

 
 

Documents and Safety


Passports, plane tickets, itineraries, travel insurance, maps, health information, miscellaneous documents that find their way into the shuffle... it's a lot to keep track of. And, more importantly, it's a lot of personal information in one place.


Using this to talk about travel safety is something that might be a good opportunity. Discussing privacy and safety, the importance of keeping your things close, and ways to tag luggage to ensure that it can be found if lost.


This is also a good opportunity to talk about safety procedures that will be used during your trip. What will the protocol be if someone gets separated from the group? Where are any nearby hospitals in case of an emergency? Is there an important medication that you need to ensure is brought and taken in a timely manner? Where will that be located in luggage, and how will it be administered on the road or on a plane?


Safety is something that is often overlooked on vacations, as it's not typically something that we like to consider. However, when traveling -- especially when traveling with someone with disabilities -- it is always important to consider all factors, including health and safety as well.


TSA Assistance


Did you know that there are assistance tools for making your way through TSA?


This video by Travel Tips By Laurie goes into finer detail about the TSA Screening process for those with Autism, and ways that they can help.


There are a handful of tools that you can use to assist in making the TSA process a bit smoother. For example, you can apply for the TSA Pre-Check, to avoid removing shoes, laptops, 3-1-1 liquids, belts, and light jackets.


You can fill out a form for TSA Cares, which will allow a Passenger Support Specialist to help work through TSA Screening, either a bit more quietly, or slowly, or any other possible assistance they may be able to provide.


And you can also fill out a TSA Disability Card to notify the TSA staff of the traveler's disabilities.


Consider using any of these options when flying, and the process may be a bit smoother than it would be otherwise.


Using an Autism-Experienced Travel Agency


Yes! Travel agencies with experience with Autistic clients do exist.


Autism Travel has a helpful tool to help look up Certified Autism Travel Professionals near you on their website.


There are also different agencies, such as Willy Wonka Travel Agent, Lily and Magnolia Travel, Autism Friendly Vacations, and more!


So if the idea of finding a place to start when planning a vacation is a bit too overwhelming, consider reaching out and booking through a CATP to help you plan!

 
 

Knowing when it's time to bail is another important aspect of traveling. It is okay to cancel plans, it is okay to say that you won't finish the day, or even finish the trip.


Did you spend money on this trip? Yes. Did you you hope that you could make every appointment, and check every box on your itinerary? Of course. But is it okay to bail, okay to stay in your hotel room, okay to call it a day early and just play in the hotel pool all day instead of going to Disneyland after all?


Yes. It is okay.


It may seem impossible to see this at the time. While looking at the receipt in front of you, you may feel inclined to say "We're going to Disneyland, whether you want to go or not". After sitting in the car for five hours, you may say "Get out of the car, we're going to the beach after driving all this way". After flying all the way out to see family, saying "Come out of the room and sit through your cousin's birthday party, no matter how overwhelmed you may be".


It's a first instinct for us to say "They don't need to be rude", "They can deal with it", or "I don't care if they changed their mind, we spent all of the money". But take a moment to reflect on this. Take a moment to ask yourself: will forcing the matter make anything better? Or will it only ruin the experience, or will it lead to a possible meltdown, leading to everyone dealing with the fallout instead of taking preventative steps to avoid it?


It is okay to acknowledge the disappointment in the fact that plans don't always work out. But we should try to remember the fact that, later down the line, you can always try again. And this time, everyone may be more prepared, and circumstances may be different, and everything may work out in the end.


Don't let this deter you from trying at all, though! Everyone needs to take the first step at some point. Everyone needs to have that first experience to prepare them for the next. Sometimes, the first experience is just as magical as we always hope it will be. Sometimes, it's not. But those bumps in the road will help us know what to prepare for in the future, and we can always try again!


 
 

Videos


Videos about traveling with children:


Tips from Autistic adults:


Blogs


  • Tribe on a Quest - A focus on topics relating to travel, parenting, Autism/Sensory Processing Disorder/ADHD, homeschooling, DIY/tutorials, and more. LGBT+ friendly.

  • A Day In Our Shoes - Disability and Sensory Friendly travel, IEP assistance, and more.

  • Autistic Travel Coach - An Autistic Travel Coach, Katie has traveled the world and uses her experience to help coach others.

  • Autism Travel - Provides families and individuals with easy access to destination and attractions that are trained and certified in autism and special needs care.

  • Lily and Magnolia Travel - Travel agents and travel blog, Certified Autism Travel Professional


Purchasable Items


  • Frogglez - Easy access swim goggles, IBCCES Certified Autism Resource

  • Twiddle - Playful activity/comfort aids for people of all ages with a range of sensory-related conditions, IBCCES Certified Autism Resource

  • Happy Hands - Fidget toys

  • Fun and Function - Chewable, weighted, hand and feet, vibrating fidgets

  • Therapy Shoppe - Fidgets, motor skills, sensory, educational tools

  • ARK Therapeutic - Oral motor tools, feeding and drinking aids, speech therapy tools, sensory chews, writing tools, and more

13 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page