Preparing for travel away from home, whether vacation or obligation, can be stressful for caregivers and families. Use this guide to help make the journey smoother and more enjoyable.
Going on a family vacation can be great fun but also a bit stressful. Stress may increase when the preparations include accommodations for an autistic child or adult. We offer these tips, along with some recommended websites and apps that can help you prepare your family for a smooth trip.
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Planning the trip
When thinking about a family vacation, involve your loved one with autism in the selection and planning process when possible. Ideally, the destination and activities would engage the interests of the entire family. Older autistic loved ones may enjoy “researching” the destination to find out available activities, cost of activities and other information that may be of interest to them. Many travel agencies and travel websites specialize in tailoring vacations for families with special needs, such as:
- An older loved one can assist in his/her own packing by laying outfits out for each day based on what the family may be doing. Packing outfits by day can be helpful with organization and assuring that there are an adequate amount of clothing items. A similar strategy can be used with packing toiletries. Have your loved one lay out everything he/she needs from the start of the day to the end of the day.
- When preparing for travel, think about your loved one’s sensitivities. Does he/she have trouble with loud noises? If so, remember noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs and have your loved one try them out at home. Pack sunglasses if brightness might be an issue.
- Bring gum or snacks to avoid ear popping on airplane takeoff and landing or to soothe rumbling tummies in the car.
Medical and Safety Concerns
- It can be useful to check with your loved one’s health care professionals for medical recommendations while travelling. A one-page medical history and physician’s letter stating your loved one’s disability may be needed in an emergency and to verify certain accommodations.
- Make sure you have all medications and the phone number for your pharmacy with you. Most national chains can transfer a medication prescription to another store, but if you are not sure, ask your loved one’s doctor for copies of prescriptions in case you need to refill.
- It may be useful to get an ID tag for your loved one like a card, bracelet, temporary tattoo or shoelace tag. There are many options available online.
- Consider having your loved one wear a custom shirt or bright colored shirts, especially if you are going to be somewhere crowded, like a Disney park or major city.
Getting Ready to Go
- Contact the hotel where you will be staying directly to request specific accommodations. If you are staying with a friend or family member, have a conversation with them about what will make your stay more pleasant. Take into consideration special food or drinks, sleeping arrangements and potential allergies.
- Use social stories to talk with your loved one about different travel situations that might arise. To learn more about social stories, read Carol Gray’s article titled “What Are Social Stories™?”.
- Be prepared with things to do. Pack favorite old toys with a few new toys to engage your loved one on the trip. The combination of both will go a long way to keep your loved one busy and pass the time. Bring all chargers for electronic devices, headphones, or extra batteries. Download some fun new apps to surprise him when you start your trip. Check out the list of fun travel game apps at the end of this tool kit.
- Make a checklist or visual schedule about the entire travel day for your loved one. Let him keep track of time, stops and things to do before reaching your final destination. Don’t forget to build in bathroom and meal breaks. A timer on a watch or cell phone may help your loved one gauge how much time is left before the next step or before arriving.
- Prepare your loved one in advance of airplane travel to help reduce anxiety and make the journey more pleasant. There are several books you can read with your loved one to help him to understand what it will look and feel like to travel in a plane.
- Having toys, electronic devices, and snacks readily available may be helpful during inevitable wait times in lines, boarding, etc.
- Call the airline several days before your day of travel and ask about bringing your loved one to the airport to walk around and go through security to a gate. Many airlines will accommodate you, and this will give you a dry run before your actual travel day. This will also give your loved one an opportunity to explore the airport so it becomes familiar. There are several airports and airlines that sponsor programs. To learn about one of these programs called Wings for Autism, visit https://thearc.org/our-initiatives/travel/.
Maneuvering through Security Checkpoints
- Print and carry a TSA Disability Notification Card with you and present to a TSA officer in case you need additional assistance at security.
- If you feel you need additional guidance from the TSA, they have a special program called "TSA Cares". Their hotline for serving people with disabilities is 855-787-2227 or visit their website for more information.
- Read this article on handling security checkpoints: Airport Security Tips for Families with Autism
- For an older, autistic loved one who may be able to travel alone, consider having them carry an “informational” card that they could show to a TSA employee or other airport employee if they were having trouble or feeling anxious along with their state-issued ID.
- The card could read something like I am a young man/woman with autism spectrum disorder. As you speak to me, please speak slowly and calmly so I can understand you. I am not being rude to you if I do not look directly at your eyes/face, I am still listening to you. It may be helpful to show me in addition to just telling me. If you have any questions or other concerns, please call (provide names, relationship, phone contact).
- Include additional information that may be helpful would relate to any actions that may appear ‘odd’ to someone else.
- For more information: https://www.aane.org/resources/wallet-card/
Ohio airport information:
Using Social Stories
Another way to prepare for airplane travel is to create a social story and then role play how to behave on a plane. Set up chairs simulating the aisles of an airplane and ask questions that a flight attendant might ask. Have your loved one practice appropriate responses. Potential travel social story scenarios might include:
- Boarding and exiting an airplane, train or bus
- Using the bathroom on the plane, train or bus
- Flight/traffic delays
- Airplane turbulence
- Flying etiquette (including takeoff and landing)
- Train, car and bus etiquette
- Going through security at an airport
- Taking a road trip gives you more flexibility in scheduling. When determining your timeline, start with your preferred arrival date and time and count backwards. Add in plenty of time for meal breaks, stretching your legs or using the bathroom.
- Finding side trips like a fun landmark, a swimming pool, or a restaurant that serves your loved one’s favorite food along the way might keep your family entertained and could make the trip less taxing.
- The most important tip to remember on a road trip is staying flexible. You won’t be able to predict every need along the way or what his mood will be!
- By padding extra time into your travel schedule you can avoid arriving late to your destination. If you need to stay in a hotel along the way, make reservations at more than one along your route, so if you don’t get as far as you anticipate you won’t have to worry about finding an available hotel room.
- Before your trip, buy some small new toys or travel games that you can give throughout the trip. And don’t forget to save some trinkets for the return trip home!
Apps for Entertainment
Here are some apps that might help pass the time, some specifically meant for travel:
Ages 5 and under
Draw and Tell HD is a fun drawing app that offers color pages.
PBS Kids Mobile offers favorite shows and character-driven games from PBS.
Road Trip Bingo
Tales2Go is a subscription mobile audiobook program that is free for the first 30 days. Offers books for kids
Bumpy Ride – Help steer a married couple on a leisurely drive.
Mad Libs – The world’s greatest word game!
hoopla – an app that connects you to audiobooks using any library card
Minecraft PE – a pocket version of Minecraft, the popular fantasy building game.
Khan Academy Kids – educational programming for kids ages 2-8
Toontastic 3D -- a storytelling app that lets you create stories with animated characters
ScratchJr -- program your own stories and games while learning coding
Kids Maps is a U.S Map puzzle game that teaches kids geography.
Kid Weather – A true weather app for kids designed by a 6 year old boy (and his meteorologist dad).
Extreme Road Trip 2 – a fun driving game
Word Brain – An addictive word search game with lots of levels
What’s The Plate? – guess the phrase on each license plate in this word puzzle road trip
Draw Rider is a game that challenges you to help a bicyclist avoid obstacles.