For many families with loved ones on the autism spectrum, the idea of a long journey can be tricky. For some, the concepts of "autism" and "vacation" may seem like they just don’t mix. The thought of taking a child with autism out of his regular routine, disrupting his schedule, and embarking on a journey far from home can be daunting.
However, I’ve found that with careful planning, preparation, and organization, a family journey can be possible, as well as fun and memorable for everyone.
With help from the great resources at SATH.org, homepage for the Society for Accessible Travel & Hospitality, I’ve compiled suggestions to make your upcoming venture as streamlined as can be.
Prepare your child with a rehearsal.
If you are flying, contact the airport staff and inquire about visiting in advance of your trip. Let your child experience the hectic, unknown atmosphere of the airport and even enjoy watching the planes take off and land. At home, you can roleplay by waiting in lines, removing shoes for security, and sitting where instructed. Pick out a special travel toy. Sometimes it’s helpful to allow the child to pick out a specific toy to carry on a trip. If he does this ahead of time, he can carry the toy at (and near) home to prepare for the journey. This can also help the child feel like he’s taking "a piece of home" with him.
Create a visual story.
Providing visuals can help your child prepare and understand the details and routine of the trip. Create drawings of some of the things you’ll see at the airport, and look up items online. You can print these out and paste them into a travel journal, which your child can reference before and during the trip. For example, create a visual story in the journal about what it will be like to go through airport security. Provide pictures of a line of people, the conveyor belt, a security officer, etc. Explain the steps this part of the journey will entail while reviewing the pictures. Make a special needs checklist. To make the trip easier, pack allergy-friendly snacks, any medication that might be needed, headphones to block unwanted noise, and other favorite items that can help keep your child engaged. These items could be books, handheld game systems, tablets, etc. Ensure the essentials are easily accessible.
Check with TSA Cares prior to arrival.
It is recommended to call TSA Cares about 72 hours prior to flying with individuals with disabilities. The help line staff can answer questions about what to expect and coordinate with security checkpoint support as needed. Learn more at www.tsa.gov. Display the diagnosis. At all times, have your child wear a bracelet, sticker, or other form of ID that includes his name, diagnosis, and phone number, as well as your name. Airports can be very busy, and this ID will serve as an important tool if your child wanders.
Don’t forget about the destination!
Prepare your child not just for the trip, but also for the destination. Show him photos of or read stories about the location. Explain that you will be sleeping in a new place and that some routines will temporarily change.
If you and your family embark on a long journey, I wish you all the best for a safe, joyful, and memorable experience! Want to learn more? Autism Speaks at www.autismspeaks.org has additional resources for traveling with a loved one with autism.