Autism Travel Tips
Traveling with autism can be difficult and stressful. Many families choose to stay at home rather than experience the exhausting rigors of traveling with an autistic family member. Here, I offer a few useful travel strategies that my parents, staff, and I have developed throughout the years.
- Plan ahead — be organized in preparation for any trip and get the autistic person involved with the planning process to the extent possible. We need time to prepare ourselves for changes and overwhelming experiences. Show the autistic person brochures or web pages of the hotel they will be staying at and the activities and places you plan to enjoy. I prefer hotels with a spa and pool combo. Swimming in warm water is very soothing.
- Create an itinerary for the trip — provide important details and point out travel times and situations that will be challenging to the autistic person ahead of time. Strategize on ways to mitigate potential challenges. One of my major challenges is loud noises. My parents and support staff plan to bring my i-pod with sound canceling head phones, or they warn me of certain sharp noises and I plug my ears. Plan for time at the end of each day for quiet relaxation.
- Accommodations are important — clean, comfortable, quiet accommodations are a must. Try to choose rooms that face away from traffic and bright flashing lights. Explain the challenges of the autistic person to hotel staff before booking any hotel reservations, and ask if there is anything that can be done to minimize the impact of travel. Hotel staff should be able to handle reasonable requests such as eliminating room air fresheners and scents for people who are sensitive to fragrance, or providing dietary options for gluten and dairy restricted diets. Though the hotel staff can help ease travel challenges, it is up to the person traveling with an autistic person to plan the big picture. Have a backup plan in mind in case of unexpected problems. For example, my mom carries gluten free snacks for me in case gluten free food is unavailable.
- Pack a bag full of fun activities — when I travel, my parents or staff help me pack. I always pack one bag that is full of fun activities, toys, books, and things that remind me of home. Whenever I get stressed or overwhelmed, I reach into the bag and find a convenient distraction that gets me through most tough situations. Having my own activities to focus on relaxes me and allows my travel buddies to concentrate on the trip. For example, I can read funny cartoons in the back seat of a rental car while dad drives us to the hotel and mom reads up on the local restaurants. This type of transition might otherwise disturb me to the point where I babble loudly and distract the driver with sudden movements in the backseat. Having access to my bag of fun activities gives me options that make travel more relaxing and feasible for all of us.
- Plan for interaction and involvement — get the autistic person involved in the activities and fun of traveling. Make sure that there are at least a couple of fun activities or destinations for the autistic person to enjoy. An autistic person might resist traveling or become impossible if there is nothing in the trip for them to enjoy. The third wheel then becomes the squeaky wheel, especially if the autistic person has severe communication challenges. Planning for interaction and involvement could be as simple as stopping at a familiar favorite chain restaurant with a jungle gym during a long road trip, making up a simple game for the long car ride, or planning a special day to pursue the interests of the autistic person (that could mean going to the Lego museum rather than the museum of modern art). If there are opportunities for fun involvement, then the chances for disruption (translate as dysfunctional interaction) are reduced.