Living / 18 April, 2024 / My Baba

Autism-Friendly Family Travel: Tips For A Stress-Free Journey

Family trips can be fun and exciting, but they can also be disruptive to your child’s routine. For those children on the autism spectrum, the disruption of a long journey and new environment can be overwhelming. As a parent, you’re bound to face numerous challenges throughout the journey, including sensory overload, communication difficulties, and unexpected changes in plans.

However, with careful planning and consideration, you can create a smooth and enjoyable experience for the whole family. To get you started, here is a list of travel tips based on concepts from applied behaviour analysis (ABA), aimed at making your upcoming journey as stress-free as possible. We hope this guide will give you the confidence to get out of the house and experience a wonderful family trip for everyone.

Plan ahead

A little planning can go a long way, and this is especially true when you’re travelling with a child on the autism spectrum. Start by putting together a daily schedule for your trip. This schedule should include important details such as transportation arrangements, mealtimes, rest breaks, and planned activities. Having a clear itinerary can help your child anticipate what will happen next, which can reduce anxiety and provide a sense of structure and predictability throughout the journey.

Next, begin packing a few days in advance to avoid any last-minute rush or stress. Make a checklist of essential items such as medication, comfort items, and any special dietary needs. Also plan to bring along any sensory tools that your child might need, including noise-cancelling headphones, weighted blankets or vests, fidget toys, sunglasses or hats, and visual schedules or cards to aid in managing sensory sensitivities and enhancing comfort during travel. Additionally, involve your child in the packing process if possible, as this can help them feel more prepared and engaged in the upcoming adventure.

Prepare your child mentally

Even with a highly structured schedule for each day of your family trip, your child will likely still need mental preparation for what’s ahead. In the weeks leading up to departure day, continually go over all the things they will encounter. Show them photos of the places and people you’ll visit, tell stories about what each day will be like, and count down the days on a calendar together. This preparation will give your child time to familiarize themselves with the trip and minimize surprises.

If you have time, you can put together a travel itinerary book that includes photos of your destination and your daily schedule. Let them hold onto this book and add to it as you make your way through your itinerary. It will give them a sense of reassurance and control when things start to get a bit stressful.

Keep them safe and calm

Autistic children can be prone to unpredictable behaviour, such as running away. So, it’s crucial to implement safety measures so you can quickly find them if they become separated. Equip them with an ID tag bearing your name and phone number, securely attached to their clothing or belongings. If the child has a cell phone, ensure the GPS is activated. Dress them in clothing with bright colours or distinctive patterns to make them easily recognisable. Inform airport and hotel staff beforehand about your child’s special needs to ensure assistance in the event of separation.

In addition to ensuring their safety, you also want to keep your child calm when things start to get a bit stressful. Try offering them incentives as a reward for completing each leg of the journey. For example, “Once we get on the plane you can play with your coloring book.” “When we get to Grandpa’s house, you can have your favourite mac n’ cheese.” This can be a great way to encourage positive behaviour and provide your child with something to look forward to.

Stick to the routine

Routines play a crucial role in providing stability and comfort for children on the autism spectrum. When travelling, mimicking the structure of their daily routine – such as adhering to usual meal times, sleep schedules, and allotted screen time – can significantly help in making your child feel more secure and less anxious. What’s more, integrating familiar routines into new or different activities during the trip can help in managing their emotions and behaviour more effectively. This approach assists in keeping your child calm and content, and it makes the travel experience smoother and more enjoyable for the entire family.

If adjustments are necessary, try to introduce the changes gradually and communicate them to your child in advance. Consistency and structure can go a long way in easing any anxiety or stress your child may experience while on the road. If your child starts to become agitated at a change in routine, it’s essential to stay calm, as your demeanour can greatly influence your child’s response to the situation. Remember to validate their feelings and offer support as they navigate the adjustment.

Take breaks

Throughout your journey, ensure your child takes regular breaks for physical and cognitive rejuvenation. This can take the form of high or low sensory activity depending on their needs and preferences. For example, before long trips, allow them to play in open spaces like playgrounds to release any pent-up energy. Make regular rest stops where they can stretch their legs and receive new sensory input. If you need to lower the stimulation level, find quiet areas of the airport or provide them with headphones that play calming music.

Also, don’t forget to take breaks for yourself as well. Know the signs of when you’re starting to feel overwhelmed and in need of self-care. Whether it’s finding a quiet corner to decompress, grabbing a snack, practising deep breathing exercises, or taking a short walk, listen to your body and mind. Remember, by taking care of yourself, you’ll be better equipped to support your child and make the journey as smooth as possible for both of you.

Final thoughts

Embarking on a family trip with a child on the autism spectrum can present many challenges, but with careful planning and consideration, it can also be an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved. Plan ahead and approach everything with a positive attitude. Most of all though, enjoy your family time together.

Article by Brianna Hillison, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at Circle Care Services

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