Although special-needs travel tends to be multi-faceted and somewhat individualized in nature, we’ve learned some things over the years that we hope can help others travel smarter and have a better vacation.For those readers, as well as others, here are our top ten tips for traveling with autism.
#1- Call ahead and flag your reservation
Call the airline’s customer service, the cruise line’s special needs department, the hotel concierge or front desk, and of course and tour guides to explain your situation.
Ask for needed accommodations, such as preferred seating (bulkhead or aisle), individualized lodging (quiet and adjoining rooms) and specific dietary requests (i.e. food allergies.) In this way, you’re not only helping the companies serve you better but also informing them of the disability that might become misinterpreted in certain situations—temper tantrums at an airport checkpoint or during a flight that can be misconstrued as threatening or violent behavior.
After touching base with any customer service reps, make a note of their names, and ask for a follow-up e-mail or fax confirming the agreed-upon details. Then, keep in touch at least 2-3 times before the planned travel starts!
*Remember that assigned plane seats and hotel adjoining rooms can change without any notices, so check your reservation online weekly and pay attention to any unwanted alterations.
#2- Don’t plan the itinerary from Hell!
Some of the overly enthusiastic travelers have the belief that they should spend their limited time exploring each destination to the fullest and plan an exhausting itinerary. Autistic travelers can feel sensory overloaded, tired, and out of sorts if made to follow rigorous plans, especially if accustomed to their more sedentary everyday life.
As a rule of thumb: Never plan any sightseeing on actual travel days since the time spent on the airplane, train, ship, or car provides enough excitement.
Try to plan tours or activities that are four hours long or less and include “fun” or downtime intervals for the entire group during midday and evening. Be flexible if and when activities don’t work out as planned. Travel is about experiencing a place as a whole, so sampling the local dinner in a neighborhood restaurant or watching foreign cartoons in the hotel room qualify as ‘exploring’ too.
Remember that if you enjoy a place, you can always go back and revisit. It feels more familiar and welcoming the second time around.
#3- Prepare your travelers and double check your arrangements
To pique the interest of your young traveler with autism, you should try to talk about the vacation and different locations in detail using picture books, articles, postcards, and movies. Doing so will not only help alleviate any fears or anxieties the person may have about the trip, but can create genuine interest in the history, geography, and culture of the intended travel destination.
It is equally helpful to go over the travel arrangements with a family member or friend to make sure there is no detail you have overlooked in the initial planning stage. Frequent mistakes are: booking the incorrect hotel arrival dates when traveling transatlantic or transpacific, as well as not allocating enough time in between flight connections.
Last year, my husband discovered that I had mistakenly booked our Australian hotel a day too late, as I had overlooked the date differences—better known as that pesky International Dateline—between leaving Los Angeles and arriving in Melbourne. By having him go over the travel details, we discovered the mistake and corrected it in plenty of time, avoiding the outcome of arriving tired after a long flight with no place to stay.
#4 Begin packing sooner rather than later
You need time to check that all the supplies, including comfortable clothes and favored bedding, and make sure they are all there since their absence might cause a meltdown for your autistic traveler.
Early packing will provide you with plenty of time to order and purchase any items or supplies you may be missing, and to pack little doodads (e.g. stuffed animals and pictures) your autistic person is attached to.
The best time to start packing is a week in advance (you can use our packing list) and never leave it to the night before; as it will render you irritable and exhausted, which in turn is bound to stress everyone–especially your autistic traveler!
#5 Arrive early and ask for pre-board
Arrive at the airport, port, train, or bus station early and ask to board among the first.
Pre-boarding will give you ample time to familiarize your autistic traveler with their seats and immediate environment. Furthermore, that extra time can be used to wipe the seat clean, hand each family member toys or food, and even use the restroom.
#6 Expect the unexpected, always!
Note: Before booking your planned trip, verify whether your monetary deposits are refundable. If they are not, consider purchasing travel insurance, especially if you can’t bear the financial loss from a possible cancelation.
In today’s world, where airlines and hotels charge you a hefty re-booking fee and a full refund from cruise lines and organized tours can be close to impossible, insurance can be a helpful tool in the event of cancelations well as covering your meals and hotel in case of severe delays.
Our pet peeve is the chance of delayed or lost luggage which, unfortunately, has increased in frequency over the last few years, especially on US domestic flights. Although not preventable in nature, you can ameliorate the situation by having insurance, which can cover some of the loss, as well as by packing your hand luggage adequately.
Every family or group member should carry one hand luggage with at least two days’ worth of personal clothing, electronics, and medicines. All the autistic person’s preferred clothing, medicines, and toys should be packed in the hand luggage.
#7 What to carry with you at all times: M.E.D, mini-kits, and a recent photo
The worst accidents and mishaps tend to occur during vacations! As such, the wisest thing to do is to be prepared.
Create an emergency mini-kit and always have it with you, preferably in your bag or fanny pack.
It should always include:
• First Aid items such as Neosporin, Band-Aids, or Benadryl cream or spray.
• Bug and solar protection—the higher SPF, the better—just make sure it is hypoallergenic.
• Kid’s medications with a collapsible cup to drink water.
• Over the counter Painkillers and Diarrhea pills, with an extra pair of kid’s underwear
• At least one extra pair of glasses per any glasses wearing member ( there’s nothing worse than trying to visit a museum or amusement park half ‘blind’).
• Mini sized supply of Wet Wipes, tissues, toilet paper roll, and Lysol spray to sterilize the toilet seat (for those who can’t stand or squat in public toilets.)
• A recent picture of your autistic child in case your child wanders away or gets lost, as many times the image in the passport is outdated!
My tip: snap a picture of your kid with your camera daily during the trip you can describe every single detail (including the clothing) to authorities if necessary.
•Medicines for the duration of your vacation plus an extra a week supply in your hand luggage (never in checked luggage or in the car’s trunk, as it can spoil).
• Carry an identification card from a national autism organization identifying your traveler as a member. Also, you can carry a small printed handout card explaining the signs of autism to help raise awareness and educate others and explain certain situations that may arise.
• Documentation: You should carry copies of doctor’s, psychologist’s, or psychiatrist’s letters describing your autistic person’s unusual behaviors, conditions, or allergies, as well as copies of letters from police or child services detailing acts of violent meltdowns, so you can show them to the authorities if needed. Some parents have found it useful to put their child’s info on a flash drive or download a medical application like Biomed.
#8 Souvenirs as perks
Souvenirs are a wonderful way not only to encourage good behavior during travel but to get your child interested in history, geography, culture, and art appreciation. Over the years, our son has learned spelling and maps from tee-shirts, geography from coin collecting, and history from the various postcards and stamps.
Encouraging the collection of items can benefit your autistic person in other ways like promoting a sense of ownership and providing conversation starters to help with socialization.
Many travelers don’t realize that souvenirs (loosely translated as remembrances or memories) do not necessarily need to be store-bought or factory-made but any object that comes from those visited locations. In fact, some of the more interesting souvenirs that we’ve come across over the years have been collections of seashells, rocks, hotel keys, transportation tickets, restaurant napkins, and even several department store bags.
#9 Don’t neglect siblings and significant others
Many parents become so focused on the needs of their autistic kids that they sometimes forget the needs of their typical children. From the very early stages of planning be sure to ask for their input: where they would like to go, and what they would want to see, and incorporate that into your travel plans.
In fact, on every vacation day, there should, at least, one individual activity for each kid to enjoy per day.
General rules to abide by:
Don’t assume they like anything, especially if they are teens so never sign them up for any activities unless you get their approval first!
Since family life so strongly revolves around the autistic person, there is almost no space left for that “significant” other! Vacation time is the perfect time to spend some “us” time too.
Whether you choose babysitting services or the goodwill of family members, try to dedicate at least one evening per week vacation for you and your significant to engage in an activity or go to a place you both like, to rekindle your relationship and reconnect with each other.
#10 Give yourself the proper sendoff
Start your vacation a day earlier than everyone else!
After acting as your family vacation planner, personal shopper, and professional packer you deserve your space and time. Spend the day before your intended vacation with much needed “me” time: see a movie, get a facial, walk around the mall eyeing the latest fashions—anything that will relax you and put you in a great mood. Go to sleep at your regular time or earlier; after all, tomorrow your adventure is about to unfold.
What are your special tips to help with autism travel?
We would love to hear from you!