Tamar Varnai, MA, BCBA
If you have a child with autism, sensory processing disorders, or emotion regulation deficits, chances are you hit pause any time the idea of traveling comes up. Yes, it would be nice to get away. Yes, you’ve always wanted to visit that exotic location. But the thought of how your child will respond to the general stress of travel can be overwhelming. Travel can be physically and emotionally difficult for adults, so it can be even more challenging for children with autism and sensory processing disorders. Though my son is not on the spectrum, he, like many toddlers, can have difficulty with routine changes, over-stimulating environments, and feeling a loss of control. However, there are things you can do before and during your travel that can make things easier on the whole family.
When planning the first trip away, choose a place that can be accessed with a mode of transportation that is easiest for your child with autism. For example, if you child is great in the car, choose a destination that you can drive to. If your child does not like being in the car, but loves trains, plan a trip that allows you to travel by train. Using your child’s interests to plan the trip will help minimize the stress of travel for your family. As your child gets used to traveling, you can begin to try other modes of travel. Pick destinations with lots of child-friendly activities, like touch museums and zoos, as well as child-friendly restaurants. Many larger American cities have children’s museums where kids can play and explore hands-on exhibits. Many cities around Europe have cafes, restaurants, and malls with their own play areas, playgrounds, or art stations. Think about your child’s interests as well as dislikes when planning. If your child is afraid of people in costumes, a trip to Disney World will likely not be a success. But if your child loves to build with Legos, a trip to LegoLand will probably be a huge hit.
Before traveling, prepare your child for the upcoming event. Talk to your child about the trip and read stories relating to the travel and your destination. You want to go step-by-step with the preparation and discuss everything from how you will get there to what you will do and see there, as well as where you will be staying. Answer questions about whether he will have his own bed or own room, if you will eat at restaurants, and if he will be able to bring his own toys. If you are flying, talk through the process of getting through the airport and what the rules are in the airport and on the plane. If your child has limited language, use videos or stories with detailed pictures. If your child uses a visual calendar and/or schedule, make sure to have icons relating to the travel and trip for use throughout the vacation. You can usually find new images just by running a basic Google Images search, but you can try Boardmaker Online as well. With a monthly subscription, Boardmaker Online offers the ability to search for images, stories, and lessons to save or print. Their images and software are popular for visual schedules and speech output devices.
If you are flying to your destination, research the airports you will be traveling through in advance. Many airports have special check in and security lines which families traveling with children may access. Some airports are beginning to offer special assistance programs and even sensory rooms for families with children with autism and sensory processing disorders to use prior to their flights. Examples of airports with sensory rooms include Ireland’s Shannon airport, London’s Heathrow, as well as the US’s Atlanta International and Myrtle Beach Airport. Other airports, such as Austria’s Flughafen Wien/Vienna, Czech Republic’s Vaclav Havel Airport Prague, and Israel’s Tel Aviv Ben Gurion International Airport, as well as the US’s Boston Logan, San Francisco SFO, and Dallas Fort Worth offer play areas for children to climb and play prior to flights. These can be especially helpful in the US and major metropolitan cities, where you need to be at the airport 3 hours in advance or if you will have a long layover. Prague’s airport also has two “viewing decks” prior to security, where people can watch planes come and go. This can be a good way for kids to get familiar with the idea of plane travel before traveling themselves.
Some airports allow you to bring a child with autism to the airport days, weeks, or months in advance, to practice going through security and see what the airport is like. Some even have planes you can board with your child to practice. Vancouver International Airport provides a program like this and has created a video series called “I Can Fly” along with a step-by-step downloadable storybook designed to prepare children with special needs for air travel. (See Resources for link.) London’s Heathrow Airport has online downloadable step-by-step guides for transiting through the airport, what sensory triggers might arise, and suggestions on how to overcome those triggers. They also offer a program called Sunflower Lanyards, in which an individual with autism or other “hidden disability” can register in advance to receive and wear a special lanyard to alert staff that the individual may need special assistance. Washington DC’s Dulles International Airport offers a tour called “path of a passenger” once a month, which allows kids follow the path of a passenger and possibly even board a plane. They also run a program called “wings for all” in which families with children with autism can participate in a “dress rehearsal” before traveling. This program is not run regularly, so families must check their website frequently to know when the next program will be run. (See Resources for link.)
Once your trip is planned and booked, packing appropriately is the next hurdle. If your child still uses a car seat, bringing it along will help your child sit and rest comfortably on the plane or train, provide extra protection, and allow you the freedom to get out of your seat without worrying your child will leave his seat. You will have to use an FAA approved seat and check with your airline for restrictions. I bring my son’s car seat on every flight and add wheels to it so I can push him in his seat through the airport. This makes navigating through busy airports a breeze. Lilly Gold Zoomer, Britax, and Go-Go Babyz all make wheels for car seats. For kids who no longer use car seats, other products might help make them more comfortable and safe, such as CARES harness, inflatable foot pillows, or a JetKids Bedbox. Choose seats that will be easier to get up and walk around with your child without disturbing others. For example, if you are travelling alone with your child and the plane is a 2-3-2 seat configuration, choose a set of 2 seats. If the plane is a 3-4-3 seat configuration and you are bringing a car seat, choose a middle and aisle seat in the group of 4 seats. (Car seats cannot block other passengers, so it would not be allowed in the middle of the 3 grouping.) If available, consider booking a bulkhead seat. While they cost a bit extra, they offer more room for kids to stretch out or play with toys.
Be sure to pack favorite snacks and drinks and have them in a handy location for longer train rides and flights. Even when flights serve food on board, it’s better to have food on hand that you know your child will like and eat in case the food being served is not a favorite or is offered at inconvenient times. I was on a flight recently where dinner was supposed to be served immediately after take-off, coinciding nicely with my son’s dinner time. Unfortunately, due to a medical issue on board, dinner service was delayed nearly two hours to when my son normally goes to sleep. Because I had packed extra food for such emergencies, I was able to offer him dinner before he became really hungry and upset. The extra food can also be used throughout the trip, while out and about during the day. Along with extra food, you want to pack extra clothes in your carry-on baggage in case of mishaps, whether it be sickness or spillage. If your child becomes cold or hot, wet or just uncomfortable, extra clothes allows you to be prepared for any scenario.
Prepare a small bag of your child’s favorite small toys and games. Have your child pick some items to add to the bag. Knowing he will have those items with him can be comforting as well. Quiet Books and Busy Bags can entertain kids of varying ages. These can be used on the train or plane, as well as while waiting for food at restaurants. Always pack a few more than you think you need. Add some new surprises for him to open and explore during the trip. My son also loves to pick a new small toy from each destination we go to. This tradition allows him to be excited about going somewhere new plus he gets to go home with a souvenir, usually a toy vehicle, from each trip. We have a nice collection of vehicles with different languages on them, which he loves to show off and use to tell about his travels.
Tablets, iPads, and/or portable DVD players can help long travel go by smoother and quicker for your child. Before the trip, download your child’s favorite shows or movies. Netflix now allows a large selection of titles to be downloaded and available offline for a limited time period. Since there will be times when the tablets cannot be played with volume, have your child practice using headphones. Over the ear, traditional headphones will likely be the most comfortable for children. Soft fleece headband headphones are also available, and are great for younger kids and for kids with sensory processing disorders. Download sensory and educational games for your child to play while traveling or when there are times they will have to wait. (See the table below for recommended apps for different age groups.) One notable app to try is DrOmnibus. DrOmnibus is a visually appealing, fun, and educational app with mini games built in to the learning activities. The app teaches receptive skills in a number of categories such as shapes, colors, emotions, animals, and sounds.
After completing a pretest in the chosen category, the app proceeds into a teaching and learning phase. By responding to vocally presented tasks, the child earns colorful tokens which ultimately lead to earning a mini-game of choice. Because the tasks are vocally presented, children do not need to read in order to play, though it does mean they will likely need to use their headphones to play on the plane or train.
When it’s time for your child to sleep, try to follow their normal bedtime routine as much as possible. If you typically read books together before sleep time, have a few books either in your travel bag or on your tablet. If you child has difficulty sleeping with lights on, try to block light as much as possible. You may need to get creative! I once made a fort out of my son’s airplane seat using the extra-large blanket they provided to help him sleep better. (See below.) If this is something that may work for your little one, bring along a dark colored sheet in case the airline doesn’t provide a good size or color. It also helps to schedule your travel with your child’s sleep times in mind. For example, try not to book a flight scheduled right in the middle of your child’s nap time. Should he fall asleep before boarding, you will end up needing to wake him to board and then have a cranky and tired child on the flight. Yes, this has happened to me, so I speak from experience! This rule should apply for the duration of your trip. If your child naps during the day, try to schedule time back at your hotel for naps. Having a well-rested child will make the exploration time much more fun and engaging for everyone in the family.
With preparation and practice, traveling with your child with autism can be successful and lead to some great family memories!
Apps Chart by age:
Tamar Varnai, MA, BCBA, is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst originally from New York. She received her Master’s degree in Applied Behavior Analysis from Columbia University, Teacher’s College in New York and has been working with students with special needs for over 20 years. She specializes in working with children on the Autism Spectrum, as well as shaping behavior and teaching language and social skills to students of all ages. Tamar has worked in special education and inclusion classrooms and supervised home-based ABA programs. She has extensive experience working with children and teenagers, ages 1 year through 16 and has worked in several countries outside of the United States and throughout Europe.
Tamar provides direct teaching services individually or in group settings, educational and behavioral assessments, program development and supervision, language and social skills instruction, as well as trainings for parents and teachers. She is a consultant at DrOmnibus for ABA DrOmnibus Resource APP.
Boardmaker Online: https://www.boardmakeronline.com/
Google Images: https://images.google.com/
Heathrow Airport Autism Services Information: https://www.heathrow.com/airport-guide/special-assistance/hidden-and-cognitive-disabilities
Vancouver International Airport: http://www.yvr.ca/en/passengers/navigate-yvr/accessibility-at-yvr/accessibility-travel-planning
Washington Dulles Airport:
Path of a Passenger: http://www.flydulles.com/iad/student-tours-birthday-parties
*Paid content by DrOmnibus.