Autism on Board!

Families today choose to take vacations with their loved ones rather than leave them at home with a caregiver or in lieu of skipping a vacation altogether. As the sister and guardian of an adult with autism, I know first-hand about the stresses of traveling with an individual on the spectrum. My brother has accompanied me on air travel to Germany, Italy, Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, and annual trips to Tennessee to visit family. He’s taken many trains—he particularly enjoys riding the subway in New York City—and has also ridden the city bus and the Dillo Shuttle in Austin. Oh, and did I mention that my brother is non-verbal, engages in inappropriate behaviors such as touching others who get too close to him, and has tantrums when he has to wait? Clearly, none of our adventures are without stress!

Here are some strategies to make your own travel more successful throughout the planning process and the actual trip, plus some tips for dealing with other travelers who may not be familiar with autism and its unique challenges for families.


CONSIDER TIMING Choose slow travel days whenever possible; verify with airlines or train stations, etc. the least busy travel days/times.

GET ASSISTANCE Have an extra person along if possible to handle extra baggage, etc. A friend, family member or paid caregiver can provide that extra pair of hands.

CALL AHEAD Contact hotels ahead of time to let them know your situation. Request a quiet room and any other special needs during your stay, i.e. extra door security if your child has a history of fleeing unexpectedly, etc. Advise airline or other travel staff of any special requests such as pre-boarding in advance.

MAKE A CALENDAR Use images of suitcases, airplanes, trains, etc. and place on the calendar to help your loved one with autism cope with the unknown by reinforcing concepts of dates and times (see example at right). Review briefly each week as you countdown to your trip.

MAKE A VISUAL SCHEDULE Again using images, make a schedule to communicate and reinforce exactly what will happen on the day your trip begins, i.e photo of car or taxi, luggage, etc. (see example below)

PACK THE SNACKS Pack meals and special snacks in advance to distract from periods of waiting at the airport, train or bus station.

LOAD UP THE ACTIVITIES Pack all entertainment items such as iPads, movies, music, drawing or coloring supplies to keep your loved one occupied during the more tedious parts of the trip.

REVIEW THE SCHEDULE Continue reviewing the schedule several times before actually arriving at the airport or train station to increase understanding of what is going to happen.

PROVIDE IDENTIFICATION Make sure your child has an ID tag attached somewhere with your contact information and any important information such as allergies and medications.


THROW OUT THE PLAN Stick to the behavior intervention plan (BIP) even when you’re not at home. Following already-established procedures will get your loved one to settle down more quickly when challenging behaviors come to the fore.

TRY TO EDUCATE GRUMPY TRAVELERS Despite any rude stares or mutterings, remember that changing human behavior can’t be accomplished in just one day.

BE AFRAID TO ASK FOR ASSISTANCE Travel staff are more than willing to help, they just need to know what to do. Be specific i.e. , “Could you help me get him down the steps?” vs. “Can I get some help here?”

GIVE UP Don’t let one bad episode, or even one difficult day, ruin your vacation. Be flexible, have a “plan B” each day, and most likely at the end of your vacation you’ll have some great memories. You might even be able to look back and laugh at the tough times.

IN SUMMARY… Plan your trip, communicate the plan to your loved one, count down to the travel day, and pack plenty of snacks and entertainment. Ignore the bad behavior of other travelers, and follow the behavior plan for your loved one’s inappropriate behaviors. Happy traveling! If you see us in the airport or train station, please stop and say hello… but only if we’re not in the middle of a meltdown!

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