Traveling with someone with autism may seem daunting, however with the proper preparation, anything is possible. As with any trip, it is necessary to plan out the activities and travel in advance in order for everything to be as smooth as possible. This is not to say that everything will be perfect, but rather there is a better chance success and not as many meltdowns.

When traveling by plane, there are many potential troubles to consider: ears popping, waiting in line at security, or at the gate, and sitting on a plane for a long time, and these are just the beginning. Instead of taking the time to worry over what could happen, take the time to plan what you want to have happen.
There are programs such as Wings for Autism, which give children with autism a chance to experience a flight without taking a trip. In these programs, children get the chance to wait in line at security, sit in an airplane, visit the cockpit, and listen to how loud the engine will be. They will not leave the ground, but it will be a rehearsal for the real thing. You can find a list of upcoming opportunities at Other ways to familiarize your child with the airport experience are to visit museums, such as The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, where your child can see, touch, and experience different aspects of air travel. You can also set up your own airport experience in your house. Designate different rooms and family members to represent areas and people you will encounter in an airport. Your child can practice handing off his/her ticket, placing luggage in a designated area, and waiting in line.
Based on the sensory needs of the person with autism with whom you are travelling, you might want to bring a pair of headphones to monitor the sound. The airplane itself has a loud engine, and there is always a chance of a baby on the plane who will probably become fussy. There are sounds that also will not be predictable, and having some noise blocking devices can be helpful.
Most people experience uncomfortable ear popping during lift off and landing on a plane. This may be an unpleasant feeling for your child, so try chewing gum or candy to offset the pressure. This can allow for a more comfortable beginning and end to your flight. You may also want to ask your pediatrician if you can use any over the counter medication to help alleviate potential ear pain.
Due to different travel precautions such as going through security before getting to your gate, people have to allocate a lot of time at the airport, which can be the reason for a long wait time. Layovers, flight delays, and flight cancellations can also potentially increase wait time exponentially at a gate in an airport. Bringing a large supply of preferred items is recommended for long wait times. It often helps to have designated items that can only be accessed during wait times at the airport. This increases their value and effectiveness.
Some airlines may let you board early or late depending upon the needs of your child. When booking your flight, be sure to speak with the associate and ask if this is a possibility. If you explain your child’s needs, most are more than willing to accommodate. This is something that should be noted again when you arrive at the gate, to be sure they still do not mind. You can also request the row of seats in the front of the cabin, which may feel less confining to your child.

When traveling in a car, everyone can get a little testy, since it is a small space and there is no room to walk around. As always, be sure to prepare your child for the journey ahead. Test it out by taking miniature trips and slowly elongating the drive. This will give you a better feel for when your child may reach his or her time limit of sitting still. Once you know that, you can better plan out your bag of tricks to keep everyone in the car happy.
When planning the time of departure and arrival at your destination, go with what you think works best for your child. Some people prefer to leave right before bedtime, so that the children sleep through most of the trip, while others choose to leave early in the morning to achieve the same result. If either of these is possible, it is definitely recommended in order to keep everything running smoothly.
For entertainment on a long drive, consider stopping at the library for music and DVDs. This will give you a wider selection from which you can choose. Get a mix of preferred and non-preferred, or you might be stuck listening to the same song or watching the same movie on repeat. Start with new or less preferred music to increase the length of calm sitting time during the ride. It’s often a good idea to designate specific videos for “travel only” to increase their value and make them more motivating.
Leapfrog has entertaining games that are fun and educational. Using a leapfrog tablet also allows for different individual activities if you have more than one child. This way if your child does want to watch the same part or play the same game on repeat, no one else will mind as it will be on their own personal device. No matter the device, be sure to have headphones so that your child is the only one hearing that device. Otherwise everyone will be listening to that one device rather than their desired item.
You might want to have a bag of items that are easily accessible at your feet so that you can change things out quickly in order to keep a relatively calm journey. Try to have a constant stash of preferred items, just in case you need them.

With all of these suggestions, travel should be easier. This is not to say that your trip will go without bumps in the road, but rather assure that you are well prepared no matter the situation. Also always remember that your child will be looking at how you are handling the travel experience. The more relaxed and at ease you are the more your child will be. Enjoy your travels!

By Jennifer Lichtman & Mark Butler

To learn more about joining The Shafer Center for Early Intervention family, call us at 410-517-1113 or email us at: [email protected]