Tips for Successful Travel With Autism (Including Overnights!)

Holiday season means overnight travel. We tap an expert from Healing Haven for some practical tips for enjoyable family travel with autism.

With several holidays on the horizon, parents are planning travel to visit extended family, see a new part of the country and (maybe!) just relax. After a long pandemic disruption, we’re all learning how to travel again and, in some cases, our kids are traveling for the very first time. Parents of a child with autism can plan a fun and enjoyable family vacation with a little flexibility and preparation, says Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, a Madison Heights-based ABA therapy center for kids and teens.

“Travel always creates a level of unpredictability, but there are ways you can create a smooth experience for the whole family,” says Dr. Thomas, adding that even overnight stays in hotels and in the homes of extended family can be successful, even for the most routine-oriented kid.

You know your child best, and this expert knowledge will go a long way to prepare you for what can be a really fun experience. From there, empower yourself with these simple tips from Dr. Thomas.

Recognize and prepare for sensory overload

Airports are chaotic and noisy places, so if you are planning air travel, consider how you can support your child with autism. “An airport can be challenging for our kids with different sensory stimulation. Elevators and airplanes can cause vestibular challenges for a child with a sensory processing disorder,” Dr. Thomas says, adding that kids can struggle with the way their bodies feel at elevation and even during a rapid rise on an elevator.

Plan to check in with your child often, she suggests. “Look for clues that you recognize in your own child as indicators they are struggling,” she says. This might be rocking, putting hands over ears or hiding under a blanket. “We call these precursor behaviors and they can often come before a problematic behavior.” When you can recognize and address a precursor behavior, you may avoid a meltdown, a tantrum — or worse.

“Having a child running through the parking lot or airport can be overwhelming and unsafe,” Dr. Thomas says.

Create routine and stick to it

“Kids with a diagnosis typically like to have a predictable routine to their day. One way to help them know what to expect before you start your trip is through the use of a social story,” says Dr. Thomas.

As a way for your child to know what to expect, a social story provides a visual sequence that outlines what you’ll be doing and when you’ll be doing it. An example might show the child that first you’ll go on the airplane and then you’ll meet grandma and grandpa in the airport, then you will go to their home. For daily predictability, a visual schedule can be helpful, which gives pictures or words about what each day will entail.

Social stories and visual schedules can also include a reward, so if splashing in the pool is part of the plan, be sure to add it into the narrative, Dr. Thomas says.

Try to maintain any routines that your child responds well to at home, especially surrounding meals and bedtime. “Have things with you that they are familiar with, like a CD with music they like, a teddy bear or a special pillow. These will go a long way to reducing stress they might have,” Dr. Thomas says.

Tap into trusted calming techniques

Travel is stressful for everyone, so it’s great to be able to call on proven techniques that bring calm — for both you and your child. Deep breathing, firm hugs or whatever works best for your child can help center and calm, even in the midst of rush-hour traffic, car malfunctions or delayed flights.

“Children don’t have control over what is going on, and they also may not understand what’s happening, so providing constant reassurance and any relaxation techniques you’re already doing can be wonderful to include,” Dr. Thomas says. “You can bring a small sensory bin with sand or beans and Lego people to help your child bring focus to one activity and remain calm. That way, they will be focused on that and not focused on all that is going on around you.”

Adults get by with a book or scrolling on a phone, and kids need something too, she says, so remember to pack whatever you know works for your child.

Enlist the support of your ABA provider

Your child’s ABA therapist can be a huge help in preparing your child for upcoming travel, so be sure to tap their expertise and support before you go.

An ABA provider can write a plan to help you practice riding in an elevator together, for instance, or they may be able to meet you to practice at a place where there’s an elevator, like a shopping mall.

At Healing Haven, ABA therapists often use a “Stay With Me” program which helps a child learn how to remain close to their therapist and can help generalize that skill outside the clinic, too. “We also have the child learn how to say ‘I’d like to go outside now,’ instead of just leaving, which really helps with safety concerns,” says Dr. Thomas.

Dial back your expectations

Approach your travel plans with the goal of making it relaxing and fun. Vacations can be a great opportunity for quality time with family and loved ones and don’t always have to include sightseeing, Dr. Thomas says.

“Having a packed schedule can be stressful and tiring, so try to not plan something for every hour. You can have a wonderful time with very little to do,” she says. Pay attention especially to those days you are traveling and try not to book too much on those extra-exhausting days.

Before you go, prioritize sleep and keep the stress level low in other aspects of your life. “Exude confidence and calm because your child will pick up on your emotional state and if you are calm and happy, they are more likely to do well,” Dr. Thomas suggests.

Discover autism therapy services at Healing Haven. Visit thehealinghaven.net.

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