10 Tips for Holiday Travel when your Child has Autism or a Disability By Gina Brady, Fraser Sensory Supports and Training Manager As we approach the holidays and winter season, many families may be considering travel. Destination travel can be a special experience and memory for any family. At the same time, it adds stress. Adjusting to a new routine – or the stress of having no routine at all – is challenging. It is especially challenging for people with autism, disabilities, or any sensory processing differences. When you travel, everything changes – including food, sleeping situations, the weather. On top of those changes, new sensory inputs, like loud noises, crowds, or bright lights, can quickly be overstimulating. Unlike at home, a person with autism or disabilities doesn’t know what to expect. You can set your family up for success so you can still travel successfully, even with a child who has autism or disabilities. Here are some tips to make destination travel more enjoyable:
Research accessible accommodations. As you’re planning your trip, keep an eye on accessibility options. Search on the destination’s website or call ahead to ask about the accommodations. Organizations may have sensory spaces or quiet spaces available for quiet time. An increasing number of airlines are offering practice airport navigation sessions to help lessen anxiety. They may offer wheelchair or motorized vehicle rental. Other organizations include assistive listening devices and may even schedule sign language interpreters or offer captions for certain performances. Consider sleeping arrangements. You know what your family needs. While relatives or friends may offer to host, they may or may not have the accommodations that will be best for your family. Staying with relatives might include certain expectations, unspoken rules, or simply be too crowded. When considering staying with relatives, ask questions about what will be available to your family and set clear boundaries to communicate your family’s needs. For example, you may need your own bathroom, a couple of rooms, or access to a quiet space. As an alternative, you can stay at a hotel or Airbnb instead, where you may be able to better control the environment. When booking a room at a hotel, you might request an end room or a room without neighbors on either side. Integrate routines. If your child likes structure, think of ways to create routines away from home. Even if you are in a new place, you may be able to do the same few activities in the morning or a similar bedtime routine. You may be able to have a family evening check-in conversation where you share your favorite and least favorite parts of the day. Perhaps you start the day with a quote and end the day with a bedtime story. Where possible, include a routine. For a child who struggles with change, this may provide structure and be something to look forward to. Plan a basic schedule for each day. It can be helpful to make a small list of a couple of goals for the day and share it with your child. That way, your child has a general idea of what to expect. Since travel plans are often fluid, consider only including the main items on this list without specific times, such as riding an airplane during the day, then meeting up with family in the evening, and then going to bed. Plan to have downtime or time away from relatives. While you’re visiting relatives, it is still okay to set boundaries or do certain activities as a small family unit. Perhaps a large group of relatives wants to attend a local festival, and your child would be overwhelmed. Instead, your immediate family may prefer to stay at the hotel watching movies and eating snacks. You may also plan some downtime or nap time at some point each day when you are quiet and away from the extended family. Choose to spend time with the relatives on your family’s own terms. Make it easy to find each other. In large, crowded places, it can be easy to get lost. Children with autism or disabilities will often wander. To help stay together and find each other, families may wear brightly colored matching shirts. If you prefer, you may just have your child with autism or disability wear a brightly colored shirt. Some families will put a parent’s phone number on the back of the child’s shirt in case they are separated. You may also talk with your child about what to do if they do get lost or separated and ensure they understand the plan. Additionally, if the group splits up to do different activities, make a plan to check in later over text or even meet up at a certain place and time. Take turns supervising. Sometimes, families will assign an adult to be focused on watching the child with autism or disabilities to ensure they don’t wander. If possible, the adults should take turns being in this assigned role so everyone gets time to connect with the other relatives. Bring snacks and coping tools. What snacks or tools will your child need? Think about the activities and plan what might be helpful to bring to help your child cope. Will your child do better if they have their preferred food and drink at a certain time of day? Will they cope better if they have sensory tools, such as headphones, sunglasses, or fidgets? Bring a few of their coping tools or favorite toys to help them handle the stress of waiting in line or handling unexpected stress during the vacation. Plan to spend time in comfortable environments. What sensations will your child experience? For example, perhaps your child will prefer indoor activities rather than outdoor ones. Will your child prefer a swimming pool to a beach? If you do visit a beach, will they prefer water shoes rather than trying to walk on the rocks and sand? In addition, if you plan to visit loud, stimulating areas, seek out nearby quiet spaces that you could retreat to if needed. Let them make choices. One of the largest challenges with destination trips is the loss of control. It may help immensely to provide your child with more autonomy to make some decisions. Ask your child directly if they want to do this activity or that activity, and let them pick. Let them choose which rides they want to go on or if they want to skip the rides entirely. Remember, when there is so much new sensory input, they might have a better day and avoid a meltdown if you let them decide when to participate in activities. While destination travel may be challenging for people with autism and disabilities, with the right preparation, it can still be a wonderful and enjoyable experience.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gina Brady is the Sensory Supports and Training Program Manager for Fraser, a revered nonprofit working at the intersection of autism, mental health, and disability services. Gina specializes in establishing partnerships with organizations to provide sensory-friendly and inclusive experiences to families throughout the community. She graduated with her Master's in Occupational Therapy and her Bachelor's in Child Psychology from the University of Minnesota.
Cover Photo by Daria Obymaha