Travel Tips for Families With Autism

Read these experts’ advice on how to plan a family vacation that includes an autistic child.

When my son was 6 years old, we took him to a lakeside cabin with friends and their extended family. It was a pleasant outing for Darrell, who was diagnosed with autism a couple of years earlier. He fished off the dock, took his first boat ride and watched older kids ski. But as the day wore on, he became tired and agitated. We decided to leave before he was ready to go—which quickly escalated into a full-blown meltdown. I carried him to the car kicking and screaming as the other guests watched in confusion.

We were never invited back.

Plan Ahead and Stay Flexible

Such are the challenges of traveling with an autistic child. However, you can avoid much of the risk by planning ahead and staying flexible, according to three experts who also have autistic children.

“There are no real magic tricks,” says Dr. Nathan Call, director of the Marcus Autism Center’s Behavior Treatment Clinic in Atlanta. “Knowing your particular child’s idiosyncrasies and trying to factor those into the traveling is important. You should know your child’s limits and not push them too far beyond what they’re able to do—just like any other kid.”

Claire Dees, president of Spectrum, an autism support group in Gwinnett County, Ga., continually takes steps to prevent meltdowns. “Those are more likely in an unfamiliar place, and when things don’t go as expected,” she says. Dees keeps treats in her purse to reward positive behaviors by her son, Blake, and to redirect his attention when he becomes stressed.

“I’m always thinking of the worst-case scenario and building backwards from there,” says Rita Young, manager of training and advocacy for the Atlanta Alliance on Developmental Disabilities. She adds, “Parents of kids with autism are always thinking two to three steps ahead. You’ve got to have a Plan B.”

Take It Slow

Young, who has two teenage sons with autism, says her family “tries not to pack too much into one day.” She recalls spending a day at Walt Disney World, then moving on to her father’s 80th birthday. The result was “a meltdown for one of my sons.” Now she makes sure there are plenty of breaks so no one becomes overstimulated.

Mealtimes can be particularly challenging for autistic children. “We use pizza delivery, or bring takeout to the room,” Dees says. Call adds that if you want to dine out—when traveling or for a special event—practice eating out in your hometown every couple of weeks. “Don’t wait until your anniversary dinner to see how it goes,” Call says.

Other tips include:

“I’ve had to change my own perspective of what I thought a vacation had to be,” says Young. “Now I’m more relaxed. I know there are situations that could be stressful and I’m OK with the unexpected. Things can pop up, and I have the confidence to handle them.” 

Themes: Family Travel

User Comments

Sound advice! Hopefully it will encourage more families to travel for much needed diversion from their daily stresses. Feel free to for more autistic travel ideas and stories.