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:

  • Stay as close as possible to your child’s normal routine. Surround the child with familiar items: toys for youngsters, books and electronics for teens.
  • Talk to your child before and during the trip about what to expect. Reminding them what activities are planned each day “gives them more comfort about what’s ahead,” says Young. Adds Call: If your child uses visual schedules or social stories, those tools also help ease traveling.
  • Bring along a sitter. As her son grew older, Dees says it became easier to leave him with a sitter to swim while others pursued their own interests. “We also learned it is OK sometimes to leave him home with a sitter and take our other kids on vacation.”
  • Notifying airlines, cruise lines, amusement parks and hotels in advance can bring special considerations.
  • At amusement parks, using a stroller for small children or a wheelchair for older kids (even if they do not need one) reduces exhaustion, says Dees.
  • While many parents do not fly with their autistic children, sometimes it is unavoidable. Call advises, “Alert the flight attendant early on. It might also help to explain it to the people around you.” If there is an area of open seats, he adds, suggest that the flight attendant move your family there.
  • When visiting friends or family, tell them in advance what to expect. Dees says her son, like many other autistic children, is on a special diet, so she reminds relatives and often brings food for Blake.  
  • MP3 players with headphones, loaded with favorite music, are good for children who are disturbed by noises. Personal DVD players help make a long car trip more enjoyable.

“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.

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