Traveling with a child with autism presents a unique set of challenges while also providing opportunities for new experiences and shared family activities. Numerous questions present themselves: how do we make sure we have all the equipment and materials we need; where do we go if there is an emergency; how will my child react to new settings such as an airport or a hotel room; how can we help pass time during long travel periods; and many more.
Gather information and organize documentation:
• Emergency fact sheet: This is a document that is carried in a secure spot, often with other travel documents. A typical format is an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper (perfect for slipping into a clear sheet protector) that contains essential information. Common information to be included is name, contact information, diagnosis, pertinent health information (allergies, medications, etc.), contact information for the primary care physician, and other information that would be useful in an emergency. A recent color photograph often accompanies the emergency fact sheet. It is a helpful document if you need to access healthcare services during your trip.
• Medical certificates: Some equipment and supplies, such as oxygen, require a physician’s statement for airline and other travel. Ensure that certification for medical and adaptive equipment, if necessary, is present and up-to-date.
• List of necessary items: A list of foods, clothing, adaptive equipment, safety equipment, and other items that will be needed during the vacation.
• List of preferred items: A list of preferred items can be helpful in several ways. It can help select what items to pack, it can help identify activities or opportunities similar to established favorites that might be available during the vacation, and it can help select preferred activities that can provide entertainment during non-preferred activities, e.g. a DVD player for a long car ride, iPad for waiting in an airport terminal, and a coloring book while sitting at a restaurant.
• List of local services: This is another document that should be safely stored. On it should be contact information for local hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies for each stop of your trip.
Learn about traveling and the destination:
• Videos and photographs: It will also be helpful to familiarize yourself and your child to any new places as much as possible. Your child could watch YouTube or visit age-appropriate websites that provide videos and other content regarding the destination. Many hotel websites have pictures of their rooms, lobby, and surroundings. Put together a special book that has pictures of the places you will go.
• Visit locations when possible: A visit to an airport prior to your departure date can foster some familiarity with the new environment.
• Role-play and practice situations you will encounter: Plan time to review necessary procedures and role-play scenarios. If your child likes pretend-play then you can set up a “security checkpoint” with a table, chairs, and, if available, cardboard made into a pretend metal detector. Take turns walking through security and being a TSA agent. Help your child become familiar with as many sights, sounds, and procedures as possible.
• Plan with safety personnel when possible: Some good news in this area: the Port of Seattle has been very helpful with developing plans to help families through security procedures. Contact their non-emergency number at 206-787-5401 prior to your departure date. They will work with you to devise a plan to help you and your family through security, be greeted at the airport, and provide an escort as needed. For emergencies during travel call 911.
• Talk with transportation personnel: Airlines, Amtrak, hotels, and other travel company are often willing to work with you to adjust procedures and schedules. Your hotel might allow early check-in or delayed check-out particularly if you talk with them prior to departure. Airlines allow pre-boarding for those needing assistance or arrange to board last if that would be better for your child.
Use a daily schedule:
• Discuss and schedule the activities for the day, this will help provide predictability.
• Remember to not over-schedule, it’s never possible to do everything.
• Schedule breaks, snack-time, and down time.
Schedule frequent breaks if a long car ride is part of the plan. Let everyone know that they can take a short break from the car and a small snack could be available. If several children are involved then consider using a strategy such as the Good Behavior Game. In this game a timer, set by the parent, sounds at random times and if everyone is doing well (be a bit lenient with this definition as traveling often brings out the worst in all of us) when the timer sounds the children, as a group, earn a point. The children can then have a special treat if they have earned enough points at the next stop.
Lastly, remember to plan for delays and last minute changes. We all know that annoyances such as flight delays are common and having a plan of action, e.g. watch a DVD, take turns going for a walk around the terminal, have portable games ready, can alleviate a potentially difficult situation.
Some helpful websites:
Child-Autism-Parent-Cafe: An Author with First-hand Experience of Traveling with a Child with Autism
Transportation Security Administration: Travelers with Autism or Intellectual Disabilities
Alaska Airlines: Special Services
Delta Airlines: Services for Travelers with Disabilities