Finding the easiest modes of travel with a family member on the autism spectrum can be intimidating, especially if you’re unsure which is the best way to go. Here are tips to make your next travel endeavor a successful one.
Navigating Modes of Travel with a Family Member on the Autism Spectrum
A recent survey found that 87 percent of special needs families don’t travel, but 93 percent of those non-travelers would consider leaving home if they knew where to go and what to do.
“It’s a fallacy that families with members [who have] special needs can’t take a cruise, go to a theme park, or [visit] an all-inclusive tropical resort,” says Sandra Chu, a Certified Autism Travel Professional with The Enchanted Traveler in Rockford, Illinois. “This couldn’t be further from the truth. It just requires more upfront research and a plan to minimize surprises.”
An underserved market with great potential
Considering that 1 in every 44 children fall on the autism spectrum (not to mention those with attention and mood disorders), an increasing number of travel suppliers are seeking out training to better service this $262 billion underserved market. Credentialing organizations include IBCCES, Sensory City, KultureCity, Autism Speaks, and the Champion Autism Network, among others. Their training might vary but their mission remains the same: to make the world more accessible to families with invisible disabilities.
Making air travel autism friendly
Various modes of transportation have made great advances in the field of autism-friendly travel. Take airports, for example. Programs like The Arc’s Wings for Autism®/Wings for All® make it possible for children to experience a dress rehearsal of an upcoming airport visit from arrival up until boarding, so when travel day actually arrives the visit will be less unpredictable.
If Wings for Autism isn’t available at your local airport, call and see if the airline in question can give your child a private airport tour. In addition, Minneapolis-St. Paul airport now features a mock aircraft cabin inside Terminal 1 that allows nervous flyers to sample the inside of the liner prior to boarding.
For passengers who just need a place to decompress prior to boarding, airports are starting to provide specialized spaces for passengers with sensory issues. On her website, Jennifer Hardy, a Certified Autism Travel Professional with Cruise Planners in Kent, Wash., lists nearly 20 airports with low sensory rooms, both domestically and internationally, as well as some 100 airports that subscribe to the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program, which allows travelers to pick up a wearable sunflower lanyard, alerting airport staff that this individual may need extra assistance or time to navigate the area. In addition, therapy dogs visit dozens of airports around the country to lend comfort to anxious passengers.
TSA Cares is a helpline that, if offered at a particular airport, can also provide on-the-spot assistance during the security screening process. You should call 72 hours ahead (855-787-2227) to reserve the service. Says CATP Tara Woodbury of Escape into Travel in Leland, NC: “Different airports have different levels of service.
You may be met at the front of security by a TSA supervisor to help get you through security; you may receive a phone call before your flight; or you may be asking for help when you get there. But calling gives you the best advantage.”
Car Travel and Autism
Car travel (which can also include RV travel) gives you the greatest number of options and amount of control, not to mention the most room to bring your must-haves, including sheets and blankets with the familiar textures and scent of home.
Some best practices when traveling via car with a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include making sure your car is in great condition before setting out, perhaps doing most of the driving when your children are asleep, trying to avoid rush-hour traffic, and plotting out the route carefully in advance — including planned stops at attractions of interest to the child, or spaces like parks and playgrounds where they can expend pent-up energy.
To keep things as routine as possible, try to maintain your regular schedule as best you can, says Taylor Covington, who writes for The Zebra. “Do you normally have lunch at noon? Plan your trip so you can keep this timeframe. Sensory toys may be helpful at certain periods during your trip. Consult with your child’s occupational therapist for specific sensory strategies.”
To avoid the constant, “Are we there yet?” questions, Operation Autism suggests offering children a visual cue. “To [let them] know when the next stop will be, bring along a timer and set it for 60 minutes. That way, your child knows that when the timer goes off, they’ll be able to get out of the car. Alternately, you can ask an older child to time the interval on the clock in the car and then pull the car over for a break at the intended time.”
Train Travel and Autism
Trains offer some of the most liberal baggage allowances of all modes of travel — helpful for all the extra items you may need to pack. The ability to move from car to car can be less restrictive to the child than flying, and the picture windows in the scenic car can provide ever changing vistas. In addition, many children on the spectrum naturally gravitate toward train travel.
According to developmental pediatrician Dr. Amanda Bennett, “Trains have wheels, and this will appeal to those whose sensory interests include watching objects spin…Second, trains can be categorized into different models, types, sizes, etc. For some individuals with ASD, the ability to organize objects into categories is very appealing…Trains also come with schedules. This, too, appeals to many people with ASD and is in line with a need for predictability and the inclination to memorize and recite information.”
For longer trips, consider booking a roomette aboard the train if your budget allows. They often have their own bathroom, and food can be enjoyed in the room as opposed to the more crowded diner car.
Cruising and Autism
Finally, cruising is an excellent option for families with a child on the spectrum. You can choose from ships of varying sizes, and vacations of different lengths and prices. The major cruise lines have all received training in how to accommodate children with ASD, which makes their kids clubs a great destination for both neurodiverse and neurotypical children, while parents can enjoy some quality time alone.
Cruises can also be an excellent way to sample international destinations without involving a lengthy plane ride. For parents who want to network with other special needs families, consider cruising with Autism on the Seas, which organizes group cruises for those with autism, Down Syndrome and related disabilities, as well as provides assistance if you choose to sail on your own.
About the Author
Dawn M. Barclay is an award-winning author who has spent a career working in different aspects of the travel industry. She started as an agent with her parents’ firms, Barclay Travel Ltd., and Barclay International Group Short-Term Apartment Rentals, and then branched out into travel trade reporting with senior or contributing editor positions at Travel Agent Magazine, Travel Life, Travel Market Report, and most recently, Insider Travel Report.
Her new book is Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for Parents of the Anxious, the Inflexible, and the Neurodiverse (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers; Aug. 15, 2022). Learn more at travelingdifferent.com.