Tips for Successful Summer or Anytime Travel for Kids with Autism

Parents of children on the spectrum understand that transitions are particularly challenging and that structure, continuity and familiarity are their child’s best friends – so how can vacation travel be made more manageable for the parent and child (and their siblings) and even create opportunities for growth? Businesses and services that cater to families with children on the spectrum are no longer obscure, but are springing up constantly – particularly because of campaigns for autism awareness.

Even savvy parents, however can still benefit greatly from a ‘how to’,  just to get the wheel turning, so here are some essential things they can do to plan a vacation or just a getaway with their special needs child.

1. Partner With Your Destination (PWYD)

Planning cannot be stressed enough, so once a decision is made on where to go—even if the vacation is coordinated by a travel agent, it’s essential to partner with your destination – always speak personally with hotel staff, park and recreation members, restaurants, car rental companies in advance.  Be secure by obtaining maps, confirming locations, checking road and traffic and hours of operation.

2. Partner with the child’s spec education teachers, any occupational/physical behavior therapists, or art/music therapists to have them introduce and incorporate ideas about the planned trip as far in advance as possible.

3. Create a visual story

Create a visual story (ie:  picture Board) to prepare child for travel away – can be done by the parent and reinforced by the child’s educators or play therapist or introduced outside of the home and practiced there. Check out DO2Learn Products for an excellent assortment of picture boards and visual displays, or make your own like the ones Kathie Maximovich posted on Pinterest.

4. When in Doubt, Use an APP

There are no shortage of apps to entertain and educate all children and adults alike, so try an app to prepare tech-loving kids such as Smart Fish: Frequent Flyer, available on ITunes and compatible with Apple mobile products.

5. Visit the Airport ‘for Fun’ or try a Air Travel Dress Rehearsal

What started as a small-scale program, Wings for Autismoriginating at The Charles River Center in Massachusettsis now a national initiative by The ARC, that offer ‘pre-travel’ or practice boarding program experiences for special needs children.

6. Travel Check -What a Relief

The TSA can be “called in advance” to prepare for family boarding – TSA Cares – ask for a Passenger Support Specialists. 

7. Familiarity is Crucial

Your child likes and needs familiarity to reduce stress (on them and you) and meltdowns.  Pack wisely – bring familiar bedding such as sheets, favorite blanket, pillow, etc.

If renting a car, try to rent the same type/model car (same color if possible or at least same color)

Anticipate special dietary needs to bring along and inquire about availability of a microwave and/or refrigerator at the destination, as well as any eateries that will be suitable.

8. Some Important add-ons:

**Headphones:  If possible invest in a pair of noise canceling headphones if the child will wear them or work in advance with the child’s OT to help with just that.

**Portable timer/stopwatch– fantastic to help the child when waiting on lines.

**Pack inexpensive “new” toys or novelties for distraction

9. During the Vacation:Travelling can seem endless and exhausting on everyone – and much more so on a child with autism.  Take sensory breaks as needed and cool down periods during and between activities.


Even the most well planned va-stay -cations can go awry when you are traveling with a child on the spectrum.  Make contingency plans and be prepared to switch things around.  If the child prefers to go swimming in the pool before, or do another activity, try to be flexible.  Use all aforementioned pre-travel resources to help alleviate the stress for the child and for the parent.