Friday, 16 December 2016 13:58

Stress-free Holiday Travel with an Autistic Family Member

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Whether it’s summer vacation or holiday season travel, preparing a child or adult family member with autism for long-distance travel is a major undertaking. From packing to getting on the road, there are a few key steps you that can help make travel less stressful and more comfortable for your family.

There are two important differences between holiday travel and vacation destination travel. First, with winter holiday travel such as during Hanukkah and Christmas, your purpose is typically to see family and friends. In all likelihood, your family will be staying at the home of someone you know and trust, and with whom you can easily take steps to help acclimate your special needs family member. Even if you stay at a nearby hotel, your visit will revolve around activities with family and friends. That’s very different from staying at a resort or theme park destination, where you plan to “see and do” with much less control over your surroundings.

The second issue with holiday season travel is volume. More people are on the road during the holidays. Lines are longer, space is more congested, there’s more noise and lights, and security is heightened. You can opt to travel at times when crowds are predicted to be less heavy, but those tickets might not fit the family budget or schedule. 

Whether by plane or train, the following tips can help you manage traveling with an autistic family member with greater peace-of-mind:

Pre-departure Preparation

Once you’ve chosen your mode of travel, you want to help your family member deal with fear of the unknown, If you’ve chosen airline or train travel, slowly introduce the process to your child until you can execute a practice day prior to your departure date. 

  • Read books about traveling by plane or train
  • Watch videos (YouTube has several; watch movies that feature air/train travel)
  • Share stories and photos about your travel experiences. 
  • Make it educational: For higher functioning children, you can teach them to read a map, marking your departure and arrival destinations, and also have them navigate the airport, noting interesting things along the way to your gate.

Finally, schedule a few rides to the airport or train station. First, just drive there. A few days later drive there, park the car, and walk in. To further help you with the familiarization process, call your travel agent (if you’ve used one) about scheduling an orientation for your child. Also, search online for a Wings for Autism program near you and call the TSA Cares helpline. Both have programs for autistic passengers. Many airlines, airports and train stations also have their own programs and tours for children with special needs.


A quick Google search will reveal dozens of different ways to pack your bags. The most important thing is to make sure you have medications and your child’s favorite snacks packed in your carry on bag. If you are flying, it’s also a good idea to place one or two outfits for your special needs family member in more than one suitcase. This way, if one bag gets lost, you still have outfits your child is comfortable wearing.  Also, have your child pick one or two small plush toys to bring on board. You might have to explain why they can’t bring their big blanket on board, but maybe you can ask grandma to keep one just like it at her house. 

Pre-departure Jitters

Even if all the preparation was done well, your child may still have a meltdown. If you are concerned about being separated from your child, have a temporary safety tattoo made and placed on their forearm. Alternatively, you can have a purchase a Medical ID bracelet or a safety alert t-shirt. 

In the event that your child becomes anxious just as you begin to board the train or plane, you may want to have medication on hand to calm their nerves. Speak with your child’s physician about this a well before your trip. 

Checked-in, On Board & Underway

Once on board, you will want to have tools to help your child feel less overwhelm from the hustle all around them. Your “kid’s pack” might include noise-cancelling headphones, music and games, dark sunglasses, books, and anything handheld that will keep her engaged. If you were able to reserve a window seat, that may be a great option for your child.

Phew! You’ve made it through the trip and arrived safely at your family’s holiday destination. Hopefully, you’ve read books or watched videos about your destination and shown pictures of unfamiliar family members to  your child—maybe even had a few Skype calls. To make your family holiday time merry, make sure to brief the family members you’ll be visiting about what to expect and how to interact with your child


Ten Strategies for Traveling with a Child with Autism – Autism Speaks

Wings for Autism program to help prepare children for air travel.

TSA Cares Helpline:  1-855-787-2227 

Amtrak reservations for persons with a disability 

Holiday Travel First Aid Check List – 

Specialized Travel Services for Persons with Special Needs 

Autistic Traveler – information source and services for travel with autistic children.

Autistic Globetrotting – a resource for international travel with an autistic family member

Read 538 times Last modified on Tuesday, 20 December 2016 18:06
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