Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Traveling With Autism

With spring break coming next week, and summer just around the corner, it’s time for many of us to start thinking about family vacations. For parents with autistic children, we understand that this can be a very difficult chore. I have found some ideas that I hope will help make it a little bit smoother.

Let me begin by telling my horror story. When Konner was three we decided to take a trip to Florida. There were seven of us, and we decided to borrow a van and drive all the way to Orlando. Let me begin by saying that Konner had not been diagnosed yet with Autism, but we had made the appointment to have him tested, so we had an idea that he might be. However, we knew very little about what a long ride in a small space can do to over-stimulate someone on the spectrum. We found out very quickly. You must understand that the constant movement, the smell of food and the body odor from everyone cramped up in a small space, the vehicles passing by, etc. can cause anyone to have some irritation, much less a person with sensory issues. That being said, he began to scream during the trip, and, though I’m sure he didn’t, it seems like he screamed the entire time.

Since then we’ve taken several other trips. None have been quite as long, but we have been in the car for hours. He does much better now that we understand the issues involved, and have taken some steps to help him. These include movies to watch, stops when we think he’s getting frustrated, and explaining things to him ahead of time so that he knows what to expect.

With that, let me give a few tips that I have found that I hope will help any parents, but especially those with children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorder.

If you plan to drive there are some things you can do to help out. Any distractions can help. We use a computer, but portable DVD players, iPods, portable game systems, and toys can help make the trip a little easier. Just make sure that you bring something to recharge the batteries, spare batteries, or something to connect to a power supply. There’s nothing that will set off a meltdown like a computer dying in the middle of your child’s favorite SpongeBob movie. Trust me on this one.

You should plan for frequent stops. No one likes to be trapped in a vehicle too long. It’s best if you don’t get in a hurry to be somewhere. Rushing around will cause a child to become agitated. They can usually sense our urgency and this tends to over-stimulate them.

Some travel agencies and companies have taken measures recently to help make trips easier on people with Autism. Many cruise lines have special accommodations for guests with Autism. Royal Caribbean has what they call “Autism on the Seas.” There are also entire cruises just for families affected by Autism. These are definitely some options to look into.

If you plan to fly, there are several issues that come up. I found this advice on a website about traveling with Autism:

New regulations in the airline industry can make any plane trip a hassle.  One of the biggest recommendations if you are flying is to arrive early and pack a bag to keep your child occupied.  For help with your trip, here is the Transportation Security Administration web page for individuals with disabilities.

The Autism News had an article on the Newark, NJ airport helping families with autism deal with air travel. They allow the families to come in a couple times prior to flying and get used to the plane and travel arrangements so that they are more familiar with what to expect the day of the flight. You may contact your local airport, or the company you plan to fly with and see if they have a similar program. Also, plan to get there ahead of time for security purposes. Even though the waiting will cause issues, if you get there early enough hopefully you won’t be waiting in a line for long.

Another form of transportation that some people overlook is the train (and bus for that matter). I mention the train because; if your child is like my son he/she is obsessed with trains (thanks Thomas). This may be a form of travel that will help them for a little while, or at least until the awe of riding in a train wears off. Amtrak is a good option, but the closest rail is in Oklahoma City, so you would still have a three-hour trip to get there. This is just an option to consider. You can contact Amtrak to discuss accommodation for autistic passengers.

No matter how you decide to travel it’s always best to start talking to your child about things a few weeks ahead. Ask, “Are you ready to go to Disney World?” “You’re going to see Mickey Mouse.” “There are going to be a lot of people there.” “It’s going to be loud.” The more you can explain to them the better. Give them an idea of what to expect. Springing a six foot mouse on anyone can be traumatic, let alone a child with sensory issues. I would also recommend trying to find videos of the place you are planning to go ahead of time. Show them what they can expect. You can probably find these on YouTube, or many of the destinations have videos available to purchase if you contact them.

Amusement parks will work with families with disabilities and help them to make their visit to the park as smooth as possible. I read an article recently where Disney parks offer a special pass at the customer service desk for people with ASD. They understand that waiting in lines and loud crowds can upset these guests, so they can give you a pass to speed up your wait to get into lines. Most parks will offer the same service if you just check with them.

I have hit on some issues with Autism, but most of your family vacation parks, travel lines, and hotels can accommodate any disability. I would highly recommend that you contact them ahead of time and explain the situation. Most places are very helpful in these situations.

I’m going to include this web address: , which is where I found most of my information. There is so much information that I couldn’t include it all, but there may be something that I missed that could help you and your family.

Because I’m limited on how much I can put on this subject in the paper (Regina doesn’t mind, but I could probably fill the entire paper with this subject alone), I’m going to list some more helpful websites to help out.

This site is a checklist from the folks at Autism Speaks for traveling with an autistic person:

This site is Preparing to Travel with a Child with Autism Spectrum Disorder 3 Things to know before you close your suitcase:

There’s an old saying that if you want to hear God laugh just tell him your plans. I never completely understood this saying until I had Konner. We all know that the trip can never be completely smooth, but I hope that some of the advice I have given will help.

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.

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