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tips for traveling with a child who have autism

How to Prepare for Traveling with a Child Who Has Autism

tips for flying or taking a road trip with kids on the spectrum

A meltdown in the middle of Disney World is the last thing any parent wants. Southlake mom Amy Sillan experienced this firsthand in October when 6-year-old Blake, who has autism spectrum disorder, let her know he was really ready to leave the parade, when they were surrounded by crowds and there was no easy way to exit the park. For families with children on the autism spectrum, this scenario is all too familiar.

But the fear of a meltdown didn’t stop Sillan from giving Blake and his 5-year-old sister, Eloise, that magical Disney experience. “Having the courage to take your child and have any sort of experience is really what parenting is about,” Sillan shares. “Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t, but even as hard as that trip was for us, they don’t remember the meltdown of the parade.” Child psychologist Kristi Mannon, formerly with Cook Children’s and now serving with the VA, agrees that providing your child with new experiences is vital to their personal growth.

“There are the additional challenges and preparations that we have to go through, but it’s helpful for the kid to be able to experience those things too,” Mannon says. “They are going to be able to push themselves and make gains in their own boundaries.”

Prepping for the Flight

For kids on the autism spectrum, flying can be a source of anxiety and sensory overload. Sillan explains that for Blake, sitting in one spot for a long period of time is hard—even watching a movie is usually out of the question. So she prepared activities for him in 30-minute increments for their three-hour flight to Orlando. “I picked his passions, which at this point in time was dogs, and I made a coloring sheet with five dogs on it,” she says. “Every 30 minutes we would note the time and he could color a dog.” Sillan also had a bag of toys for him to pick from. She prepared enough of these activities for four to five hours, just in case there were delays.

Sillan began planning for the trip well in advance; three months prior, she began showing Blake YouTube videos of various rides at Disney World—though Sillan adds that if she could go back in time, she would give Blake a little less notice.

“It just made him like, ‘Is today the day? Is today the day? Is today the day?’” she laughs. “And watching ‘It’s A Small World’ videos for three months.” But Sillan had the right idea. Exposing your child to as much of the experience as possible before it actually happens is key. For example, the CR Smith Museum in Fort Worth is home to a real airplane for kiddos to board and a baggage loader activity where they can practice grabbing their luggage.

Road Trip Entertainment

In the car, you can’t always be right next to your child to keep them entertained. So for a recent road trip, Highland Village mom Shelley Stone came up with independent tasks and play activities for her 6-year-old son Cody, who has autism and is nonverbal.

“One that he currently does is counting 1 through 30,” she shares. “I have 30 LEGOs that I’ve taken the Sharpie marker and written the number on them. He stacks them in a long tower ordered by number.” Take into account your temporary living quarters too. For Stone, this meant booking a hotel room on the first floor, as Cody loves jumping.

Stone begins planning for trips a month in advance, with help from his therapists. “A few weeks before we go on a trip I identify some of the things [his therapists] use that are considered reinforcers, which are just highly recommended toys that he loves,” Stone shares. “It helps him when we are in those new environments that could be a little scary.”

She also incorporates social stories and images of where they will be going and staying in order to alleviate his fears. “It’s very much of a balance when we do those things,” Stone says. “I have to step back and anticipate what he’s feeling, what his needs are … to not push him too far.” Following a family trip, Mannon recommends taking a day or two of rest. “[This] will give you guys a chance to kind of all get back into your normal routine,” she says.

This article was originally published in May 2019.

RELATED: Finding the Right Babysitter for Your Child With Special Needs

Practice Makes Perfect 

American Airlines hosts a free program called “It’s Cool To Fly,” usually held in the fall at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. The event allows kids on the autism spectrum to go through a simulation of airplane travel, from check-in to boarding. Learn more at news.aa.com.