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Travelling with Your Autistic Child–Tips from the Experts

Experts share ways to prepare your child for travel and different services in place to help them through the process.

Travelling with Your Autistic Child–Tips from the Experts

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As summer approaches, many of us parents of neurodivergent children look to vacation travel with dread. It can be too much to contemplate, with disrupted routines, unfamiliar environments, blaring announcements and being jammed into an airplane with 200 people.

But we can mitigate these challenges through preparation and planning ahead!

How to Prepare Your Child

MindFit Health clinical psychologist Karen Wilson reminds us, “You know your child better than anyone else. To prepare for upcoming travel, you must be aware of their challenges and strengths.” She recommends starting small, for example, with a staycation at a local hotel and gradually progressing to a short flight and then a longer flight. This allows you to introduce your child to the concept of travel and find out what they can tolerate.

Remember to research hotels and resorts. Many employ staff trained to accommodate neurodivergent children. Don’t be afraid to ask about their training. If possible, stay in a suite with separate sleeping and sitting areas.

Scott Bark, Senior Director of Autism Services at Kinark Child and Family Services, knows that travel can be a source of anticipatory anxiety for many autistic children and emphasizes how important it is to familiarize them with upcoming travel plans ahead of time.

Does your child understand where you are going and when? I always showed Andrew photos and videos of our destinations. I used a visual calendar, and we would cross off each day before we left to give him some sense of time. We also studied the route we were planning to take.

Consider putting together a picture book detailing your entire itinerary:

Packing

  • Include pictures of what you plan to bring and ask what they want to add.

If travelling by plane

  • The airport, both outside and in
  • Check-in area and process
  • Security screening area and process
  • Customs screening and process
  • Waiting areas
  • The airplane, both externally and internally
  • Boarding process
  • Seating assignments
  • Means of transportation once you arrive at your destination

If travelling by ground transportation

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Include as much of the above as relevant, adding pictures of gas stations and rest stops

  • Pictures of your destination
  • Websites
  • Hotels or vacation rentals, including lobbies, elevators and bedrooms
  • Local area and landmarks
parent reading picture book itinerary to child iStock

Review these every day for one week before you go. Importantly, explain what will happen if there is an unexpected delay in departure time or a sudden gate or platform change.

Dr. Wilson also recommends role-playing. Set up a pretend airplane at home. Discuss various situations, such as what to do when there is an ear-popping noise (chew gum, put on headphones).

Consider visiting the airport or station ahead of time. Many airports and railway companies have travel familiarization tours for neurodivergent children, such as the Greater Toronto Airports Authority’s “Ready, Set, Fly…with YYZ” experience, a partnership with Air Transat and Autism Ontario, or Montreal Trudeau International Airport’s Premium Kids Program. Other airlines, like American Airlines, also have mock flights.

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Above all, maintain your child’s routine to the extent possible.

Take Advantage of Services and Supports

Bring a bag packed with your child’s favourite foods, drinks, books, games, toys, and comfort items. Pack an extra set of clothes. Don’t forget an iPad or portable DVD player, headphones (noise-cancelling or not), and other devices needed to counter sensory sensitivities. And please carry medications in your carry-on: don’t risk your checked luggage getting lost.

Scott notes, “Look for signals that your child is starting to become overwhelmed so you can proactively manage the situation.” He stresses the importance of positive reinforcement and rewards. Depending on what motivates your child, these might include access to a favourite activity or video, an edible treat, and lots of praise. “Catch them being good early” and provide positive reinforcement at every step of the journey so that they can cope.

Most airports and stations provide a variety of accessibility services and facilities. For example:

  • Hidden Disabilities Sunflower lanyards discreetly signal to staff at more than 230 airports and 15 airlines worldwide and to many railway personnel that a child may need extra support. They are available at check-in counters and on board. You can also register online and receive a lanyard in the mail.
  • MagnusCards is a free app with card decks that show children how to navigate an airport step-by-step. Airports like Toronto’s Pearson have partnered with Autism Ontario and Magnusmode to develop an interactive guide for travel at Pearson and the My Toronto Pearson Activity Book.
  • Families can often benefit from special check-in procedures, security lines, sensory rooms and strategic seating. Personnel can do a physical search if your child cannot tolerate being screened by a metal detector or body scanner. This may be extremely difficult for some children, but public safety comes first.
  • U.S. and Canadian border controls also do their part, with the U.S. Mobile Passport Control app allowing you to submit your information ahead of time digitally and Canada’s Advanced Declaration for flying.

Call the airline or your travel agent ahead of time to guide you through accessibility services and activate them. Book your seats in advance and board first or last, depending on your child’s needs.

mother sitting in airplane seat holding baby looking out the window iStock
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Remember that travel policies and procedures are constantly changing. A formerly free service may now come at a cost, so it’s best to verify.

Some parents also bring an explanatory card to hand to other passengers, as needed, to build understanding.

If you need extra support, autism services providers like Kinark can help. Kinark offers free workshops, both online and in-person, and a virtual behavioural consulting service that focuses on specific skills, such as travel. Marketing Manager Samantha Berdock says they take pride in their dedication to serving underserved communities. Carol McFarlane, Vice President, Business Development, adds that Kinark’s clinical team is alert to the mental health challenges that often coexist with autism.

Dr. Wilson meets clients virtually and is available to book a consultation or appointment at mindfithealth.ca.

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Our goal as parents and caregivers is to make travelling as stress-free as possible, both for our autistic child and the entire family. We want our children to feel comfortable and secure. As Dr. Wilson says, “Find joy in the moment.” There will undoubtedly be unexpected twists and turns, but with preparation and planning, the journey should go smoother.

Bon voyage!

Author:

Jan Stewart is a highly regarded mental health, autism and neurodiversity advocate and Chair of Kerry’s Place Autism Services, Canada’s largest autism services provider.

Her brutally honest memoir Hold on Tight: A Parent’s Journey Raising Children with Mental Illness describes her emotional roller coaster story of parenting two children with multiple mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders.

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Jan Stewart is a highly regarded mental health and neurodiversity advocate. Her brutally honest memoir Hold on Tight: A Parent’s Journey Raising Children with Mental Illness describes her emotional roller coaster story parenting two children with multiple mental health and neurodevelopmental disorders.

Her mission is to inspire and empower parents to persevere through the most difficult of times and have hope, as well as to better educate their families, friends, health care professionals, educators and employers. Jan chairs the Board of Directors at Kerry’s Place Autism Services, Canada’s largest autism services provider, and was previously Vice Chair at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.

She spent most of her career as a senior Partner with the global executive search firm Egon Zehnder. Jan is a Diamond Life Master in bridge and enjoys fitness, genealogy and dance.

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