Traveling can be trying even at the best of times when you have small children. Traveling with a child with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can be even more of a challenge. Airports and train stations are areas that involve lots of waiting. Leaving the security of home for a new place can be off-putting for a child with autism. How you prepare your child depends on his age and how the ASD affects him. Some suggestions are given here that you can adapt for your own child's needs and level of ability. Remember that the first time you use this he may not understand, but over time, he will.
- Teach your child the "waiting" skill if he does not have it.
- Put up a monthly calendar and check off each day until it is time to go. Bring the calendar with you and mark off the number of days in the new place, always having the departure date indicated.
- Put together a "travel book" of pictures (and/or words) of the means of transport you are going to be using to travel ( airplane, boat, train), who you are going to see (relatives, friends), where you will sleep (hotel, Grandma's house), and what you will do or see at your destination (swimming, playing outside, visiting monuments). Go over this with him as often as you like in preparation for the trip. A three-ring binder is best, because you can add extra pages or insert the calendar mentioned above for use on the trip.
- Put together a picture or word schedule of the actual journey to take with you on your trip. Add extra pages to the travel book. Use Velcro to attach pictures or words in sequence. Add an empty envelope to put the "done" pictures in when you have finished that step of the journey. For example, if you are flying to Paris, start with a picture of the taxi or car that will take you to the airport. When you are at the airport, have him remove the taxi picture and put it in the envelope. Then have a picture of the airport, followed by the "waiting" picture, and then the airplane, and so on.
- Think of your child's daily routine and the items he likes or needs for it, and bring them along to make him feel more at home. Bring whatever foods and drinks will keep him happy on the trip.
- Buy some small inexpensive toys that he can play with. If he only plays with one favorite item, try to find a duplicate and see if you can "break it in" before the trip. Do not wash any toys before you go, as your child may find comfort in the "home" smell of his cherished item.
- When staying in a hotel, it is a good idea to call ahead and ask for a quiet room. You may wish to explain about your child's behavior if there is a good likelihood of him exhibiting it in the public part of the hotel. The same with a friend or relative's home. It can be a bit disconcerting for everyone concerned if your older child takes his clothes off and races through a friend's house stark naked.
- Make sure your child has an ID tag attached to him somewhere, with current phone number and "autism" written on it. You can order medical bracelets, necklaces, and tags to attach to shoelaces. If you can persuade your child to keep it in his pocket, also make an ID card with current photo and date, plus home and mobile phone numbers and the number of where you are staying. Indicate that your child has autism. Be sure to add any other important details: allergies, medications, and any specific information—for instance, whether the child is nonverbal.
Tips for Traveling by Plane
- Call the airlines as far in advance as you can, and tell them you will be traveling with someone who has special needs. Some airlines have "special assistance coordinators." You may wish to explain about your child's disability and some of the behaviors that may inconvenience other travelers (for example, rocking in the seat).
- If you will need help because you have other children and some carry-on luggage, and your child is a handful, request that assistance be provided after you check in to get to the gate, and ask that assistance meet you at the airplane upon arrival. Remember that the person may not understand about your needs. They may ask you questions and say that assistance is only for the physically handicapped, so you may need to explain in concrete terms why you need help (e.g., your child cannot move from one place to another without physical assistance). Always be polite but insistent.
- On the day of departure, talk to the airline agent at the check-in counter as well as the security agents about avoiding the long lines. If they are unable to help you, ask to speak to a supervisor. Sometimes, it is helpful to stress the inconvenience that the other passengers will experience (e.g., "When waiting more than fifteen minutes in a crowded area he will scream at the top of his lungs and will not stop for twenty minutes, which can be annoying to other passengers.").
- If there are two responsible persons traveling, you may wish to purchase walkie-talkies to communicate in the airport (in the event cell phones are off limits) so that one person may wait in line while the other is keeping the children happy else where.
- Let the airlines know ahead of time if your child has food allergies or sensitivities. They may be able to accommodate his special diet. Always bring food items that your child can eat in case there is a flight delay or there has been a mix-up.
- Make sure your child is wearing clothes that are loose, comfortable, and easy to pull off and on if need be. Bring any medications or pull-ups, baby wipes, assistive communication tool, diapers, preferred food and drink items, and books and toys the child likes.
- Allow yourself plenty of time to get to the airport. Everyone will be calmer if there is a feeling of calmness rather than a hurried pace.