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Travel tips for your child on the spectrum


It’s that time of year, and although pandemic restrictions vary, many families this season will be traveling to see loved ones far away. And while that can be a nerve-wracking experience for anyone, it can be particularly tough for kids on the spectrum.

For your autistic child, air travel means a change in routine. It means having to face and figure out strange, unfamiliar places and new rules. There’s a potential of sensory overload with all the noises, the smells, the people – all of it.

If you’re traveling this holiday, here are some tips to keep in mind to help make the journey just a little bit easier for your child and for you.

Write it down and keep the date visible. Consider marking the date of travel on a calendar or writing it on a colorful piece of paper that you can hang on the fridge. Count down the days with your child and make it a fun little exercise every day. You can even put one item in the suitcase for every checked off day.

Write out a social story. Create a word social story (or draw out a social story) that details the process of travel. Create a visual for your child as to how it might go the morning of your trip, what parking is going to be like once at the airport, what you might expect to go through at security, and what the terminal, baggage check and waiting area looks like. Consider explaining what some new sensory experiences might come up, like ear popping on takeoff and the little bumps upon landing. Review this story every few days for several weeks. It will help the unfamiliar look and sound and feel a little more familiar to your child.

Ask your child to tell you the story. After some time of sharing the social story, ask your child to tell you what they’ve learned and what they expect. This will show you how much of the social story your child has understood. If your child is verbal, they might repeat the story back; if your child is non-verbal, they may be able to share the story through pictures or toys.

Pack foods and snacks ahead of time. Although there are sure to be some food vendors around the terminal or on the road to the airport, your child may have dietary restrictions that won’t allow “pick-up-and-go” kind of meals. They may also be very particular and will want a favorite, familiar food. An extra tip? Pack chewy or crunchy foods to help with sensory stimulation.

Bring comfort items. When anyone, least of all someone on the spectrum, is met with a new experience, it can be very scary. Having a comfort item, like a favorite blanket or a toy, can bring much-needed relief and a sense of safety.

Ask about accommodations. Once at the airport, let airport personnel know you’re traveling with an autistic child. You may be surprised at the compassion and kindness of people, but there are also established protocol the TSA follows for those who require special accommodations.

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