Traveling with Autism? Here are Some Tips

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Updated June 2022

June 18th is Autistic Pride Day and the perfect opportunity to plan a summer vacation, especially as COVID-19 restrictions ease.

Before the pandemic, the travel industry was beginning to recognize the importance of welcoming special needs families. Thankfully, parents traveling with a loved one who has autism spectrum disorder (ASD) now have more options.

Although traveling with an autistic individual requires extra planning and preparation, many families are more than ready. Two years of isolation, remote learning, and fewer opportunities to seek support were especially hard on special needs families.

About one in 44 children has an autism spectrum disorder,” says Diane Adreon, Ed.D. Dr. Adreon serves as division director of the Daniel Jordan Fiddle Foundation Transition and Adult Program at the Center for Autism & Related Disabilities (CARD) at the University of Miami – Nova Southeastern University campus. “The definition of autism broadened in the last 20 years and community awareness has increased. In this age of neurodiversity, we are more likely to encounter individuals with ASD and other differences. Our communities need to become comfortable interacting with people with ASD and partner with them by being empathic and welcoming, and learning strategies to successfully support them and their families.”

The travel industry is responding to special needs travelers more than ever before.

“Our Center not only connects parents with resources, we partner with the community to help them be more inclusive of people with autism,” says Dr. Adreon, who has a son with autism. The following tips and trends will help families venture forth.

“No matter where your loved one is on the spectrum, if they know what to expect, travel is less stressful,” Dr. Adreon says.

“A little planning and preparation go a long way to having a more successful travel experience.”

Discuss your plans before traveling; watch videos or share pictures of your destination and mode of transportation.

Use a calendar to count down the days before departure. Consider a trial run by staying one night at a local hotel or friend’s house. Contemplating a theme park vacation? Visit during off-peak periods when it’s less crowded. And consider practicing socially acceptable behaviors in certain travel situations. Dr. Adreon shares her own experience. “My son felt that a reclined seat back on the airplane invaded his personal space. Reminding him that people are allowed to put their seat back helped.”

For some children with autism, air travel is too much to handle. If your child tolerates flying and you use Miami International Airport, visit myMIAccess, a dedicated web platform created for passengers with disabilities. Passengers can access services, amenities, and information through this platform. (Airport personnel hope to restart MIAair’s “dress rehearsal” program this year. The pre-trip program allows special needs travelers to acclimate to the airport and prepare for future flights.)

If flying, notify the airline in advance that your travel partner has special needs.

You may want to request bulkhead seats, advance boarding or a special meal. When booking hotels, reserve a room at the quieter, less occupied end of a hallway. Bring a familiar blanket from home and if your child has nighttime accidents, pack a waterproof bed pad and request extra bedding from the front desk. Some hotels also set aside rooms for people with chemical sensitivities. If your spouse or partner can’t accompany you, bring a compassionate relative or friend.

Ready to hit the high seas? If you’re not using a company that specifically caters to families like yours, ask if the resort, hotel, airline, cruise ship or attraction has a special needs policy. Dr. Adreon, along with other autism leaders across the country, serves on the autism advisory board at Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and helped the company develop ways to accommodate people with ASD.

Pack wisely

Bring a few favorite activities, reinforcement rewards for good behavior, and a sensory aid like a stress ball or a weighted blanket to reduce anxiety. To ease your own anxiety, make your child a safety bracelet or name tag with his or her name, diagnosis, and your cell phone number. Pack ear plugs or noise canceling headphones to address noise sensitivities. And don’t forget to pack snacks. “People with ASD tend to have strong preferences for specific food items, so parents should bring food they know their child likes to eat,” Dr. Adreon says. If you anticipate toileting troubles, pack a clean change of clothes, and locate rest areas or airport bathrooms in advance.

Stress-busting strategies

Noisy, overcrowded airports and similar settings can be overwhelming.  Have a Plan B for distracted or stressful situations. Some individuals respond to calming cues such as “Take a breath” or strategies such as “First this, then this” when choosing activities the whole family will enjoy.

Several airports now offer “multi-sensory rooms” — quiet havens for adults and children with autism. Miami International Airport offers two of these environments; one in post-security in Concourse D, next to checkpoint 4, and another post-security in the H-J connector. And remember, everyone behaves better if they’re well-fed, well-rested, and get regular bathroom breaks.

Tap into tech

Assistive technology not only passes the time en route, it familiarizes your family member with travel experiences before leaving home. Some apps make it easier for non-verbal individuals to  communicate.

Home away from home

“Staying at the same place every year comforts people with ASD. It also helps to rent a place with a kitchen, since they tend to be particular about food,” Dr. Adreon says. The type of tailored experience Dr. Adreon describes inspired VillaKey vacation rentals. “My dad had Asperger’s, so we rarely took family vacations," says owner Alice Horn. "Staying in a small hotel room with his two noisy little girls was tough for him.”

Horn worked with Michael Alessandri, Ph.D., CARD’s executive director and his staff to identify vacation rentals that met the needs of families like hers. Villa Key’s autism-friendly Orlando-area vacation homes feature quiet locations, soft lighting, neutral colors, smooth linens, safety locks on windows and doors, and security fences around pools. Service pets are welcome, too.

“Families are overwhelmingly appreciative for a travel option that makes sense for them,” Horn says.

When packing your bags, don’t forget to bring your sense of humor.

“No matter how much you prepare, autism behaviors cannot always be helped," says Dr. Adreon. "People with autism are doing the best they can. The more than 15,000 South Florida families registered with our Center are doing the best they can to help their children live successfully with autism. When a parent has the courage to say, ‘My child has autism’, it expands awareness and helps communities understand that autism is not a statement about parenting.”

Travel enhances our understanding of others and the world around us. The same is true of families determined to explore despite challenges. “By educating our employees and the public to the needs of these families, we’re benefiting the families and building autism awareness,” says Horn.

If your family member has autism, you can find resources at the University of Miami’s Mailman Center for Child Development or the University of Miami-NSU CARD

For appointments and information call 305-243-6831.

Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News.  She has written for several major health care systems and the CDC. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.

Autism-friendly Travel Experiences

Disney World theme parks offer a Disability Access Service to eliminate long waits in line. Other resources include dietary accommodations, companion restrooms, break areas, advanced ticket purchases, and a Guide for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities. Another guide describes each attraction’s level of noise or darkness, flashing lights, and scents.

Aquatica Orlando, the first Certified Autism Center water park, provides staff-wide ASD sensitivity and awareness training. Families receive information about attractions, experiences, and in-park accommodations to help plan their visit. A Ride Accessibility Program keeps kids safe, while allowing everyone to participate. When it’s time to regroup, families appreciate the theme park’s quiet room and low sensory area.

VacationKids trip planners have a certified autism specialist who helps families organize theme park, cruise, and adventure destination trips. Selkie Adaptive Paddle hosts kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboard trips out of Southwest Florida. Adaptive equipment, stable boats, and modified teaching techniques welcome people of all abilities.

Florida Disabled Outdoors Association’s database of inclusive recreational opportunities helps families find fun, accessible activities throughout the state. Information is available in English and Spanish.

Autism on the Seas offers specialized programming on several cruise lines. Trained staff expedite boarding and the security/check-in process. They accompany families during activities and meals, address dietary concerns, and reserve entertainment seating. The helpers even arrange respite sessions so parents can relax and recharge.