Stress-Less Autism Travel Tips

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Life at home is hard enough with a child with autism and special diets, supplements, medications and sensory sensitivities.  Travel makes life more challenging because you have to do all the same routines, yet without the supports you've built into your home environment.  Trips, or even the thought of a trip, can be more stressful and exhausting than just staying home.  However, everyone can benefit from a change of scenery, having their bare feet in the sand, or seeing a doctor, so if you must travel, do it with some advance planning to alleviate some stress.

1) Air travel

Security screening varies depending on the current terror threat level and from airport to airport. Some lines are long but move quickly, but lately, they are long and move slowly.  If your child has a hard time waiting in line, he may have a much harder time waiting in a busy airport with noise and crowds in a restricted space.  The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) provides passenger support to travelers with disabilities, medical conditions, and other special circumstances including autism, allergies, intellectual disabilities, and for those needing to carry medications or liquids in excess of their guidelines. You must contact TSA Cares 72 hours in advance of travel at (855) 787-2227 or email If calling, be prepared for a very long hold time and to provide your flight numbers as well as the names of all who are traveling together.  In addition, you must print and laminate a TSA notification card to present at screening.  You will not be exempt from screening, but will have peace of mind that your items will not be taken from you, and you will not be separated from your child during the screening process.  As your child gets older and looks more like an adult, it is helpful for TSA staff to be aware that they may be slow to respond to verbal directions, be anxious or be less receptive to being touched by a stranger in a pat-down screening, for example, if they leave their ear buds or a mobile device in a sweatshirt pocket accidentally.   For special diets, I carry a Thermos of hot food and never risk contamination in an airport restaurant.  TSA always swabs the container and often asks that it be opened. Again, the notification card is helpful for them to know it is being brought as a medical necessity.  When traveling as a family, consider sitting 2 and 2 or 3 and 2, with one parent in the row in front of your special needs child, so if the seat back will be kicked or the table moved up and down frequently, you will be the one dealing with it instead of drawing the ire of a stranger.    

2)  Allergies

If traveling abroad, or domestically, it is helpful to have a card to give to a restaurant server or chef to inform them of a gluten, dairy, nut or other allergy.  That way, there are no misunderstandings.  When my teenage son traveled alone to Europe, I had three cards made in English, French, and German at Allergy Translation. You can choose from pre-made text or make your own customized card.  The peace of mind is worth the nominal fee of using their service.  

3)  Travel is no excuse for not keeping your child's diet clean

People tell me this all the time.  "I can't do a diet because we'll be at my parent's house.", or "We'll be on vacation, so I can't start a gluten-free, dairy free diet until we get home."  These are beliefs, not facts.  The availability and selection of healthy foods catering to special diets has dramatically improved over the last decade.  A little advance planning goes a long way.  Renting a vacation condo with a full kitchen or a suite hotel with kitchenette is helpful so that you're not stuck with eating out in restaurants at every meal.   Check locations of healthy grocery stores nearby before you leave and be aware of what you may need to pack from home.  I am always prepared for a weather or airport delay with food in a carry-on bag, and typically have food in my suitcase, such as cereal, pasta or bread.  If you are visiting family, having someone shop ahead of time is a blessing so that when you arrive, there is something to eat without having to go from airport to grocery store immediately with a child who is exhausted.  Your efforts to keep to a healthy diet may make your vacation much more enjoyable for everyone.

4) Everything in moderation

Be realistic. Your vacation with children is not like a honeymoon, and a vacation with a child with special needs is not like a vacation with your friends where you maximize the schedule and pack it full of activity.  If your child is young or his autism symptoms are severe, plan breaks or short adventures.  Leave before you see the meltdown point being reached.  Do your best to keep consistency, or even create social stories to read before leaving, with pictures of where you'll be going and what you'll be doing.

There is no need to fear traveling with a special needs child.  A little advance planning, consistency with your home routines and diet, as well as moderation are keys to an enjoyable and productive trip, whether it be for medical treatment or vacation, or both!