Motherly Collective

The holidays are quickly approaching, and airlines predict that this holiday travel season will be the “busiest ever.” After a few years of staying close to home, people are ready to reconnect with distant family and friends or to finally visit bucket-list destinations. 

While travel typically includes stress, it’s more stressful for some than others. Children with autism, disabilities, or sensory processing differences may be particularly overstimulated during travel. The abrupt change in routine, combined with new foods, bustling crowds, loud noises, different sleeping situations, and even a different climate, can add up to be very overwhelming. 

If your family includes a child with autism or a disability, the idea of traveling may be daunting. Thankfully, there are a few tips you can keep in mind to make destination travel possible for your family.

3 smart tips for traveling with a child who has autism, sensory processing difference or a disability

1. Prep before you go

The best way to set your family up for success while traveling is by knowing what options exist—and then planning your trip based on what will be best for your family. 

While planning the trip, research accessibility options and possibilities. Many organizations now offer accommodations, such as assistive listening devices, sign language interpreters or captions for performances, airport navigation practice sessions, and wheelchair or motorized vehicle rental. Some organizations will adjust as able, such as by providing a hotel room at the end of the hall or one without neighbors on either side for a more sensory-friendly experience. Additionally, many buildings may have sensory spaces, quiet spaces, or wellness rooms available

If you will be visiting relatives or friends, consider what spaces or rooms will be necessary for your family’s wellness. Additionally, consider what boundaries your family needs. Communicate this clearly to avoid conflicts related to certain expectations or unspoken rules. 

2. Make a plan for the day

While it may be difficult for your child to navigate so much change, you can make decisions to minimize those changes or to help prepare your child for new experiences. 

It may be helpful to make a basic plan with a few goals for each day, such as attending this event and then visiting these people. Don’t get too specific with timelines, since they can rapidly adjust. Importantly, share the basic plan with your child so they know what to expect and can mentally prepare. 

In creating the plan, look for opportunities to incorporate structure. This could include familiar activities in the new setting, such as after-lunch playtime with their favorite toy or a similar bedtime routine. You may also consider creating a trip-specific routine, such as an evening conversation to share the best and worst parts of the day.

Include quiet time and comfortable settings in the plan. Consider where or how your child will be most comfortable in this new environment. An indoor-loving child may prefer to stay indoors, even if the beach is nearby. Perhaps your child will enjoy playing in the water, but only if they have water shoes available. Perhaps they will enjoy attending an event at the beach, but only if there’s an option to take breaks in a nearby quiet space. You may even plan a daily nap or movie time away from other people, such as solo family time in the hotel room. 

3. Be ready to adapt

Planning ahead and being ready to adjust as needed will help your family handle unexpected situations.   

Consider what tools may help your child have a great day. Will certain snacks help them handle a long afternoon? Will toys or sensory tools help your child cope with stress? If so, be sure to bring them along and keep them accessible.  

If your family is in a busy place with large crowds, it is possible one of you could get lost. What is your plan to find each other? You may all wear the same neon-colored shirt. Some families will have their child wear a brightly colored shirt, or a shirt with the parents’ phone number on the back of it. If your family group intentionally splits up for different activities, decide to meet up at a certain time and place or at least check in over text. You can also plan with your child about what to do if they get lost, and ensure your child understands and remembers the plan.

Will you assign one adult to be specifically watching your child to keep them from wandering? If so, take turns with this role to ensure no one gets too tired or distracted while supervising and so that everyone has fun on the trip. 

A note on traveling and new routines

In visiting a new place with a new routine and new challenges, your child may be most stressed about the loss of control. To help your child feel more autonomy, let them make some decisions. Ask them if they want to do this or that activity, and then go with their choice. If you’re visiting a theme park, let them choose which rides to enjoy and which to skip entirely. When so much is new, letting your child decide what to participate in may help them have a much better day. 

Destination travel may be challenging for your child if they have autism, disabilities or sensory processing differences. Yet by planning the trip to help your child have the best day possible, you and your family will be on the right path for a great, fun-filled trip away.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.