How to Travel with Kids with Autism

Autism, Special Needs Parenting

I’ve worked with many families that have a young child with autism that want to travel.  They want to visit relatives, go to Disneyland, or go on a long-awaited trip with friends.  However, it seems like an impossibility.


Last week I said parents of kids with special needs have to prepare a lot more (especially during the holidays and when traveling) than other families.  But, it can be done.  You can travel with a child with special needs.  You’ll have extra things to add to you to-do list and you’ll need to plan ahead, however, your family can travel safely and with less stress.


What’s Best for Your Family Right Now?

Before choosing your destination or deciding whether you’ll drive to Grandma’s house or fly, think about this —


What is best for my family this year?  Also, what is my child capable of right now?


These are tough questions to ask because it means you’ll either:

  • have to potentially stay home this year OR
  • you’ll have a seemingly endless list of things to do.


Spend some time thinking through those two questions.  Discuss the pros and cons of staying home and going on your trip.  I’m a huge fan of writing things down!  Make your lists and then decide what’s best for your family this year.


Gather Information — NOW!


If you’ve decided to travel this holiday season, get as much information as possible right now!




  • Contact your specific airline. They will give you information about seating and other procedures and accommodations for passengers with special needs.


  • Contact TSA cares.  They help travelers with special needs, medical conditions, and other situations that need extra assistance.  They will meet you at the airport and help you with screening, check in, and boarding.  Make sure to call at least 72 hours before your flight.  No matter which airline you are using, you can fill out the TSA Cares form on their website to request assistance.


  • Contact your child’s pediatrician.  If you need medication refills or supplies, get that ahead of time.  In addition to that, you can request to have your child’s doctor write a letter that documents their special needs and diagnosis.  You may need to show this when you check in and board.


Hotels and Outings


  • If you’re staying at a hotel, call ahead of time to find out about their policies and accommodations for travelers with special needs.


  • Also, think about the room itself.  Are there certain safety concerns you have and need to plan for (balconies, beds, pool access, locks, etc.)?  Think about safety issues at home.  They might follow you to the hotel — and you’ll need to be ready for them!


  • If you’re going to specific theme parks, tourist attractions, etc., contact those specific places to find out how you can make your time there more successful.  Again, call ahead early and plan for potential safety issues.


Plan, Plan, Plan


Now that you have gathered your information, you can put that into motion!


Book your airline tickets.  Buy your theme park passes.  Book the hotel rooms.


While you’re doing all of this, keep the following in mind:

  • What are potential sensory challenges?  How can you decrease them or minimize the effect they have on your child?  Think about what is hard for your child at home, school, in the community, at grandma’s house, etc.  What are strategies that work in those situations?
  • Will there be travel breaks?
    • If you’re flying, do you have a direct flight or will there be multiple flights?  Is there time in between to get to your next gate, get something to eat, change diapers, charge the iPAD, etc.?  What will need to happen if there’s a delayed or cancelled flight?
    • If you’re driving, how often do you anticipate needing to stop?  Plan where you’ll stop so you can make sure there’s a park and food or whatever you might need.  (Personally, when traveling with my little kids, it’s better to take a break before everyone melts down!)
  • Is there a better time to travel?
    • This might be out of your hands if you’re flying somewhere, but you can check to see if there’s a flight that works better with your child’s meal and nap times.
    • If you’re driving you can decide if it’s better to start the trip early in the day, leave around nap time, or drive at night and hope the kids sleep.


Prepare Your Child


This is going to be highly dependent on your child’s age and understanding.


Discussing basics such as where you are going, who will be there, and when you’re going can help prepare your child.  You can also discuss how you are going to get there (driving, flying, etc.) and how many days you’ll be gone.


Showing your child pictures of the place(s) you’ll be and who will be there can help.  If you’ve been there before, show them pictures of that as well.


Also, talk about what they can do during the trip — eat a snack, watch the iPAD, play with toys, color, etc.


If you have the time, you can also do a dry run.  For example, if you’re flying you can drive to the airport and walk inside.  You can’t go far, but you can walk with your child, talk about what you see, and what you will do.  Keep it simple!


The dry run can also let you know if there’s anything that your child didn’t like or was bothered by.


If you’re flying, everyone over the age of 2 is still required to wear a mask.  If you need help teaching your child how to do this, I just wrote a post about that!


Pack with a Purpose


Bring all of the things and keep it organized as best you can!


That’s really all I can say about this.


My kids are older now and can carry their own backpack of goodies and screens.  And I’m so grateful for that!


But, if you still have young kiddos, prepare to feel like a pack mule!


Make a list of comfort items, favorite snacks, and toys your child uses every day.


Don’t forget the headphones, masks, chargers, batteries, strollers, car seats, blankets, and medications.


And then just try to remember where all of those things are!


Safety Issues


My mom and dad had three girls — I’m the oldest and always did exactly what I was supposed to do.  I was the rule follower!  (Any other first borns out there like this????)


My mom used to see parents with leashes on their kids and she was horrified!


Until she had a kid that needed a leash.  (The middle child of course!)


It’s going to be really important that you and the other adults you’re traveling with know exactly how you’re going to keep track of your kiddos.


Strollers are great if you can.  If your child will walk with you and stay by you…awesome!


However, if your child is a runner on every other day, chances are that will continue on vacation.


In addition to running away, our kids can’t tell someone what their parents’ names are, phone number, or sometimes even what their own name is.


So, you need to be prepared.


A few years ago, my son was taking his first field trip — the zoo.  These brave (or crazy) kindergarten teachers were taking dozens of five year olds to the zoo.  As I was standing with my neighbor, waiting to see the kids off, she called her son over and snapped a quick picture of him and said, “That’s in case he gets lost and I need to remember what he’s wearing.”


I immediately yelled at my son to do the same thing!  So simple, yet I never thought of it.


Take a picture of your child that day.  You’ll be able to show the most current picture of your child and what they were wearing.


Another mom told me about these ID bracelets from Road ID.  You can have them engraved with whatever information you need.  They’re stretchy, but they aren’t big enough that they’d easily fall off.


Bright (or other stand out) clothing is also helpful.  I’ve also seen temporary tattoos that you can order with your information on it.


I also wrote an article about how to teach your child to respond to their name — this is also really important when traveling!


Good Luck to You!


If after weighing your options, you decide a simple, stay-cation is best, that’s wonderful!


We can all feel pressure from family and friends to visit and be together on the holidays.  However, if you know this isn’t the year for you, trust yourself and do what’s best for your family!  (If you need help on how to talk to your extended family, read this post.)


If you decide to power through and travel this holiday season, that’s awesome!  Remember the things discussed above to help you get ready.


You can also head to last week’s post for more information on planning and getting through this holiday season.


I hope whatever you decide this year that you and your family have a happy and safe holiday season!


If you have any travel tips that worked well for your family, I’d love to hear about them!





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