Travel can be stressful for anyone, but it can especially challenging for those on the autism spectrum, as well as their families. With some planning and advance preparation, you can minimize some of the difficulties and get the most enjoyment out of your vacation as possible. We hope some of the following travel tips are helpful for you.
While there are limitless options of vacation destinations, you will of course take your family’s interests and needs into consideration when selecting the best one for you.
Does your child have difficulty in crowds or noisy places? Perhaps a lake resort or mountain setting would be a good option. Do you think your child would prefer constant activity? Then an amusement park, cruise or inclusive resort might be your best bet.
You can plan the vacation yourself or visit an all-inclusive resort where everything is planned for you and all you have to do is show up. Some examples of resorts that cater to people with autism are:
• Tradewinds Resort (St. Petersburg Beach, Florida): The resort staff undergoes continuous training to ensure they understand sensitivities, developmental disabilities and unique situations so. They offer room safety kits, gluten free menus, temporary ID safety tattoos, Kids Club activities that are special needs friendly and more.
• Beaches Resorts (Turks & Caicos and Jamaica): As home to the Caribbean’s first autism-friendly kids camps, Beaches is the first resort company in the world to complete The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) training and Autism Certification. They offer families with children with autism and other special needs specialized service, engaging activities and custom dining options so that all families may enjoy a memorable experience.
• Smuggler’s Notch (Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont): If your family prefers the mountains and activities such as hiking, snowboarding or horseback riding, then Smuggler’s Notch might be for you. The Smugglers’ Notch Adaptive Program provides therapeutic recreation for children and adults of all abilities in a supportive environment. Experiences are tailored to meet the needs and goals of each individual.
• You know your child best. You will need to be the judge if you should begin preparing your child for a change in schedule many weeks in advance or filling him in on the details closer to the departure so there’s less time to build up anxiety and perseverate on the upcoming change.
• Take a little time every day to talk to your child about the trip schedule, perhaps showing him or her relevant pictures to create a visual timeline of the trip.
• If your child is able to use a calendar, make note of the upcoming events on the respective days. Maybe put pictures of the events on the appropriate days.
• Practice vacation scenarios in advance through role play.
• Social stories can be a great resource in preparing for change or an anxiety-provoking event (such as traveling). These are short stories, often with pictures, that describe different situations and activities so that children with autism know what to expect from different situations. Here are some tips for creating a customized one for your child and your vacation.
Make your trip go more smoothly by calling ahead to make any special arrangements. Call airlines, hotels, resorts, amusement parks or campgrounds to let them know you are traveling with a family member with autism. Tell them your needs and find out what services they can offer to make your trip easier.
• Jet Blue has partnered with several autism organizations to develop programs, such as Blue Horizons with Autism Speaks and Wings for Autism with ARC, which help introduce individuals with autism to flying. During the events families come to the airport, go through the check-in process and security prior to boarding a Jet Blue aircraft. The staff welcomes everyone on board and then proceeds to explain the routine. After a short stay onboard that includes taxiing around the airport for approximately 20 minutes and snacks, the families deplane. Parents flying with Jet Blue should notify the airline’s Special Needs Desk of their child’s diagnosis. JetBlue offers assistance specific to your needs, such as disability seating and pre-boarding, through the Disability Assistance Line. Call 1-855-ADA-LINE (232-5463).
• American Airlines provides pre-boarding for passengers with autism and their families. The American Airlines website gives instructions on how to contact customer service representatives about traveling with a disability. The airline reserves priority seating for passengers with disabilities and their families in advance. If you would like to take advantage of priority seating, let the airline personnel know when you make the reservation. The airline will do its best to make last-minute accommodations, but the more notice you give, the more likely they will be able to help. They recommend also letting a flight agent know about any special needs when you arrive at the airport.
• Delta offers pre-boarding for passengers with autism and their families. They offer a phone number (1-404-209-3434) for Disability Assistance and recommend you call and let them know about any special needs when you first make your flight reservation. Airline personnel will let the gate personnel know in advance that a person with autism will be on-board the flight. Let the flight crew know about any special needs when you board the plane. Delta assigns seating in advance, but you will be able to ask a flight attendant if you can move seats mid-flight. They cannot guarantee anything, but they will do their best to reseat you. They also recommend that families traveling with an individual with autism allow one additional hour at the airport before departure time.
Hotels & Resorts
Some hotel chains offer “autism friendly” accommodations, such as Wyndham Garden Austin, Ramada by Wyndham Tampa Airport Westshore, and The Clinton Inn in Tenafly, NJ, so be sure to ask at your destination if there are ways they can accommodate your family’s special needs.
Speak to your hotel’s concierge before arrival. They can help make reservations and other arrangements to plan an easy stay. If necessary, concierge staff may be able to provide assistance with medical rentals or purchases of supplies from drugstores and local pharmacies. You can also ask hotel staff ahead of time for a list of both outdoor and indoor activities in the area suitable for children with autism.
If a theme or amusement park is your main vacation destination, reach out ahead of time to learn what arrangements can be made for family members with special needs. Some examples that cater to people with autism are:
• Disney: There are Disney locations all around the world and catering to special needs guests is important to all of them. While amusement parks have crowds, loud noises and much activity, Disney manages to personalize service for those with special needs. They provide assistance for those with cognitive, visual, hearing and mobility disabilities, plus light sensitivity, and also provide help for those in wheelchairs. Their new Disability Access Service Card (DAS) allows guests with disabilities at Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort to receive a return time for attractions to minimize or potentially alleviate waiting in line altogether. Disney hotels cater to special needs families, as well.
• Sesame Place: This popular Pennsylvania theme park, filled with rides, attractions and beloved Sesame Street characters, is the first amusement park to be designated a Certified Autism Center. The entire staff has undergone autism sensitivity and awareness training which focuses on “sensory awareness, environment, communication, motor and social skills, program development, and emotional awareness” and must be retaken every two years. You can purchase an Unlimited Magic Queue pass to skip the regular lines and get priority boarding on the most popular rides all day long. And be sure to check-in at Guest Services to get a Quickpay Wristband for paying for purchases or a Handicapped Access arm band if you need it.
• Six Flags: New Jersey’s Six Flags’ Attraction Access Program is designed to accommodate guests with disabilities or certain other impairments so they may fully enjoy Six Flags’ parks. The pass is helpful for guests who are unable to wait in ride lines due to a disability, mobility impairments, or other qualifying impairments. You will need to provide a doctor’s note at Guest Services to pick up the pass. Each attraction at Six Flags has been evaluated for the safety of their special needs guests and they strive to make the park fun and accessible for everyone.
There are campsites that specifically cater to special needs children and their families. The National Park Service strives to be accessible to all and has a free download available to help you research specific amenities. Recreation.gov allows you to refine search results based on various topics including accessibility.
Before arriving, you’ll want to find out features about your potential camp-site like:
• Is there electricity to keep devices charged?
• Where is the nearest bathroom/bathing facility (if you’re not in a camper)?
• Is there a nurse or first aid center on-site?
You know best what items your child must have on a trip, like noise-cancelling headphones or favorite pillow, but don’t forget things like:
• First aid kit
• Wearable ID (consider waterproof Travel Bands)
• Electronics chargers and back-up chargers
• Favorite snacks
• Broken-in clothing (walking around a hot amusement park is not the time to be wearing new sneakers for the first time!)
• Insect repellant
• Refillable water bottles
• Water devices (such as a life jacket or swimmies) if applicable
• Don’t overschedule. No one is at their best when over-tired and physically exhausted.
• Prepare to be flexible and change plans if necessary.
• Staying at recognizable chain hotels can create a comfortable familiarity and expectation for certain standards.
• Schedule arrival time for after hotel check-in time to avoid waiting.
• Keep several forms of entertainment on hand at all times. If wi-fi or electronic devices fail, be prepared with a magazine, music, activity book or game.
• Make sure you have chargers and back-up chargers for all cell phones and electronic devices.
• Stick to regular mealtimes and keep snacks and water available at all times.
• Have a time-out plan and location before starting each day in case your child needs a break.
• Take a photo of your child each morning in the day’s outfit just in case they get separated from you.
• If possible, avoid the most crowded times at beaches, parks and dining locations.
And a bonus tip:
• Enjoy Your Time Together!
Published August 1, 2018