Traveling with kids has its challenges. Toddlers like to wander off; older kids are annoyed that they have to do anything mom and dad say, and babies, well, who knows what a baby will do. Travel can be stressful when you are a parent, but it can be stressful for the child as well, especially if they are autistic.
My boys are not on the spectrum, but I have friends with children who are. Their patience is unending and they do not let anything or anyone tell them they can't travel just because their child has a special need and may need some extra time or help during their journey. Whether you have a child on the spectrum or not, here are a few tips I've picked up from friends and the experts when traveling with kids with autism.
You as the parent must have patience, but those around you need to have patience as well. A child with autism may need extra time to board a plane, they may kick the seat in front of them, they may even have to cut in line at the museum because they just can't wait any longer without a major meltdown. This is not the parent being rude or taking advantage of a situation. This is truly the only way to get through the day. If you are close by a parent like this, smile as you walk by, which will silently let the parents know you don't think they are weird or rude. They are just doing their job.
Transitions to a new location can be difficult and filled with stress. According to a Parents.com article by Ruth Manuel-Logan, "Children with autism are stress detectors. They sense others' stress and react in ways that are considered an interruption to the planned agenda for the day." Mountain and beach destinations tend to be more flexible and not packed with activities filled with people. However, Manuel-Logan does recommend you keep your child's interests in mind. If they love amusement parks, don't keep that off of the itinerary. Include your child in the planning so they can feel in control and have a say in what they want to do. You can even role-play ahead of time to give your child an idea of what they might see and do while traveling.
Margalit Sturm Francus from TravelingMom.com wrote a great article titled What I Wish Other Travelers Knew About My Autistic Son. One thing she addresses is the sensory stimulation many autistic children (and adults) feel. Some have to touch everything while others can't stand to be touched. This can be a problem at security. As a parent, make sure you notify TSA or the security team at the airport you are traveling through, so they can help you as best they can. Remember to be very specific about what you need. Many people have not come into contact with an autistic child and may not even know what it means. Help them understand, so they can help you. TSA even encourages this on their website: "Inform the TSA officer if the child has a disability, medical condition or medical device, and advise the officer of the best way to relieve any concerns during the screening process."
Spread the Word
You don't need to yell it from the rooftops that your child is autistic, but when you are traveling, you do need to tell a few key people. TSA agents fall into that category, but Beth from CloudSurfingKids.com stresses that you should also tell your flight crew as soon as possible. More than one family has been kicked off a flight because their child was disruptive, whether they are autistic or not. Beth, who is a flight attendant and family travel blogger, asked her colleagues what they thought, and the overwhelming response was that the flight attendants wanted to know. They would rather be more sensitive than just assume you have a problem child. They would also like to help in the best way possible, so let them know what you might need if your child melts down.
Flying with Autism
According to another post on CloudSurfingKids.com, anytime you can speed up the process of flying it can help. Apply for TSA Pre-Check or Global Entry to get you through security faster. Have a friend drop you off at the airport so you don't have to add additional steps to park the car and take a shuttle to the airport. Ask the gate agents if you can preboard. Many airlines aren't offering preboarding to families anymore, but if you explain your situation and that you may need extra time most gate agents will be accommodating.
No matter your child's age, it is OK to take a break and give everyone a time out from your adventure. Give your child a little room to breathe and get his bearings. You may need a break as well. It is easy to forget to take care of yourself when you are taking care of someone else all of the time. Take a nap or head to the spa for a massage if you are traveling with another adult who can stay with your child. Allowing for time to rejuvenate yourself and giving your child the break they need will help you all to continue to have a great experience.
All children and adults with autism should carry ID, whether it be a driver license, state ID, medical bracelet, necklace, or tag to be put on a shoe lace with an up-to-date phone number on it. Chantal Sicile-Kira, in an article on AutismSpeaks.org, says this is especially important if your child is nonverbal and cannot tell someone where they live or how to call you if they get lost. Autistic children tend to wander off. Keep them safe and you sane by giving them an ID that can help others help them. Make sure you include any medical conditions and allergies just in case.