7 Little Ways to Make Travel More Comfortable for a Kid with Autism

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Waiting in long lines, trying new foods, walking through packed crowds, dealing with motion sickness…traveling with kids is not easy. And for families with children on the autism spectrum, there are often even more challenges to consider in order to ensure a successful vacation. Which is why for many parents of children with neurodiverse kids, the thought of travel can be so intimidating that they may not even attempt it. Yet every family deserves to travel, asserts Dawn M. Barclay, travel expert and author of Traveling Different: Vacation Strategies for Parents of the Anxious, the Inflexible, and the Neurodiverse.  

In her book, Barclay interviews psychologists, travel agents, parents and more to create a travel guide for families with special needs. With best practices for navigating air travel, rail travel, cruising, hotels, restaurants and more, there’s a wealth of information in her book for all kinds of scenarios and concerns; but here are seven travel tweaks that the expert says can promote an enriching vacation experience. (And by the way, these tips are helpful for all families, not just those with neurodiverse children.)

1. Start Small

Breaking out of the familiarity of routine is best done in stages, says Barclay. “Start with trips to the grocery store. Then day trips. An overnight to a local hotel. A two-day road trip somewhere close by. A three-day stay at a theme park. A week-long trip that includes an airplane ride and new experiences,” she writes. The zoo is a perfect outing for kids with autism, thanks to a low chance for sensory overload, the ability to walk around the exhibits at your own pace and the option to bring your own snacks and drinks. Other ‘start small’ ideas: visiting a nearby museum or farm, apple picking at the local orchard, taking a hike or bike ride together, or even setting up a tent and sleeping bags in the backyard.

2. Do a Walk-Through

Schedules are your friend, asserts Barclay. Prepare a detailed schedule of the travel plans for your child (including lots of breaks for downtime) and describe each expected environment. “Introduce the idea of airline travel long before the flight through Social Stories [stories written from the child’s POV to help those on the spectrum cope with new or problematic situations], picture books, role play, visits to programs like Wings for Autism, or just an advance visit to the airport with programs that a particular airline may provide.” The same goes for other forms of travel—Barclay suggests visiting a passenger terminal in advance of a train trip, for example, so that the child can experience the station, view the trains and hear the sounds involved.

3. Weed Out Potentially Upsetting Stimuli

Sensory issues are common in children with autism (they are included in the diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder), which is why it’s a good idea to anticipate potential overstimulation and introduce some of the newer sensory experiences in advance. “If the weather at your destination requires different attire than at home, practice wearing these garments before departure.” Or if your child hasn’t experienced a beach before, introduce what sand feels like before leaving for your trip. For public restrooms, be prepared with noise-canceling headphones and sticky notes to put over automatic toilet sensors.

4. Pack a “Magic Bag”

Keep a special bag with items designed to ward off boredom, overwhelm or fatigue easily accessible while in transit. Items can include: noise-canceling headphones, snack-size Ziploc bags with low/no sugar foods (like popcorn, cereal, cup up carrots, animal crackers), surprises costing less than $10 in gift bags (think: Silly Putty and four-color pens), a change of clothes, art supplies, lots of Band-Aids and medication.

5. Alert Staff

“Don’t assume special needs accommodations will be offered—you must ask for them. Advocate for your child’s rights whenever necessary.” One way to do this is by using a certified autism travel professional to book your trip, or if you’re booking on your own you can make a note in the reservation for any special accommodations that may be needed.

6. Seek Out Destinations That Are Autism-Friendly or Autism-Certified

“They may have lowered lighting, fewer people, less noise and sensory rooms or quiet family rooms where you can retreat and recharge.” To find autism-friendly destinations, check out, a website that offers up-to-date listings on venues designated as Certified Autism Centers (CACs) or Advanced Certified Autism Centers (ACACs). Sesame Place in Pennsylvania, SeaWorld Orlando in Florida and Nickelodeon Universe in the Mall of America in Minnesota, are all CACs, for example.

7. Set Your Own Expectations

“Don’t insist that your children act like they’re neurotypical; they’re not, they can’t, and why would you want them to? Those with neurodivergent brains can envision novel circumstances with unsurpassed creativity, passion, intuition, humor and kindness,” writes Dr. Ellen Littman, a New York-based clinical psychologist specializing in attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, in the book. She notes that the best family vacations happen when parents prioritize their kid’s needs—regardless of any diagnosis or lack of same. How do you do that? Keep their interests, preferences, and sensitivities front of mind. “Get a babysitter when you yearn for a high-end restaurant or a night at the theater. When parents demonstrate attuned expectations, children feel more valued, more respected, and more invested in creating treasured family memoirs.”

17 Things Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum Want You to Know

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Executive Editor

Alexia Dellner is an executive editor at PureWow who has over ten years of experience covering a broad range of topics including health, wellness, travel, family, culture and...