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How to Make Destination Travel Successful for People with Autism and Disabilities

By Fraser Sensory Supports and Training Manager Gina Brady and Pam Dewey • traveling tips for people with autism, traveling tips for people with disabilities, traveling advice for kids with autism, traveling advice for people with autism, air travel for kids with autism, destination travel for kids with sensory sensitivities, destination travel for kids with disabilities, flying with autism, flying with disabilities, traveling with autism, traveling with disabilities, sensory tools, sensory friendly, sensory accommodations, inclusivity, sensory friendly environment, inclusion, sensory tools for autism, sensory tools for kids with autism, sensory sensitivity, autism, autism spectrum, neurodiversity, neurodivergent • December 15, 2022

When you’re at home, your family has a routine. Your child generally knows what to expect. However, when you travel, everything is different: the weather, the food, your schedule and the bed you sleep in. For many people with autism and disabilities, change is disruptive and can be upsetting. Your loved one may also have sensory processing differences, which means loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, crowds or other sensory input feels completely overwhelming.

However, that doesn’t mean that your family can’t travel. Here are some ideas to help make traveling to a vacation destination more successful for families.

Research accessibility options

Before you plan your trip, visit your destination’s website to view their accessibility options. People with mobility issues may be able to rent a wheelchair or another type of motorized vehicle to navigate the park or attraction. Many museums and other attractions offer assistive listening devices for those with hearing loss. You may also be able to arrange for an American Sign Language interpreter, if you reach out ahead of time, or an interpreter may be available during certain performances at your destination. You can also call ahead and ask about specific accommodations you’re concerned about.

Consider a hotel, and pick your room thoughtfully

Every family has different needs, and it’s okay to do what works best for your family. Tiffany Hammond is a mother to two children with autism, an autistic self-advocate, and a writer. Her family often chooses not to stay with relatives, even if relatives offer to host them. She writes, “It always feels as if there are unspoken rules that we might not be able to follow, or there might not be space in a crowded home for us to go when we are overwhelmed.” Instead, they usually stay at a hotel. She says they also “choose rooms that are in far corners with no neighbors on either side or only on one side; we feel responsible for making sure our children not only have a stress-free travel experience, but also that our family doesn’t disturb others.”

Set some time aside for your family

Previously, Tiffany and her family thought they couldn’t travel. However, they figured out they could make it work, if they set up some boundaries. She writes, “We allowed ourselves to do things apart from the family if we felt their activities would be too overwhelming. That year, we found a small Christmas tree farm with games, hayrides and carnival snacks. We had epic Hallmark movie nights in our hotel with lots of local goodies to munch on. It showed us that we could travel on our terms, in our own way — and we have been doing it ever since.”

At the Amusement Park, Museum, Beach or Attraction

Dress your loved one in bright colors

Some children with autism or disabilities are prone to elopement, a.k.a. running off. Fraser Sensory CertifiedTM Supports and Program Training Manager Gina Brady says she spoke to a mother who took her family, including her son with autism, to Disney. The family wore brightly-colored matching shirts, so they would be easier to find. You could even have just your loved one with autism or a disability wear a brightly-colored shirt. The family also put one of the parents’ phone numbers on the back of the boy’s shirt, in case they were separated.

Divide and conquer

Another suggestion that worked well for this family, says Brady, was taking shifts with a partner, so one parent is solely focused on the child with autism or disability to keep them with the group. Then switch every so often, so everyone gets to spend time with the rest of the family too. This means someone is always watching to make sure the child doesn’t wander.

Look for a fast pass option

When this family visited Disney, they downloaded a Disney app, which allowed them to use a “Lightning Lane” for a few rides per day, so they could skip the line for these rides. Check to see if your destination has some kind of a fast pass option. You might be able to pay more for your passes, or find a special add-on option.

Pack sensory tools

This is where sensory tools like headphones, fidgets, chewies, sunglasses or compression clothing might be helpful. All can provide calming input in your car, waiting in line or at your destination.

Consider the environment

If you’re traveling to the beach, will your child like the feeling of sand on their feet? If not, pack sneakers or water shoes. You’ll also want to bring sunglasses and consider renting or bringing a beach umbrella.

Compression clothing might not be the best idea in warm climates. You may also want to pack a cool compress and a reusable water bottle.

Bring your own snacks

Brady says the park was fine with the family bringing a backpack with their son’s preferred food and drink because he has a very limited diet and eats the same thing for lunch and dinner every day. You can call ahead and ask if your destination can make this kind of accommodation. You should also plan to bring along your loved one’s favorite snacks.

Seek quiet areas

Look at a map of the theme park, mall or attraction, or visit their website before to find quiet areas. However, an outside destination won’t be as loud as, say, an indoor amusement park.

Let your child make some decisions

Brady said the family found it best to have the child direct which rides they wanted to go on, and not to push too hard if they wanted to skip rides. The mom said they encouraged their child to go on a water ride, and he hated it and wouldn’t go on any rides for several hours after. It’s better to compromise, rather than risk a meltdown or your child shutting down completely.

Traveling is more difficult for people with autism and disabilities. However, with careful planning and preparation, your family can travel, whether you’re going to see extended family or enjoying a beach getaway.