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Do you need autism resources for travel? Is this you?
“I want to go on vacation – but it’s too hard to plan, we don’t know where to go, my autistic family member won’t have fun, my neurotypical kids won’t have fun….”
Autism families had no shortage of reasons to cancel or postpone (or never even schedule) vacations well before 2020. The barrage of stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions, and mask mandates brought on by the pandemics just added insult to injury.
But as our society seeks a path forward, one toward embracing science, and widely distributing vaccines, it will once again be possible to safely travel. Which still leaves you and your family with autism – and all its challenges and impacts on travel.
So let’s take a look at what some of those challenges are – and how you can start to address them – so that when the world is ready for widespread travel again, so is your autism family. Tackle these challenges and you’ll be ready for travel with an autistic kid.
Challenge #1: We don’t know where to start.
Can you go on vacation with an autistic kid? How do you go on vacation with an autistic kid? If your diagnosis is relatively new, or if your child is young, you may not have ever tried to travel with autism. When it’s safe to travel, you owe it to yourself – and the rest of your family – to find a change of scene. The change in input is helpful to the human brain. And the hardest part is often the dread of the uncertainty – once you start planning, you can allow some anticipation and excitement to build. The best time to plan your next vacation is NOW.
Challenge #2: We don’t know where to go.
Consider a destination that plays to your autistic loved one’s strengths and interests. For some, that means Disney or other theme parks. For others, that could mean seeking out specific museums or other attractions – like train or car museums, or the Baseball Hall of Fame. For us – and many other families – the answer must include water. Lots of it. And preferably swimmable year-round. So for us, the answer is always Kona.
Challenge #3: We don’t know where to stay.
Where to stay on vacation with an autistic kid? Consider your options. But for both safety of your family – and your autistic loved one – you will be hard-pressed to beat a vacation rental home. Here is why your next vacation should be in a rental home:
- You can be more self-contained on vacation – with fewer unplanned interactions that could cause meltdowns.
- You can avoid crowds – an issue for many autistic individuals, even after the pandemic subsides.
- You can more easily enjoy take out meals at your leisure – most vacation rental homes provide full kitchens
- You can have more access to outdoor spaces – most vacation rentals include outdoor areas which supports individuals who need a high level of activity and movement
Challenge #4: We’re not sure about flying.
How to fly with an autistic kid? It’s not always easy, but it is far from impossible. I have a shared a lot of tips here, but the world has changed since I wrote that piece.
If you are reading this, chances are you have at least some recollection of flying before September of 2001. The industry evolved and flying since 2001 has meant a steady increase in security measures – clear bags for liquids, removing shoes, high-tech body scanners, and trained canines. The year 2020 marked another pivotal year in airplane travel – which will mean a new set of restrictions that we will all have to learn.
Airplane travel in the new now means masks (or mask exemptions), a high level of cleaning, fewer inflight meals and beverages, and more deliberate boarding and deplaning processes. Also consider an overall reduction in traffic and parking congestion in most urban areas, as well as continued under-booked flights on many routes. Spoiler alert: almost all of these changes actually make it easier to fly with an autistic individual. The most notable exception is the mask requirement or need for an exemption. But if even half of these characteristics of the “new now” stick around, they could actually continue to support autism families in smoother travel going forward.
The mask requirement and exemption process is complex. From July 2020 to February 2021 there was basically no option for travelers with any disability to fly without a mask on most airlines. Hawaiian Airlines is a notable exception- they have provided an option for an onsite health screening for individuals with disabilities or health conditions preventing mask wearing.
In early 2021 federal regulation of mask wearing when crossing state lines meant that airlines were subject to the Americans with Disabilities Act and thus they were required to create mask exemption policies. Those policies vary widely. Southwest Airlines involves them being able to reschedule your flight if it is more than 50% at capacity – a total disruption to your entire family, but especially an autistic individual. Alaska Airlines is one of the more reasonable – requiring a a doctor’s certification and a pre-travel negative COVID test in both directions.
In all times, not just now, TSA Cares is one of my favorite autism resources for travel. Call before you travel and you and your family will qualify for support in managing the security process at the airport in both directions. When larger scale activities resume, you will likely be able to find events that allow for practice gate clearance and boarding.
Ideally we will also see a full-scale roll-out of the sunflower lanyard system, an international program that is growing in usage to indicate to airport personnel that an individual has a invisible disability. Lastly, if social stories are helpful to your autistic loved one, consider the app for Magnus Cards. They partner with airports, restaurants and other places of interest to provide these clear, understandable digital social stories.
Challenge #5: We have too much stuff we need.
First things first – pack lighter than you think for everyone. Prioritize everyone being able to carry their own luggage personally from an early age (to the extent possible), so that if there are extras that are required by your child with autism that you have the flexibility to fit those in. If there is something bulky that you know you will absolutely need (such as a particular brand of food or diapers) then plan to either ship them ahead to your destination or have them delivered from a local supplier. More packing tips here.
Challenge #6: We have too many medications to manage.
Mr. Diggy takes several prescription and non-prescription medications – and the collection can be a bit daunting to pack. For vitamins and supplements, we use 7-day pill boxes from our local pharmacy. One prescription medication needs to be split – so we split the pills at home and put them back in the labeled container (we do take a few extra, as we do NOT pack the pill splitter in our luggage – we only do carry on). We do, however, pack a pill crusher, that has no blade attached, to crush the pills once we have arrived.
If you are struggling and need some help coming up for air, you may not always think about travel as the way to re-center yourself. But with these autism resources for travel, you can tackle these challenges – and then get on with having a great time!
Special Needs Vacations: 3 Ways to Find Peace of Mind
4 Ways of Rethinking Travel for Your Special Needs Family