The Neurodivergent Vacation :: Traveling with an Autistic Child


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Author’s Note :: Adult autistics prefer the use of “autistic” rather than “person with autism.” I honor that preference.

Traveling with young children can be a challenge. Add in a child with specialized needs, and the thought of international travel may feel overwhelming. Four months ago, I was feeling just that — overwhelmed. The idea of taking my three young children, one autistic, to Mexico for a beach resort getaway seemed like the furthest thing from relaxing.

Like many autistics, my son struggles with processing sensory input and communication. Change is difficult for him. Seemingly typical situations, like a crowded zoo or a hiking trail, can quickly become dangerous.

We returned from our trip last night, and I’m here to tell you, I feel refreshed. We had a fun and memorable family trip with careful planning and realistic expectations — and you can, too.

Traveling with a child who has autism can be challenging.

Pre-Vacation Preparation

Our first step was to secure passports for the kids. We booked an appointment at the courthouse using the online booking system. I highly recommend this because the parking is easy and the office is small and quiet. They were able to take our kids’ photos and complete all of the necessary steps within the same appointment.

Tip: If you have a child who struggles with eye contact, stand behind the clerk taking the photo and use “selfie mode” on your phone to get your child’s attention. Our son rarely looks into the camera for pictures, but it’s a requirement for passport photos, so this trick worked well.

Next, we applied for TSA pre-check. The quickest way to overstimulate our son is a crowded, chaotic line. Having pre-check allowed us to cruise through security at the airport. You can apply online here.

Finally, we talked about the trip! We discussed being open to trying different versions of foods our son already enjoyed, where he would sleep, and what we would do while we were there. If you have a child who is into dates, consider a countdown calendar. Talk about what your destination might be like, the foods, the climate, and where you will stay.

US travel documentsTravel Days

We allowed plenty of time to get to the airport, and we utilized our Amex card perks. If you have access to the Amex Lounge or American Airlines Admirals Club, your family can wait in a quiet environment. Our son tends to elope, meaning he runs off due to sensory overload. Having a dedicated space allowed us peace of mind. Most international airports, even smaller ones, have a VIP lounge that allows club members. 

When we arrived at our gate, we let the agent know we needed priority boarding. This option is available to anyone traveling with special needs. We boarded the plane early and were able to find our seats, talk about all of the buttons, noises, and flip the tray table up and down no less than 50 times. By the time we took off, our son was relaxed and watching a movie.

For the flight, I packed a personalized carry-on for each child. For our autistic

Our autistic son tries a new, sweet treat.

son, I included lots of crunchy snacks, lollipops for take-off and landing, sensory items, and of course, headphones! My son uses these, but we also decided to pack these Bose for the flight because they function with our iPad and provide noise cancellation.

Speaking of iPad, bring the devices. Don’t try to be a hero! I always travel with this reflective vest, too. Our son doesn’t often respond to his name, so he wears it in crowds. Pack items that soothe and occupy your autistic child, and don’t forget a bathing suit!

Tip: If your room isn’t ready when you arrive at your destination, the pool is the perfect spot for sensory seekers and avoiders. Bonus: It serves cocktails for frazzled parents.

We booked the earliest flight we could manage, and I can’t recommend this enough. The earlier in the morning, the less crowded the airport will be, but more important, the less overcrowded customs will be at your destination. A customs line is an unpredictable place. Therefore, do whatever you can to minimize your wait time, including actually sprinting to customs once you deplane. We designated my husband as the runner while I corralled the kids and met him in line.

Vacation Days

We established our vacation routine on day one. We went to the grocery store and picked up typical breakfast, lunch, and snack items to provide familiarity for our son. We bought enough toaster waffles and peanut butter sandwiches for life! Providing known foods for two out of three meals kept our son’s anxiety levels low and his world predictable. We wanted him to expand his experiences but in a manageable way.

Our vacations center around pool time and meals out. We would wake up and eat, swim at one of the pools, come back to the room for lunch and a rest break, and visit another pool in the afternoon before going out for dinner. I saw these floaties and wished I had ordered this color for safety. They were highly visible. We also followed our normal bedtime routines. Whatever you choose to do, create a routine and talk about it with your child. 

Our autistic son got lots of practice time in the pool during our vacation.

Post Vacation

After vacation, we go into “debrief” mode. We tell and retell our favorite parts about a vacation to help our son verbalize his experience.

Take some time to talk about favorite moments and activities your child may want to try again or avoid next time. Make a photo memory book. Chatbooks is practically effortless! Having a book of pictures can help your autistic child tell his or her vacation story.

The key to a successful week for our family was to balance structure and familiarity with newness and fun. Keeping our expectations for our son realistic and providing plenty of sensory downtimes was essential. It may not seem like the most thrilling of trips, but we conquered many new things and had a wonderful time in the process.

Be sure to join Fort Worth Moms neighbor group, Moms of Kids with Differences & Disabilities. 


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