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Tips for Traveling with Children and Adults with Autism


Tips for Traveling with Children and Adults with Autism

Summer is supposed to be a time to reward yourself and your family for a year of hard work, growth, and change. It represents a break from multiple settings and situations – school for children, and often a lull in expectations at work for adults. However, it can present another set of stressors for a family that has one or more individuals with autism. These include changes in schedules, different levels of stimuli and input, and finally, different places to go. We’re going to focus on the family trip for this lil’ article. More articles will follow…

Mary Janca on her travels

One of the best things to do to prepare for anything new is to practice. Practice, practice, practice. Sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many variables are involved in travel that could cause stress to an autistic person. Being somewhere new can make it difficult to meet basic needs (such as trying to find acceptable food options or a bathroom), and take in new sights and sounds. The more exposure that a person can get to new things, the better they will be at coping with the actual trip.

Before beginning any practice, be sure to inform your family member of your intentions. It can minimize frustration for them and gives them a sense of empowerment because they can contribute to their own self-improvement. Offer a reward for a completed task as a means of encouragement.

Changes in Schedule

Schedule changes can cause high anxiety for an autistic individual, because they are an unknown. Not knowing when a day will end, when food is going to appear, when the bathrooms will be visited – all of these are examples of things that can cause fear. Additionally, the individual will have to cope with accommodating other people’s needs. Often an autistic family member becomes the person to whom everyone else adjusts and accommodates. On a family trip, they may not get this privilege.

To help the person with managing their fears, start with small tasks that have some changes in schedules. For example, you can take the individual to the mall at a random time of day. Take them to stores they may not like and have them wait if they ask to use the bathroom. Have them walk past foods they will want to eat, but do not stop to buy anything. You know your child/adult better than anyone, so you can probably feel out when they are starting to feel stress. Ease off when you see this. The most important thing is that they start to adjust to changes in schedule and not having their way.


Lots of people come with lots of stimuli. Touch – from people bumping into each other. Smells – cologne lovers, deodorant haters, unchanged diapers, and garlic eaters. Sounds – talking, yelling, giggling, and random sounds of cell phones, gadgets, beeps, etc. These are just a few of the stimuli that will be uncontrollable on a family trip. Practice by taking the individual to places with crowds, but again, watch them for stress and have an “out” if they are struggling. Good places would be sporting events and malls (again), because you could leave quickly. Bad places are concerts, since they can be very difficult to get out of quickly.

Visual Stimuli

An overstimulated person can hyper-focus on one object or zone out entirely. You can see this when your child/adult is worrying a fidget device, picking at something, or endlessly staring at something. Practice having them follow directions and attend to their environment by taking them to new places that are similar to your vacation setting, such as museums, parks, restaurants, and shows. Give them specific commands and verbal cues that help them snap out of it and attend to their environment. When you’re on vacation, you will want your family member to be present and aware to fully enjoy the new experience.

Different Food

This should be relatively easy and cheap to accomplish. Find recipes and try them out! Extra kudos to you if the individual participates in picking recipes… even better if they cook!

These are just some of the variables that you and your family will encounter on a summer vacation. This should help get you started on brainstorming scenarios that could be challenging for an autistic individual. Feel free to share your ideas and suggestions below!

Mary Janca was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at 33 years of age after years of struggles, including trying to fit her unique self into various molds. She works as a high school teacher and coach for students who are of all learning and social abilities (including with ASD). She has a Masters in Special Education, a Bachelors in Film & Anthropology, and teaching certifications in various subjects. She enjoys exercise, travel, learning, people, reading, and art. 


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