From Anguish to Adventure: Tips for Traveling with an Autistic Child
Rose Mabiza • 6 mins read
03 May 2023
As a mother of an autistic son, travelling can be one of the most challenging experiences for the whole family. Ensuring my son felt comfortable, safe, and stress-free in an overwhelming, noisy, and unpredictable environment was a constant battle.
In this blog, I’ll talk about some of the challenges we went through as a family and how we overcame them. It is over two months since I wrote my first blog, and as always, I hope my story helps someone out there.
Preparing for the journey
Preparing for a trip can be a daunting experience, and it's even more challenging when travelling with an autistic child. My son and I have a routine that we follow, which has helped us cope with changes and new experiences. However, travelling can disrupt this routine, making it difficult for him to adapt.
For example, we once went on a road trip that required us to stay in a different hotel every night. The constant change of scenery and unfamiliar surroundings triggered his sensory overload, leading to meltdowns and anxiety. To cope with this, we started to show him pictures of the places we were staying and talked to him about what he could expect. This helped him to understand what was happening and feel more comfortable with the idea of travelling.
Choosing the right accommodation
Finding suitable accommodation is crucial to a comfortable trip. However, this can be challenging, especially if you're on a tight budget. I've had many experiences where we booked a hotel only to find the room too noisy or bright for him.
For instance, we once booked a hotel near a busy road. The constant noise of cars passing by triggered my son's sensory overload, leading to a meltdown. To overcome this, I had to quickly find another hotel away from the busy road, which meant spending more money than we had planned.
Packing the essentials
Packing the essential items that my son needs to feel comfortable and safe is crucial. However, it can be challenging to anticipate every situation we may encounter on our trip. I've had many experiences where I've forgotten to pack something important, leading to stress and anxiety.
Our family once took a plane trip, and I forgot to pack my son's noise-cancelling headphones. The constant noise of the plane triggered his sensory overload, leading to a meltdown. To overcome this, I had to quickly ask the flight attendant if they had any other headphones or if they could turn down the noise level on the plane.
Navigating airports and planes
Airports can be overwhelming for anyone, but for autistic children, they can be incredibly challenging. The long queues, bright lights and constant noises easily trigger a 4-year-old’s senses. He struggled to sit still, and many people kept staring at him, which was embarrassing for us. He was used to his routine, and staying in confined spaces made him confused and uncomfortable. He also struggled to sleep on the plane and got frustrated when his gadget ran out of battery.
To make the experience less stressful, it’s crucial to notify the airport and airline in advance so that they prepare appropriately. We always arrive at the airport early to ensure we have plenty of time to navigate security and find our gate. However, even with careful planning, unexpected situations can arise.
For example, we found the flight was delayed when we arrived at the airport. This meant we had to spend more time at the airport than planned, which triggered his sensory overload. We had to find a quiet area for my son to relax and feel safe. We also played games with him so he could take his mind away from the noisy surroundings.
Celebrating our little wins
Family travel is now an enjoyable experience. Whether it's a road trip or a long-haul flight, my son looks forward to every journey. We still have to explain to him about the upcoming trip so he knows what to expect. He still doesn’t sleep on the plane but is happy to play games and watch movies.
A few years ago, I had issues with my travel documents, and my boys travelled with my brother and his family. I was so worried and anxious, but to my surprise, everything went well, and they complimented how the journey was seamless, even though it involved a stopover and transfer halfway through.
Key points to remember
These are the key points to remember from this blog:
- Travelling with an autistic child can be challenging, but with careful planning and preparation, it can be an enriching experience.
- It's important to anticipate your child's needs and to be prepared for unexpected situations.
- Choosing suitable accommodation is crucial to a comfortable trip.
- Packing essential items is important, but anticipating every situation can be challenging.
- Navigating airports and planes can be overwhelming, so arriving early and requesting assistance from airport staff is essential.
Travelling with an autistic child can be a challenging experience, but with careful planning and preparation, it can also be rewarding. It's important to remember that every child with autism is unique, and their needs may vary. However, by advocating for your child's needs and being prepared for unexpected situations, you can make your journey enjoyable and memorable.
Ultimately, despite our challenges, we have made many beautiful memories while travelling. We visited new places, experienced different cultures, and learned about the world. I hope that by sharing my experience, I can help other parents of autistic children feel more confident about travelling with their children and encourage them to explore the world around them.
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Click on the links below to read more articles from Rose:
- My story – A mother, a wife and a woman
- Why I’m now telling my story publicly
- The burden of speaking for many women
- How I got into health and social care
- Autism acceptance: A mother’s journey
- Embracing our autism journey as a family
- Dealing with stress and autism at home
- My autistic child’s potty and personal hygiene training.