I've been a mom for 11 years and have taken hundreds of trips with my kids. I didn't say vacation, since anyone who has traveled with children knows the difference between a trip and a vacation. There's nothing relaxing about traveling with children. But traveling with a child who has autism adds an entirely new level of difficulty.
My son is 8 years old and was diagnosed with autism when he was 3. After years of therapies, we don't notice his quirks very often—until we travel—then everyone around us notices. He needs to be the first one to board; he needs to have the window seat; he needs the cabin pressure to stay consistent or his ears hurt; and he needs the compassion of the person in the seat in front of him, who will get kicked no matter how hard I work to prevent it from happening.
You can travel successfully with a child with autism, but it requires planning. Here's how to make it a smooth trip for the entire family:
Map it out
About a week before we leave, we talk about the trip and mark each day off the calendar as it gets closer. Each day we put something else in his suitcase, and then the night before we leave, we pack a bag of his favorite things to take with us.
Plan for the worst
Separate from the bag I pack for my son, I pack a bag for myself. In that bag, I have a few of his favorite toys, his favorite snacks, a reusable water bottle, a change of clothes for him and lollipops if his ears start bothering him. I throw in wipes and baggies in case he gets a nosebleed. I bring the iPad (the holy grail of travel toys) and a charger that can be used on the airplane. (Try these 14 Expert-Recommended iPad Autism Apps)
Before you fly, call the airline. Many have policies to help flyers with disabilities, and all are willing to accommodate special needs. When I get to the gate, I always tell the agent that my son has autism and explain how he likes to board first. Most of the time, he gets his wish and boards before everyone else. If he has to wait, it's not usually very long—we typically board after the first-class flyers. Getting settled into our seats first makes the whole flight easier.
Pay for what matters
When you travel with kids, you're only as happy as your most unhappy child. If your child likes a certain seat, pay the extra fee to get it. That's money well spent. The window seat has saved many of our trips.
I always introduce myself to the person who sits in front of my son and explain he has autism. I promise we will do everything we can to keep him content during the flight, but ask that they please understand it's hard for him. Every single time, we've been met with nothing but compassion.
I don't love the idea of bribing children, but this isn't regular life. Traveling is hard. When my son has gone a half hour or longer without kicking the seat or getting upset, I give him one of his favorite toys from my bag. He knows I carry goodies and he will get them when he's "done a great job." Never underestimate the power of small bonuses.
Don't forget about the end game
Jose Levy, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst at D&S Community Services in Texas, which offers care and resources for people with developmental disabilities, also offers these suggestions for when you arrive at your destination:
Take someone with you for support
"You will want, and need, some time for yourself. This person can help you with that. Even a five minute breather can be a physical and emotional boost. Build in time for yourself so you can recharge," Levy says.
"Now that you are at the beach, at a relative's home, or at the amusement park, things may have begun to unravel. Now is the time for your backup plan," Levy says. "Are you able to adjust the plan, take an extra break, change the order or the day's agenda? Do you have distractors, extra snacks, or can you find a quieter space to let the meltdown run its course? Give your loved one, and yourself, time to regroup, adjust and move forward. Have an exit strategy. It stinks, but sometimes it is better to throw in the towel. Be willing to do that if the time comes."