Traveling with Your Children with ASD
Over the years, I’ve traveled all over the US with my kids, who both have ASD. Like the movie, “Trains, Planes and Automobiles”, we’ve traveled every way possible. Sometimes our travel was for business, sometimes medical and sometimes pleasure. It takes a little preparation but it's totally worth it!
Packing and traveling with food
Since children with ASD benefit from a clean, restrictive diet, bringing some or all of your own food is necessary and will help you relax and have just one less thing to worry about. It will also save you money as homemade food is cheaper than eating out three meals a day.
- If you drive, you can take as much food as your car can hold in coolers or boxes.
- For bus or train travel, they don’t limit liquids but they do limit space, so find out their restrictions BEFORE you pack.
- If you take a plane, you are limited both by space but also liquids as the TSA rules are very strict and limit you to only a few small 2-ounce bottles, so you will want to bring solid foods, like precooked bacon, premade sandwiches, etc. You can buy water or juice at the airport, after you clear security.
Flying by air is the fastest and can be the most affordable but can also be the hardest for a few reasons: getting through a very busy airport; waiting in many lines, security checkpoints; routine flight delays, unbreakable rules about noise, physical activity and tantrums that can get your family kicked off a flight, and being locked in close proximity with a few hundred people for a few hours can make flying difficult, not to mention those uncomfortable seats and inhumanly small bathrooms. But if you can work past all of those bad things, you can really open the world for your child to travel, learn and grow. It is worth it and there is help.
- Book nonstop flights so you don’t end up on a layover where things can go wrong, such as missed, delayed or cancelled flights, not to mention several transitions which can cause anxiety and meltdowns.
- Request bulkhead seats, which are roomier and eliminate the possibility of seat-kicking.
- If your child is on a restricted diet and you won’t be able to bring food with you, you can request allergy-specific meals in advance by calling the airline. Don’t expect the food to be great but they usually get it right.
- Board early to make it easier on everyone to get to your seats without the crush of travelers. Just tell the gate personnel you have a child with special needs and you need to pre-board.
- Bring proof of your child’s diagnosis, just in case.
- Bring toys, comfort items, books, iPod/iPad, food, whatever keeps your child happy and entertained.
- There is a short time (which seems VERY long if your child is screaming) at both take off and landing where all electronic appliances (including iPods and iPads) have to be turned off. For a nonverbal person who uses one as their method of speech, this is bad, but it’s also bad if your child is sensitive to loud sounds so bring standalone noise cancelling headphones that don’t have to plug into a device to work.
- - Soon, this shouldn’t be a problem, as the FAA is changing the rules but the change hasn’t started yet. When it does, passengers will be able to use their electronic devices the entire flight!
- Battery operated noise cancelling headphones can be very helpful.
TSA Cares Helpline
Anyone with a disability or traveling with a person with a disability can contact TSA Cares Helpline. Call TSA Cares 72 hours prior to your flight at 1-855-787-2227. This service is available at ALL airports in the USA. You can alert TSA of a special needs passenger BEFORE you arrive at the airport. More info at Travelers with Disabilities and Medical Conditions.
Autism Flight preparation
Boston’s Logan, Washington’s Dulles, Minneapolis' MSP, New York’s JFK, Philadelphia International and Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson are just a few of the airports that offer walk-through practice and mock boarding. Call your local airport and ask if there is an autism access program that will let families take a practice run through airport security.
JetBlue has a program at most airports they fly into/out of. It’s called Wings for Autism at Boston’s Logan Airport where the program started, and Blue Horizons at JFK. Calling the airline or your local airport(s) and asking if they have a program is recommended.
Social Stories and Suggested Reading
Youtube.com has videos for everything imaginable, including boarding, take-off, in-flight and landing.
Dulles terminal walkthrough - (do a search for your airport)
Boarding a plane
Flight Attendant instructions
Landing of the airplane
For my daughter with Asperger’s, we used traveling as a tool to teach her map reading and navigation of the airport. It was her job to get us from the walkway of the plane to baggage claim by reading the signs and we would follow behind her. It was a good skill that still serves her well. Reading train and bus schedules, navigating crowded areas, getting though security and waiting to board are all great skills for kids to learn.
Safety Precautions while traveling with kids with ASD
Traveling with children who have limited ability to tell adults they are lost and how to find their parents presents requires extra precautions.
- Write your name(s) and cell phone number(s) on paper and put in the pockets of every piece of clothing your child is wearing – pants, shirt, jacket, shoes, socks (if needed).
- Give your child a pre-programmed cell phone with just 911 and your cell number.
- Keep your hands ON your child at all times.
- Carry with you printed recent color photograph of your child and a list of what he/she was wearing to the airport. OR you can take a photo on your cell phone that day so that the picture is recent and it captures what they were wearing.
- Consider temporary tattoos or a BOLD T-shirt or a scannable iron-on tag that's less glaring, that can direct people to seek help if your child goes missing.
- Consider a bracelet or necklace tag that has identifying information to aid in a faster return to you.
- There are also more restrictive gear like harnesses and tracking devices.
Often parents have to travel to see doctors who specialize in treating our kids. Below are some options to explore to help with transportation expenses:
Air Charity Network http://aircharitynetwork.org
Autism Escapes http://www.autismescapes.org
National Patient Travel Center http://www.patienttravel.org
Miracle Flights http://www.miracleflights.org
Mercy Medical Airlift http://mercymedical.org
Angel Flight http://www.angelflight.com
If you know people with airline points, they can donate them to you for tickets as well.
If you have to stay in another city for your child’s appointment with a specialist you might be able to skip a hotel and stay at a hospitality house. Some houses may even have a shuttle to/from the airport and hospital.
Ronald McDonald House http://rmhc.org
Stays at Ronald McDonald house include meals, but they are unlikely to meet your child’s specific dietary needs. Plan ahead as much as you can. Call the location prior to your trip and find out about availability, food and any other issues that would make your stay more comfortable.
Also check the National Association of Hospital Hospitality Houses http://www.nahhh.org/lodging
Remember, much of your travel expenses can be written off on your income taxes.