When you’re looking after a child who struggles with autism, getting a holiday can be more important than ever. Travelling with your child, however, can present a whole new set of difficulties. Even children with mild symptoms can experience acute feelings of anxiety when dealing with strange places and situations, and because they’re children, they may have difficulty dealing with this. Understanding your child’s problems is the key to a successful trip.
Planning Your Travel
Autistic children generally find travel less distressing if they expect it and are familiar with the idea before they go. If your child is old enough to understand, try to talk them through it beforehand and ask for their ideas about how to make it easier – or even fun. Some such children can be intrigued by particular methods of transport, making the idea intellectually interesting enough to mitigate the stress involved.
If your child has difficulty understanding, playing with toy cars, trains or planes, as appropriate, may help. You can also try watching films that feature those modes of transport. If you plan to travel by car, practice first by taking short trips, or even by persuading your child to sit in the car when it’s not moving.
If you have other children, encourage them to join in these activities with your autistic child. It’s also a good idea for them to play games together that they can later play whilst travelling. This will provide an alternative point of focus at times of stress.
Car travel can be the easiest way to travel with an autistic child because you can take breaks when you need to, you can plan your own schedule, and you don’t have to deal with other people. On the other hand, it can be hard work concentrating on driving if your child is shouting or screaming behind you.
Car travel can be made less stressful by making the car familiar. This doesn’t just mean spending time in the car. It also means taking along comforting familiar items, such as toys or blankets. If your child has a favourite DVD, try playing this while driving. Unless they are of particular importance to your child, resist the urge to point out interesting things that can be seen from the window. Keep the focus on the internal, static environment.
Driving long distances is tiring at the best of times, so make sure you get the breaks you need even if your child is doing well. Remember that, just like other kids, autistic children can suffer from car sickness, but they may not be able to identify or explain the problem. Watch out for symptoms and, if you suspect it’s a problem, ask your doctor for advice.
Buses and Trains
Travelling on buses and trains is often harder, but you can work around problems in two ways. First, make sure it’s an interesting experience for your autistic child. Second, try to give them some sense of control.
Many young children are fascinated by transport. Visits to museums and books on the subject – even simple picture books if they can’t read – are a great way to prepare. It can also help to go and look at trains or buses before riding them. Let your child take the lead in learning about them.
It’s easier for a child to feel in control, even on crowded transport, if they can decide where they sit. Arrive early and, if necessary, explain the problem to staff so you can board first. Often staff will be happy to talk to your child about their jobs and about how the bus or train works. Having this sort of information can make you child feel empowered and therefore less stressed.
If you plan to fly with your autistic child, check the airline policy before you fly to make sure it’s helpful. Whichever airline you choose you can get assistance to make it easier to get through the airport.
If your child needs special items in order to feel secure or in order to eat, it may be possible to get special permission to bring them on board even if they would not normally be allowed. Call the airline to discuss this at least two days before you travel. Bear in mind that on aeroplanes, as on trains and buses, unfamiliar toilets can be a problem. Sometimes there’s no way to work around this, so your child may need to use a nappy.
Although travel is likely to be stressful for your child and for you, it doesn’t have to be impossible. Every time you do it your child will gain confidence. Provide plenty of reassurance and you can help them learn that it’s possible to overcome all sorts of challenges.