Guest post by Lizzie Murphy from A Curious Journey
Autism and Flying With Kids on the Autistic Spectrum
Before my husband and I had kids we hardly stood still.
We had a long distance relationship for a while so one or both of us travelled most weekends and when we went on holiday we would travel around the country we visited rather than stay in one place. Even when we eventually moved to the same city and lived together we would travel most weekends visiting friends and family. We loved it.
Fast forward a few years and we now have two boys, age six and four, with additional needs. Both have global developmental delay and hypermobility. The eldest was diagnosed with autism last year.
We still love visiting new places but to say it’s become more challenging is an understatement. Travelling with children is hard enough but add in sensory issues, fixed routines, problems with transition and physical challenges, and it reaches a whole new level. It’s no wonder lots of families of children with additional needs decide to go to the same place every year or opt to stay at home.
However, I like a challenge and holidays are an important way for us to press the reset button and encourage the kids to experience new things.
So far our adventures have kept us in Europe and we’ve also had a couple of lovely holidays on working farms in Cornwall. As they get older we are becoming more adventurous with our trips. At Christmas we spent a few days in a tiny village in Northern Finland in -18 degrees. At Easter we’re driving to Center Parcs in Holland and embarking on our first ferry journey.
For families with children on the autistic spectrum, preparation, or the lack of it, can make or break a trip.
Preparing to Travel
Here are some of the things we’ve done to prepare for our holidays:
Choose where to go
This is a tricky one and is down to personal preference. Some families like hotel facilities, others like self catering. Some people like being in a place with lots of activities, others want to head into the wilderness. I like to start with recommendations and it’s one of the reasons I set up my blog and Facebook group – to create one place where families in the same situation can recommend holidays and days out that have worked for them. It’s then a bit easier to work out whether it might be right for your family.
For us, choosing a destination with lots of outdoor space is really important. It means there are fewer bad sensory triggers, such as lots of industrial noise, loud music, crowds and bright lights. We need places where the boys can run around freely and safely and make their own noise
Tell the kids
We booked our holiday to Lapland in March but we told The Bears four days before we went in December. Telling them too early would make them anxious and lead to non-stop questions about when we were going, Leaving it too late would mean they wouldn’t have time to prepare.
The kids like to know exactly what they’re letting himself in for so seeing photographs and videos of where we’re staying is really important. Look at the website and YouTube to get a feel for the place. Alternatively, you could make a scrapbook or social story, incorporating the inside and outside of the accommodation, along with pictures of who is going and any activities planned. It will give them peace of mind and hopefully avoid the meltdown of an unprepared child.
If you’re flying, include various areas of the airport, holiday accommodation, the area you’ll be staying in as well as any activities you’ll be taking part in. Look through it every day and take it with you so they can see exactly where they are going and what to expect.
If you have a long journey and an anxious child, consider breaking down the journey into a visual timetable. You could include in-car activities, service station breaks, meals and snacks. Velcro the different elements onto a piece of laminated card so the child can peel them off each time a task is finished.
Create a social story
Think about what situations the child might need to understand and consider creating social stories to help them prepare. Social stories are a social learning tool and can be used to help prepare kids for change, airport, delays, last minute changes to plans etc to help with anxiety issues.
Prepare a Now and Next board or a visual timeline
It’s reassuring for children on the autistic spectrum to know what’s coming up after their current activity, especially when they’re out of their usual routine. Use photos from your holiday booklet to create prompts for your Now and Next board so the children know what to expect next. Or you could create a visual timeline for each day to show them what you’re going to be doing and when.
Address any worries
Talk to them about any worries they might have about the trip. Read a relaxation book to help reduce anxiety or get them to write down or draw their worries and post them in a worry eater.
Take a few things that will keep the kids occupied, but avoid packing too much. For our train/Thomas-loving boys, we took a wooden train track that packs into a fairly small bag, with a few trains. Having a familiar toy makes them feel safe and secure in a strange environment. The trains on their own also helped to keep them occupied when we ventured out to a pub for a meal. Also don’t forget to take their special cups and cutlery as well as a favourite teddy.
Flying and Autism
If you’re flying to your destination, there are also a few things you can do to make the journey a little easier
Some airports now offer a special sunflower lanyard to wear on your journey throughout the airport. It enables staff to recognise that you have a hidden disability without you needing to declare it. It also enables you to fast track through the queues. Anybody in the party can wear the lanyard. Check your airports website for details of their scheme well in advance.
Plan for sensory issues on the flight
My six-year-old is sensitive to noise so we pack ear defenders. You can also get special ear plugs to reduce cabin pressure if they are a bit older. If your child feels comforted by certain fabrics then think about what they might wear for the flight. You can also get weighted clothing items, which can have a calming effect on some children with autism. Use lollies and drinks to pop their ears on the way up and down
Practise routines in advance
If your child is worried about the flight, do a little role play to practice going through check-in or security. Practice carrying bags or wheelie cases so they can help out at the airport.
Create an emergency pack
This something you can bring out if you can sense a meltdown. Pack snacks, their favourite music, ear defenders, games, tablet or a comfort toy. Whatever helps them when they feel anxious. Make sure you’ve also got enough entertainment for the flight. The general rule is to plan for one or two activities per hour, including meals.
The most important thing is not to overthink the pros and cons before booking a holiday, take the plunge and just go. A little preparation can go a long way and the more times you go away, the more you will develop your coping mechanisms that work for you. When you get home, make a list of things that did and didn’t work. It will come in handy the next time you plan a trip.
Contact Lizzie for see more of her content on
Instagram and Facebook: @acuriousjourneyUK
She also has a FB group for parents of children on the autistic spectrum called Travelling the Spectrum