While the words holiday and stress-free do not often go hand in hand, there are ways to make a holiday enjoyable for the whole family when travelling with autistic kids. Over the last 20 years, I have travelled extensively with my neurodivergent family throughout Australia and overseas. I have picked up some handy tricks along the way. I hope this helps and makes your next family getaway easier.
Be Prepared with Google Maps.
OK, thanks, Lord Bowden Powell for this very famous Scout and Girl Guide motto. However, he is not wrong. Although, being prepared can be tricky, especially if you encounter something unexpected while travelling with autistic kids. It is why I love Google maps so much. Yep, before every holiday, I Google Maps and explore the area. I find out where the public bathrooms are, and I check out the local shopping mall. I even check out famous landmarks to ensure I know what to expect. Now, this may be my own need for order and my fear of the unexpected, but it has helped my family immensely while traveling.
I am much calmer and more relaxed, which feeds into the family dynamic. I don’t feel stressed or rushed and in turn the kids are also relaxed with knowing what to expect.
It means we can talk about the sights, sounds, and smells before the trip. Because of this, the kids feel as though they have helped plan the trip in advance also. They feel part of the process. Nothing is a surprise.
It’s all in the menu.
Google can also be a great resource for panning mealtimes, especially if you will be eating out while on holiday. If your child is a restrictive eater or has Sensory Processing issues, it will ensure you know what to order in advance. It may also mean calling the restaurant beforehand to ensure they can alter the menu if needed. I have lost count of the number of times I had to call in advance and ensure that the food served to my child did not have sauces or extra garnish when served. Almost every restaurant will have its menu online.
And, a hot tip, when travelling with autistic kids, never call your child a fussy eater when talking to restaurants. Use the words autistic or disabled in order to help the restaurant understand your needs. Accessibility is not a choice or an optional extra.
Use the Sunflower lanyard.
If you haven’t heard of the sunflower lanyard, then this will change your life when traveling. It is literally a green lanyard with yellow sunflowers on it and indicates you have or are traveling with someone who has a hidden disability. The lanyard is a discreet way to let airport staff know you may need an extra hand or time when at the airport and while on the plane.
While still a new concept in Australia, I have in fact used it several times this year and has been a huge help. We were allowed to board early on one trip, and on another, a very kind airport staff member came to help me scan my pass while juggling several bags. She very kindly gave me a knowing nod and helped me in what was a stressful moment.
You can get your free sunflower lanyard from most airports before you travel, or you can order them online.
Pack fidgets, activities and comfort items.
Now is not the time to restrict the use of fidgets or comfort items. Traveling for autistic children can be overwhelming, and ensuring they have their fidgets or noise-cancelling headphones close by is crucial. Make sure they are in hand luggage if traveling by air. And if traveling by car, bus or train, ensure they ae in a separate, easily accessible bag with you at all times.
Also, download any favourite shows or music before you travel and ensure you have enough downloads for the entire trip. There may not be available Wi-Fi while in transit.
I also always packed my child’s snacks—everything from two-minute noodles to rice crackers. In fact, almost half my bag is always snacks. Because let’s face it, plane food is not flexible, and the choice is often limited. You can take as much as you like on the plane. However, if traveling interstate, you may have to throw away any uneaten fruit. And if traveling overseas, you may have to discard prohibited items before heading through customs.
When travelling, let others know of you and your child’s accessibility needs. Disability is not a bad word, and we all deserve to enjoy our holiday the way we want. If that means using a device at mealtimes or wearing headphones at family gatherings due to sensory overwhelm, then that is OK.
This is your family holiday, and the way you enjoy each other’s company, and the destination is totally up to you and your family.
Happy travels. Anita Aherne