Traveling with an autistic child who thrives on the familiar and routine can seem daunting. You may be inclined to throw in the towel before you’ve even started planning a vacation — but don’t give up. It is still possible to have a fantastic family vacation with a little research and planning to make sure the supports your child needs are in place. 

Sure, you may want to skip the newest trendy beach to avoid large crowds and opt instead for a location that works well for your child, but this doesn’t mean you have to make concessions around having a great experience. There are many destinations the entire family can enjoy. Start digging in until you find one that works for you.

As a parent of three children with autism spectrum disorder, I have gathered my best recommendations below for making the most out of family vacations. 

1. Start Small

If you have not yet traveled with your autistic child, you may want to start small. Select a destination no more than a few hours away and go for a weekend. A shorter trip will give you insight into what kinds of supports and comfort items your child needs while on the road so you are prepared for a longer trip. 

It was helpful for my family to discover that my daughter travels much better when she can sleep in a tent that removes a lot of sensory input, even when sharing a room with the entire family. We also learned that my son travels much better in a car or plane if he always keeps his favorite blanket with him. These learning experiences prepared us for what we needed to make our children more comfortable on longer trips. 

If your child has a special interest, choosing a destination where they can explore their interest more deeply will probably go over well. Even if not the focus of the trip, finding a tie-in can help the trip run more smoothly. 

2. Look for a Tie-In to a Special Interest

My son was interested in Greek mythology when he was young. While his dream trip to Greece was not in the cards, I found a children’s museum in a city we were visiting with an exhibit about the Trojan War. I knew he would love exploring and would look forward to traveling if he had something to get excited about. He not only had a great time but knowing he would be learning about Greek gods on the trip made it easier for everyone.       

3. Consider a Resort

The more attractions that are on-site, the easier it will be to establish familiarity and routine. My family has found that resorts work well for us because there is less transition and less that it is unknown. Resorts that have multiple on-site restaurants and activities have worked well for my family for this reason. They also have the advantage of making it easy to head back to your hotel room in the middle of the day for a sensory break or whenever your child needs some quiet time. 

4. Book the Right Hotel 

Some hotels and resorts provide supports for children with autism. There are not as many as most families would like but they do exist. Search for “autism-friendly hotels” or “sensory-friendly hotels” and the name of your destination. If something promising comes up call to confirm what they provide. 

Some hotels provide training for staff about how to best support children with autism. Others go even further and provide amenities such as headphones, weighted blankets, and in-room tents. These are more common in destinations that have many attractions geared toward children, such as Disney World and Disneyland, but they are scattered all over the country. 

Even hotels that do not have specific autism-friendly programs can still work well. Most hotels are willing to help families identify rooms that are quieter and situated away from beeping elevators and noisy areas such as the lobby. Most hotels are also able to accommodate dietary preferences if you call in advance. 

It’s also possible to request other things that will make your child more comfortable, such as seating toward the back of the hotel’s restaurant or keeping lights in your hotel room dim or at a certain temperature. If you ask ahead of time, some hotels are even willing to avoid using cleaning products with strong scents before your arrival. 

Many children with autism find being by the water soothing. Even if you are not going to the beach, staying at a hotel with a pool can give your child something to look forward to at the end of the day.

5. Create an Autism Pack

Going somewhere new and unfamiliar can be upsetting to many children with autism. New sights, sounds, and smells can become overwhelming quickly. Having a small pack with items that help reduce sensory overload can be helpful. 

Items to include may include the following:

  • Headphones
  • Earplugs
  • Fidget toys
  • Chewy toys
  • Gum
  • An iPad loaded with favorite music and videos
  • A comfort item such as a stuffy 

Although this does mean more to carry around, having these items available when your child needs them can make all the difference. Your child’s ABA therapist can help you and your child identify what would be helpful to bring.

6. Prepare Your Child

Children with autism who thrive on routine may resist the idea of leaving the comfort of home. This may be the case even if they are excited about visiting the destination you chose. Creating your own social story can help. This can include information about the airport or stops you will make on your road trip. It should also include information about what to expect at the destination. Sharing a schedule with what you plan on doing each day can also help. 

An ABA therapist can help with creating social stories and preparing your child to be away from their regular routine. 

7. Consider Safety

If your child elopes or just wanders off, there are some steps you can take to help keep them safe. One simple thing you can do each morning is to take a picture of your child. That way, if they get lost you can share a photo of your child wearing exactly what they have on that day. 

It can also be helpful to write your cell phone number with Sharpie on your child’s arm. (Just make sure to do a small patch test on their skin to ensure they’re not sensitive to the ink.) As an alternative, try a safety bracelet like this one from Mabel’s Labels. It can be customized with contact numbers and other essential information. Some families also travel with door alarms so they will wake up if their child tries to leave the hotel room in the middle of the night. 

8. Be Flexible

Autistic children are often taught to be flexible, but this applies to parents as well. If there is a place you are looking forward to visiting at your destination that you don’t think will work well for your child, be open to splitting up for a few hours. 

Family vacations are for spending time together, but being apart for a short period of time won’t ruin your trip. In fact, it will probably result in a better experience where no one feels like they are missing out or being forced to do something they won’t enjoy. 

9. Research Quiet Spots

Even busy locations like amusement parks will have a low-sensory quiet spot to rest and regroup. Wherever you travel, ask the location if there is a quiet, low-sensory place you can go if your child becomes overstimulated. That way, you will know where to head right away if needed.

If your child is young enough, traveling with a wagon with a cover can also be helpful. That way, your child will always have their own low-sensory spot with them. 

Don’t write off anywhere you think your child might enjoy just because they are autistic. With the right supports in place, chances are accommodations can be made to help your family have a fantastic trip and create wonderful memories. An ABA therapist can also help your child identify what they need to feel comfortable while traveling and work with them to develop methods they can use to help them while on the road. 

Bon voyage!