A-Z Guide for Sensory-Friendly Travel and Vacationing

Whether it’s across the ocean or right around the corner, planning and executing a perfect family vacation can take a lot of time and research. Here’s a condensed A-Z list of considerations and recommendations to hopefully ease some of the preparation for your next trip:

Airlines

There is no one all-hailed airline that is consistently recommended as the best airline to fly for individuals with ASD; however, JetBlue comes pretty close. Some airlines, such as JetBlue, American Airlines, and United Airlines occasionally host opportunities to take part in mock flights. Many also offer early boarding for those with autism and other conditions. Here are some articles by Family Traveller and The Mighty that summarize different airlines’ services.

Bulkhead Seats

These are the seats located directly behind the bulkheads (a.k.a. walls) of the different seating classes. For example, separating first class from coach. Typically, these provide longer leg room, which is good if your child stims or kicks frequently to avoid disturbing others. Those in bulkhead seats are typically provided snacks/drinks first, in addition to being let off the plane quickly. Check out this blog about the benefits of other seating selections on a plane.

Cruises

Autism on the Seas partners with companies, such as Royal Caribbean, Norwegian Cruise Line, and Disney to arrange appropriate travel for families with individuals with autism. There’s one staff member to every two family members with autism, making it a more tailored and safe experience for all. Staff are happy to give parents and caregivers some free time while ensuring their kiddos have fun!

Call Ahead

It is absolutely a smart idea to call customer service ahead of time, whether it’s the airport, airline, hotel, or destination to ask for specifics about what accommodations are available and discuss what support you need from them. You might even consider asking your pediatrician for a medical note explaining your child’s condition to help reinforce the support you need.

Directories

Autism Travel and Certified Autism Center are available for you to search for certified vacation destinations, such as Hershey Chocolate World, Mesa, AZ, Elmwood Park Zoo, and more based on location.

Emergency Plan

Sometimes kiddos get separated from their parents, and it is no one’s fault. Safety tattoos are one way to ensure your child returns safely to you and are safe on skin. Always carry a family photo with you, in case you need to show security what your child looks like. Discuss where to meet if one of you gets lost, for example, the big carousel by the entrance.

First, Then

Never underestimate the power of “first, then” language. It’s simple, direct, cause and effect language to make it clear what the expectations and rewards are. For example, if your child is having a hard time sitting down, “First, buckle your seat belt, then Peppa Pig.”

Go Bags and Games

For sensory concerns, include toys, such as stretchy strings, textured balls, a weighted lap pad, liquid motion bubbler, clothespins, beaded keychains, etc. Fun and Function also has a wide variety of sensory toys available. Here are also some fun, travel-appropriate games for your kiddo to stay busy with on the plane or in the car: Ludo, any games of The Purple Cow’s Magnetic Travel Collection, retro magnetic 12-game set, books, mini puzzles, coloring books, and more.

Heavy Work

It can be hard for adults to sit still for hours on end, let alone a child. Have your child engage in “heavy work” to get his or her body under control before having to sit through a long car ride or flight. You can choose from animal walks, jumping jacks, hopscotch, pushups, or anything else that provides input to help calm the body down.

IBCCES
The International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards (IBCCES) made it their mission to address the needs of those with cognitive disorders, including creating certification programs for autism, ADHD, sensory disorders, and more. Through collaboration with The Autism Society, IBCCES ensures that individuals with ASD get the understanding and quality service that they deserve. You can read more about the levels of certifications on the Guide to IBCCES Certifications and Programs website.

JetBlue

JetBlue has been referred to as a leader in hospitality, especially in regards to serving individuals with special needs. From silent pre-boarding to individualized accommodations, JetBlue has been reported to put families at ease with genuine kindness and care.

KidCompanions and the Ark Chewelry

Chew items are one strategy to help a child self-soothe. They provide oral sensory input and stimulation to help those who like to mouth inedible objects. Both KidsCompanions and ARK have chewelry lines that you can purchase for low costs.

Luggage

Another way for kiddos to get in some heavy work is by carrying their own backpacks or helping pull or push along luggage. By providing proprioceptive input, this can help them regulate before a big trip.

Music

Listening to calming music can be therapeutic and help a child regulate through auditory processing. Pack some headphones, and let your child listen to some quiet, slow-paced music or sounds, such as nature and Relax, Relax, Relax by Dr. Leah Gniwesch.

Noise Reduction

If your child is easily stimulated by different sounds, noise-cancelling headphones are crucial to helping your child adjust. Another technique is looking up “early hours” for the different destination day spots you might be attending. Many offer “early hours” in which children with auditory processing difficulties are able to come early and have a sensory-friendly experience in a calmer and quieter environment. A third strategy is to request a room on a higher floor and further away from on-site attractions and common areas.

Outdoors

National parks, kayaking, and other outdoor recreational activities for kiddos with autism are always good ideas to get their bodies moving and move away from screen time. Here are some top recommended national parks for families of children with autism. The Berkshires in Massachusetts is also an outdoor-focused destination that offers activities, such as accessible rafting, equine-assisted team building, and low ropes courses.

Prepare, Plan, Practice, and Patience

This can feel like a lot of work, but it will be worth it for a better outcome during your trip. Start by discussing, using social stories, practicing, and watching videos on what to expect. Use a countdown calendar to build up anticipation and excitement. You can also download the Fly for All app by Alaskan Airlines that helps ease anxiety about the new experience. One thing to keep in mind is if you are traveling internationally. It is prohibited to wear hats, shirts with writing, glasses, and hair accessories, so to avoid having to change for the photo, make sure your kiddo starts the day off with a basic colored shirt without any accessories.

Quiet Space

Many destinations, such as Legoland, Hershey Park, Disney, and more have designated quiet areas or rooms for individuals to go when they are overstimulated or need to calm down. Check beforehand online to find out where to go if your child becomes upset.

Routine

Stick with your daily routine, as close as you can. Whether it’s a morning or nighttime routine, continue on with going to the bathroom, brushing teeth, reading a book, and getting a good night’s sleep. This can help prevent discomfort and increase in behaviors.

Reinforcement

Don’t forget the simple act of reinforcing good behavior, especially frequently in such an unfamiliar environment. Whether it’s your child’s favorite toy, a snack, or a hug, make sure your child knows whatever he or she is doing is acceptable and makes you happy.

Social Stories

These are an excellent resource to help a child learn almost exactly what is going to happen during a specific event. Laying out all the steps beforehand may help calm your child before going on a trip. Spectrum Travel Social Story Videos creates destination-specific social stories to help ease any anxious feelings about the unknown of different vacation destinations.

TSA Cares

TSA Cares is a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances additional assistance during the security screening process. Check out this video, as it highlights the specifics of what to expect during the screening process at the airport.

Unfamiliarity and Unpredictability

Breaking routine can be difficult enough, especially in addition to the unfamiliarity and unpredictability that comes with new environments and experiences. Because there can be so much “new”, try sticking with as much familiarity as possible and discussing what to expect. For example, bring familiar snacks, clothes, and toys. Also discuss that it’s okay when plans change and work through coping strategies, such as deep breaths, calm music, and squeezing hands.

Virtual Reality Training

In a pilot study, participants with autism tried virtual reality training using inexpensive Google Virtual Reality Glasses and an iPhone to prepare for flying. Results were that all children improved their air travel skills, per parent report and clinical observation. Try out this virtual reality video that sets up expectations of an airport.

Visual Schedule

This is a great way to show your kiddo a visual representation of what to expect. A visual schedule shows what will happen and when and helps ease the uncertainty of what comes next.

Water

Just like anyone else, one key to help your kiddo avoid the side effects of jet lag is to stay hydrated. Keep a water bottle handy for your kiddo to drink frequently, just be sure to take him or her to the bathroom frequently too!

Wings for All

Through this program, children and families have the chance to check-in to get boarding passes, pass through security, wait in the boarding area, and board an airplane. The plane will not actually take off, but it simulates every step beforehand. More details, upcoming dates, and locations can be found here.

Extra Time

To get well-adjusted to the environment, your child may need extra time and extra assistance. Arrive early and set aside extra time for breaks. Let TSA and airline staff know what support you will need and what will make you feel most comfortable.

You’ve Got This!

It is absolutely possible for you and your family to have a fun vacation destination. If you are still unsure about planning a trip, check out You are Not Alone (https://chicagoot.wpengine.com/uncategorized/youre-not-alone-travel-blogs-from-parents-individuals-with-asd/), where you can find personal accounts of vacationing and travel from families with children with autism.

Zoos

Many kiddos love animals, but zoos can be crowded and filled with many sounds, sights, and smells. Animals provide a sense of comfort to many, which is one reason why zoos are a good idea for day trips. Three in the country are certified autism centers: Elmwood Park Zoo, Santa Barbara Zoo, and Zoo Miami. However, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go to non-certified zoos. Just keep in mind how often you will eat, food options, how tired your child may get walking around, bringing a sensory kit, animal encounters, and rides.

Emergency plans, go bags, mock flights, social stories, and more, there’s a lot to think about. Hopefully this guide will be helpful for planning that perfect getaway for you and your family.

Contact Chicago Occupational Therapy or call (773) 980-0300 to learn more about our services and how we can help your child flourish, grow, and develop important skill areas for a fun family getaway.