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6 Tips for Traveling With a Child on the Autism Spectrum

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We are a family of five — two adults, two kids and a dog. And we also pack autism in tight when we travel. Here are a few tips I have picked up along the way that seem to work for us.

1. Plan, plan, plan.

Whether it’s a short road trip to the hills or a long-distance international flight, pay a little attention to the planning. Little things like what time the flight takes off, where we will have a pit stop en route, whether we need to take a coach to the aircraft or the aerobridge all make a difference. Our son will not use dirty restrooms, and did not like waiting for the coach to get to the aircraft, thus we spent a little extra to pick an airline that mostly used aerobridges, or only stopped for tea where the restroom was decent.

2. Be early.

Last-minute dashes are best left to the movies. Do plan to give yourself a little extra time, at the airport/station, to load up the car, to leave the house etc. Anything unpredictable or different from the routine could trigger a meltdown, particularly in highly sensitive kids, so its best to give yourself the luxury of time in such situations.

3. Pack smart but light.

Travelling light is a mantra I now swear by. Pack just enough for your trip and maybe a teeny bit extra. Things like medicines, soothers, familiar night-clothes and toys are non-negotiable. Extra pairs of bulky shoes, heavy toiletries and just-in-case-junk may just be the reason your bags are overweight or too heavy to handle. Unless you are stepping off the map, almost all emergency essentials will be available where you are going, so don’t worry. Do, however, always carry stuff to soothe/entertain your child. I have traveled with Play-doh/Theraputty, the power web for preventing him from kicking the seat in front, and chewy tubes over the years. It has gotten a lot better with time.

4. Make sure familiar food is available.

If your child is a picky eater, this is probably your biggest challenge. It’s hard but can be managed. Plan your destination keeping in view what your child will get to eat there. You can always carry food/supplies for a bit. Many international locales have good GFCF options and Indian food is also largely GFCF friendly. However, remember you are there for a break, so do try experimenting with the local food, and your child may surprise you too. My worst time was a week in Europe where my child survived on flavored yogurt and a box full of chocos (non-GFCF obviously)!

5. Meeting the meltdowns.

Often meltdowns have clear triggers, but just as often we are caught unaware as to why the meltdown came our way. Quick thinking as to the trigger is helpful because you can remove the trigger and the child may calm down. However, just as often we have no idea why the meltdown is happening. In such cases, I have found that first calming ourselves down and then “co-regulating” the child works well. Before my son had words, I wouldn’t know why he would start crying in queues. So I would carry him, he would wriggle, people would stare,I would get flustered and he would squirm and it got progressively worse.

A trick I’ve found that works is “10 minutes of calm.” If you can find a quiet space and the time, remove your child and “co-regulate” your breathing slowly, evenly, in a calm soothing voice. Most importantly, actually be calm yourself. Our kids are finely tuned to our emotions, thus the calmer we are, the greater chance they’ll calm down eventually. Also check your reaction. Are you reacting to your child’s behavior or the reactions of others? More often than not we get flustered because we fear the reactions of strangers. School yourself to be indifferent to them. It’s the most valuable piece of advice I have to give on this.

6. Live in the moment and let go.

As a family, we may not be able to do everything, see everything or experience everything the holiday has to offer. It’s OK! It does not also mean we won’t be able to do anything. Pick the places you really want to go and find ways to do it. Either travel with another family so you can take turns going out and watching the kids, take turns with your partner or just take the kids and see how they handle it. I have happily found that when push comes to shove, the kids behave miraculously! Live in the moment, enjoy the break, take deep breaths and let go. This journey is hard but it is not hopeless by a long shot. You will make wonderful memories and bond as a family which is precious beyond words. Go forth and welcome the adventure!

Originally published: February 4, 2020
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