Tips for Long Journeys With Loved Ones With Autism

The author of “Cowboy and Willis” and mother of a son with autism offers helpful advice for special-needs travel.

by Monica Holloway

Tips for Long Journeys With Loved Ones With AutismFor many families with loved ones on the autism spectrum the idea of a long journey can be daunting. Here are some suggestions from the Society for Accessible Travel and Hospitality (, a nonprofit educational organization, for making travel with those with special needs as streamlined as possible.

Prepare your child with a rehearsal. If you are flying, contact the airport and inquire about visiting in advance of your trip. Let your child experience the hectic, unknown atmosphere of the airport and even enjoy watching the planes take off and land. At home you can role-play by waiting in lines, removing shoes for security, and sitting where instructed.

Pick out a “Travel Toy.” Sometimes it’s helpful to allow your child to pick out a toy to carry on the trip. If they do this ahead of time, they can carry it at (and near) home in preparation for the journey. It can sometimes help to feel that they are taking “a piece of home” with them.

Write a social story. Providing visuals can help your child understand the details and routine of the trip. Include drawings of some of the things you saw at the airport or look up photos of items online. Print these out and paste them into your story so that there will be plenty of visuals. Your child can look at this Travel Journal many times before the trip. Here is a sample social story from the “Everyday Adventures” autism blog.

Make a special-needs checklist. To make the trip easier, pack allergy-friendly, favorite snacks, any medication that might be needed, headphones to block unwanted noise, and any other favorite items – such as books, a portable DVD player, or handheld gaming systems – that can help keep your child happy and engaged.

Call TSA Cares at 855-787-2227 prior to arrival. Call about 72 hours prior to flying with individuals with disabilities. They can answer questions about what to expect and can coordinate with security checkpoint support as needed.

Display the diagnosis. Have your child wear a bracelet, sticker, washable tattoo or other form of ID at all times that includes the child’s name, diagnosis, your name and number. Airports can be very busy, and this will serve as an important tool if your child wanders.

Don’t forget about the destination! Prepare your child not just for the trip, but also for the destination. Show him or her photos or read stories about the location. Explain that you will be sleeping in a new place and that some routines will change temporarily.

I know that it can feel overwhelming to plan a vacation with a family member with special needs, but with preparation, organization, and enthusiasm, a family journey can be, not only possible, but fun too!


Monica Holloway is the bestselling author of Cowboy & Wills, a Mother’s Choice Awards Gold recipient, and the critically-acclaimed author of the memoir Driving With Dead People. Holloway lives with her son and husband in California.

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