How to Travel With an Autistic Family Member

Most people with autism prefer to live a predictable, routinized life. In fact, for some people on the spectrum, even the slightest change (a detour on the way to school, for example) can be upsetting. So travel, not surprisingly, can be very challenging for autistic individuals and their families. Fortunately, there are ways to make travel easier; your choice of method will depend on your particular needs and pocketbook.

Parents holding son's hand at the beach
jacoblund / Getty Images

Travel Challenges for People on the Autism Spectrum

Travel of any sort can be challenging. Any trip requires not only a change in routine but also flexibility and a willingness to bend to others' preferences and needs. A longer trip to an unfamiliar setting can be stressful not only for a person with autism but also for family members. Here are just a few of the more challenging aspects of traveling with autism.

  • Any change in routine can undermine an autistic person's sense of being in control of the environment. This can lead to anxiety which, in turn, can lead to "meltdowns" or other challenging behaviors.
  • Even a trip to visit grandparents can often require a willingness (and ability) to adjust to a different schedule, new foods, and new patterns of communication. For some people on the spectrum, this level of change can be overwhelming.
  • Public transportation can be tough for people on the spectrum, with plane travel topping the list. Between Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screenings, delays, and a need to sit still and quietly for hours on end, it can be overwhelming.
  • Sensory assaults can be difficult to manage when you're on the road. There's no way to stop someone else from blowing their horn or shouting—and seatbelts, even if uncomfortable, are mandatory.
  • In some travel situations, safety can be a concern. This is especially the case if your autistic family member is an "eloper" (tends to run away) or may become aggressive.
  • While most people are aware of autism and understand it to some degree, it's likely that you'll run across people who stare, become impatient, or even refuse to serve a person who is behaving in an unusual manner. This can make travel very unpleasant.
  • For some families, just knowing that an autistic family member will be stressed is stressful. Imagining the worst can put parents and siblings on high alert, making even ordinary inconveniences unnecessarily difficult.

Simple Tips for Stressless Travel

By far the easiest way to travel with a person on the autism spectrum is to return to the same place at the same time every year. Knowing where and when you're going, how you're getting there, and what to expect when you arrive can take a great deal of anxiety out of the process. Add to that some careful planning to include breaks and treats that appeal to the autistic person in your life, and you're likely to have a good experience. Here are some specific tips:

  • Pick a place and time that works well for everyone in the family. No one should feel that they are "sacrificing" their vacation because of autism.
  • If you are visiting family on a regular basis, be sure your hosts understand and can welcome your autistic family member appropriately. That may mean lowered expectations for hugs, stocking favorite foods, reducing noise level, and otherwise keeping special needs in mind.
  • Maintain traditions. While some family members may love and need spontaneity, people with autism thrive on tradition. If you go fishing at the creek every year, plan on going next year. If someone in the family would prefer to try something new, that's fine—but it's best not to insist that your autistic family member go along.
  • Plan special treats that you know will appeal to your autistic family member. If he loves swimming, hiking, or any other activity, be sure to plan it in. Then remind him of the plan regularly!
  • Have a social story and/or photo album or videos to share ahead of time. Social stories provide a preview of what's to come. It can be very helpful to share reminders of what will happen, special expectations for behavior, and reminders of the place and experiences to come.

Suggestions for More Challenging Travel Situations

While it's ideal to travel only to well-known, familiar locations, there are always situations that require a positive response to the unexpected. If you know you're about to undertake a challenging trip, you can plan ahead for success. Here are a few resources and tips that may help.

Use a Specialized Travel Agent or Agency.

As the number of people with autism has increased, so too have the number of travel agents and agencies dedicated to the needs of families with autistic members. These services don't come cheap, but they can be extremely helpful. You can seek out a Certified Autism Travel Professional (CATP) who has taken a course and passed a test to prove that they are "both knowledgeable and capable of providing support and travel-related services to an individual on the autism spectrum as well as their family."

You can also visit autism-friendly destinations that are specifically set up to welcome people on the spectrum with sensory-friendly experiences and resources. Autismtravel.com hires certified autism travel experts and helps families to create their own autism-friendly journeys.

Autismontheseas.com offers autism-friendly cruises in collaboration with Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line, Carnival Cruise Line and others; they have professionals available onboard to accommodate "the typical cruise services, as well as providing specialized respite and private activities/sessions that allow our guests the use of the ships entertainment venues in an accommodated and assisted manner."

Choose Autism-Friendly Destinations

Some destinations are more autism-friendly than others. Las Vegas is likely to produce one sensory assault after another, while Aruba can be a paradise for people on the spectrum. Similarly, while Six Flags may be overwhelming, Disney World is equipped to provide appropriate experiences and supports for people with disabilities.

Connect with the Airport and TSA Ahead of Time

Going through security can be a major ordeal for people with autism and their families—but the TSA truly wants to help. According to their website:

Passengers with intellectual disabilities or developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism, can be screened without being separated from their traveling companions if traveling with one. You or your traveling companion may consult the TSA officer about the best way to relieve any concerns during the screening process. You may also provide the officer with the TSA notification card or other medical documentation to describe your condition.

Of course, you'll want to leave plenty of extra time to get through security so that neither you nor your autistic family member is stressed by the need for speed.

To prepare your autistic family member for the experience, you can read them a social story created by Jet Blue or show them the Autism in the Air video, available on YouTube.

Have a Plan B for Stressful Situations

Everyone knows that travel can be fraught with stress. There's a backup on the highway; a plane is delayed; the hotel reservation has been lost. Knowing that these inconveniences are not only possible but are highly probable, it's important to prepare in advance. What will you do if things don't go as planned?

While there is no pat answer, there are a range of options that are easy to set in place in case of emergency. For example:

  • Be sure you have a favorite video downloaded and ready to play just in case you have a long and unexpected wait time.
  • Have favorite foods and snacks packed, just in case you're stranded in a spot that doesn't carry what you need.
  • Have silencing headphones available just in case your hotel is hosting a noisy event such as a punk music festival.

Divide the Work

It can be hard to vacation with a family member on the spectrum, especially if other family members enjoy spontaneous exploration, new foods, or other challenging experiences. That's why it's important for every family member to have time for his or her own favorite activities. It can be easy for one person (usually Mom) to assume the whole burden of making travel pleasant for an autistic child—but everyone deserves a vacation.

Plan for Safety

A significant number of people with autism have challenging behaviors that may include "eloping" or aggression. These are behaviors that can make it nearly impossible to leave home because it's so hard to guarantee the safety of the autistic person or the people around him.

In some cases, behaviors are so extreme that travel may not be appropriate. Respite care, sometimes available through health insurance or state funding, may be a better option.

When the risk of elopement or aggression is relatively low, however, there are options. For example:

  • Bring child-safe locks wherever you travel, and use them to secure front doors of vacation houses, hotel doors, and other entrances.
  • Equip your autistic family member with a GPS device such as a wristband, so that you can find them if they do wander off.
  • Avoid challenging locations and situations when you travel together to minimize the risk of anxiety-induced aggression.
  • Be sure you have calming sensory tools, medications, music, and videos easily available as needed.

A Word From Verywell

For the vast majority of people with autism, travel is not only possible—it can be very enjoyable. The key is to choose your destination carefully, plan ahead, and know how you'll handle the unexpected. In some cases, however, a change in routine can be so upsetting for an autistic family member that it isn't worth the struggle. In those cases, it's better for everyone involved to seek respite care to allow caregivers some time away.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards. Certified autism travel professional. Updated April 1, 2020.

  2. Autism on the Seas. What we do.

  3. Transportation Security Administration. Disabilities and medical conditions.