People with autism are not like everyone else. They have special needs, especially when it comes to traveling. To the untrained eye, these children may come across as immature or odd. As the mother of a now adult child with autism, I have experienced both well-meaning and ill-intended comments from fellow travelers; mostly because people don’t understand this specific special need condition. Here are 20 things that I wish people knew about traveling with an child with autism.
Travel Challenges for People with Autism
For a person with autism, the slightest change can be extremely stressful, which can lead to outbursts and meltdowns. People with autism are unable in that moment to distinguish between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate behavior; whether at home or in public. They may cry, scream or even engage in injurious behavior – especially in situations outside of their daily routine.
These are the 20 things I wish people knew about traveling with a special needs child.with autism
Children with autism struggle to understand the concept of waiting. They are impulse-led so don’t adjust well when things don’t happen when they think they should. They really battle to wait for long periods of time, so when or if you see parents asking to cut the lines with their kids, it doesn’t mean they are rude. It could be that they are trying to keep their child from having a meltdown because he had to stand or wait for long periods of time. These children need to be accommodated in airports, theme parks and restaurants.
Autism presents in different ways in different children. Some children with autism are sensory avoiders and do not like to be touched. This can be quite challenging with security checks in airports. Some children with autism are sensory seekers and touch absolutely everything including things they aren’t supposed to. As a member of the public, you do not need to intervene. As the mother, I know best how to handle the situation and will be the one to calm my child in the event of a meltdown where he wanted to touch something but couldn’t or had to get clearance at the TSA and be exempt from a security check.
One of the telltale signs of people who are on the autism spectrum is that they are quite inflexible. Changes in plans that come with no warning can be met with the volatility of an erupting volcano. This can make visiting a theme park really difficult if on the day of the visit a favorite ride is closed for the day. Please be aware that very little can be done to console my child and any attempt on your part to help will not be received well, especially while a meltdown is occurring.
People with autism may have involuntary muscle movements as well as common repetitive behaviors such as hand flapping, rocking, jumping and twirling. Fellow passengers on buses, trains or airplanes can find this disruptive and disturbing. Once, an older passenger on a long haul flight slapped my son because he was moving his legs and hitting the passenger’s seat in front of him. Slapping a child with autism is definitely not the way to deal with a person who is unable to control their impulses. Talk to me, the mom. I know best how to make my child understand what is appropriate or not. Inappropriate behavior can ever help the situation.
Since many children with autism have sensory issues, they attach a very strong sense of identity to their belongings, especially some items of clothing. This becomes a problem when luggage gets delayed or lost by airlines or cruise lines and the clothing can’t be replaced. Please understand that my child is not being petty. He has lost something extremely dear and valuable to him.
Many children and adults with autism don’t understand the concept of “personal space.” It is very likely that they may encroach on the space of others unintentionally. This is evident in airplanes where they might take over more than their own seat armrest or allocated space. If you feel invaded, please speak to me and I will know how best to get my child to comply.
Children with autism are not always spatially aware when out in public. They may not always remember their inside voice in restaurants or movie theaters, so they appear to be loud, disruptive and rude. There have been many times when people have incorrectly perceived my repeated verbal prompting to remind my child how to behave as bad parenting.
Sometimes, children with autism may spill food items on themselves. This is due to coordination or balance issues and not because they are careless. When traveling, it sometimes happens that you share tables with strangers in restaurants or have no choice but to be in close proximity. You may have to see this or experience being spilled on. Please be aware that this was an accident and completely unintentional.
As hard as we try or they themselves try, some autistic children may stick out in a crowd because they are dressed differently. Based on their sensory needs they may wear sandals and shorts in the dead of winter or a favorite jacket to the pool. It is part of their identity and security and they are not trying to draw attention to themselves.
Some people with autism can be really picky eaters. Some kids only eat certain items at certain temperatures and can experience a meltdown if they aren’t duly accommodated. This means that as parents we need to run around and find food venues that have specific items that our child can and will eat. Please understand that my running around is to try and avoid a meltdown that will affect your dining experience.
It is important to know that you can’t really reason with a child with autism when things go awry. Once a meltdown begins, it is nearly impossible to calm them down. As the mother, I am very well aware of what will ensue and what will not work. Preventing meltdowns is everything and that is why getting pre arranged accommodations from airlines, cruise lines, hotels and theme parks are so important to us.
Special needs children with autism can react differently to everyday stimuli that others take for granted. Different textures, smells, sounds, tastes and light (especially strobe lights) can trigger extreme reactions. When they have difficulty processing and integrating sensory information, or stimuli, such as sights, sounds smells, tastes and/or movement, they may experience seemingly ordinary stimuli as painful, unpleasant or confusing. Like other parents to kids with autism I usually know what the triggers are and try to avoid them but once in a while a new trigger might surface. Should you witness a moment like this I am grateful to get a moment to regroup and think. If you want to help you are more than welcome to ask something mundane and non intrusive like ‘Can I help in anyway?’ but please don’t judge me while I comfort my son.
Sometimes we need an escape from things that are going on around us. This applies even more so to children with autism who perceive stimulation differently and get extremely overwhelmed by it. This can be a combination of their sensory input combined with sleep disorders, which are fairly common. Simply put, their coping resources can be impaired. This is when they need a quiet place to regroup and rest. As the mom, I know what is best for my child and when I am looking for that quiet place, it is with my child and fellow traveler’s best interest in mind.
When dealing with autism, even older kids may wander off and can find themselves in unsafe situations like bodies of water, pools and lakes without knowing how to swim. They can dart off into traffic if left unsupervised. Please realize that I am not being a “helicopter parent.” I am aware of what my child’s safety needs are.
For children with special needs and autism, following directions may be extra challenging. These children might need reminders from staff as well as parents to sit in their seat on a plane or buckle up on a ride for example. If this takes extra time, please be patient.
Sometimes, special needs and autism manifests in communication difficulties. If they have a language deficiency, explaining their needs and wishes clearly can take more time; sometimes they need help with ordering in restaurants or purchasing items in stores. Some are non-verbal so they use sign language or type on their tablet. It is important that we have patience with them as the extra frustration can lead to a meltdown.
Many children with autism might not make eye contact, especially with strangers. They also are known to echo and repeat words or phrases over and over and not quietly; all of which may be interpreted as rude by fellow travelers. Please know that it is not from lack of trying on the parents’ part to educate the child in manners.
Because children with autism struggle with change and transition, it is important to factor in longer times to prepare between activities. Doing this effectively during travel, which requires more flexibility, takes extra time and as a mother I am always thinking and anticipating how to segue more smoothly. This might explain why I as the mother seem preoccupied.
It is common knowledge that many children with autism have difficulty socializing; particularly with their peers. They find participation in conversations and group games a struggle, so they might need additional staff to help when attending resort or cruise-line kids clubs. As the mom, I am often astounded at people’s reactions when they say things like, “She thinks her son is better than anyone else!”
This is such an important point for all people, not only kids with autism. They are not retarded, so please don’t talk about them like they don’t understand or aren’t there. It is a matter of courtesy and makes my job as a mom easier when I don’t have to defend my child’s intelligence as well as his other challenges.
Because you cared enough to make it through this long post, my first reaction is to hug you.
Thank you for learning more about my son and so many others on the autism spectrum.If you wish to help – then please help us raise acceptance and more understanding. The next time you see a parent comfort their child in a restaurant or trying to cut through the line in an airport, please remind yourself you may not know the entire story.