CNN carried this story about traveling with an autistic child. There are some good suggestions in the article.

In our experience:

  • Traveling with a child who is a “runner” (runs away) is almost impossible. You just can’t watch them closely enough. Rob was a runner from age 2 until we started his SI therapy at age 6.  In that time we went almost nowhere. But sometimes you HAVE to travel. We did go to Houston for my MIL’s funeral. We stayed that night at a large high-rise hotel. There was no chain on the door; just the door lock. Rob was only three.  In the middle of the night I heard a click of the door, and half-awake I thought it sounded like the room next door. But my mother-alarm went off, so I got up – and Rob was missing!  We called the hotel security, split up to go in opposite directions…and found him a few minutes later pressing the elevator buttons–He remembered the koi pond in the lobby and wanted to go see the fish. After that one of us slept in front of the door on a futon or cot to make sure he stayed in the room.  If you have to stay in a hotel, make SURE the door has a chain or other lock out of their reach. Other tips if you MUST travel with a kid who is a runner: Make sure he has ID on him while traveling. Make sure you know at all times what your child is wearing in case he runs off.  Have recent photos, fingerprints, etc.  I would get some sort of GPS tracking device and attach it to him.  Make sure he can say his name and address or phone number (if he can talk).  Use a child harness whenever you are in a public place (airport, store).
  • When Rob got older and stopped running away, we took a few car trips. We could keep Rob’s favorite snacks in the cooler, stop when we needed to, and he could entertain himself pretty well with hand-held video games and books (this was before the advent of hand-held DVD players). We also would listen to stories on tape. He also liked to play car games.  We just needed to seat the two kids far enough apart, and put the cooler between them so we could avoid them fighting over space.  We made sure to bring his skin brush and very comfortable clothes for him to wear.  We also brought his own pillow and blanket so he had something familiar to sleep with at night. We also brought a bin of familiar toys (Legos, puzzles, etc.) and a few new toys for novelty.
  • Once we were sure Rob would not run away, staying in hotels worked as long as they were large rooms, or suites, and as long as we were willing to allow Rob plenty of his own free time and space. The best places we stayed were timeshare condos (you can rent them), where we had a living room, kitchen, and 2 bedrooms. The kids had their own room with a TV and Nintendo. We had our own room. And because we had a kitchen we could fix food the way Rob liked it and avoid some of the hassles of trying to find food he would eat at a restaurant. It wasn’t as much of a break for me, of course; but it was much less stressful in the long run.
  • Places that worked well (surprisingly) were Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm. We used the passes they describe in the above article, so you don’t have to wait in line.  Those passes made the park not just doable, but enjoyable.  Your  hotel must be very close to the park so you can come and go easily between the park and the hotel. If Rob got overstimulated, one of us could take him back to the hotel for a nap and a Nintendo session.  One time we stayed at the Disneyland hotel itself – and that was really the best.
  • Sea World worked well for us too. The beach did not, because the sand was torture in his clothes and against his skin. Camping worked; we rented a pop-up camper and took lots of familiar toys and books and of course his Nintendo (and extra batteries!!!)
  • Have low expectations about a trip. Enjoy the moment; accept what comes. Your autistic child is probably not going to enjoy the trip for its own sake.  Let him enjoy the moments he enjoys and don’t try to force him to see the point of the trip.  So even though you are going to Disneyland, let it be OK if the hotel swimming pool is the best thing about the trip to your child. Rob went through a phase where he loved swimming, so we always went to the pool after we got to our hotel, and let him swim to work off his energy and anxiety.

Flying with Rob was a nightmare. We never flew unless we had to. And believe me, people are NOT understanding, patient, or helpful, except for one lovely woman who sat next to us on one flight, and did her best to help me keep Rob calm and distracted. If your child has sensory issues, being confined to a seatbelt can be torture. Be sure to have them wear their most comfortable clothes, even if they look ratty. The noise of the jet engines, the sensation of take-off and landing, the close quarters, all can drive an autistic child to distraction. Let the flight attendants know ahead of time that this may be an issue.  Rob needed to be chewing gum during take-off and landing, and be wrapped up in his blanky.  And of course they do not allow hand-held or electronic games during flights. If they allow i-pods or tape players, sometimes that would help. In-flight movies sometimes help – but bring your own headsets that your child is used to. Bring familiar toys and books – novelty in this situation will probably not be helpful. Familiar treats and drinks will help.

  • Be prepared for lots of dirty looks from fellow passengers and the flight crew if your child is disruptive. I thought about getting a t-shirt (for me) that said, “He’s autistic. What’s your problem?” but I figured that wouldn’t help, lol.  I know some people get cards printed with information about autism and pass them out to crew and fellow passengers before the flight takes off. I didn’t do this, but in retrospect, now I would.
  • We never got put off a flight, but then we did most of our traveling before 9/11. By today’s standards, I think we might have been put off a flight. As it was, after one particularly harrowing flight to Houston with Rob when he was ten, (when he kept yelling repeatedly, “The pilot’s a quack! We’re going to crash!” and I couldn’t get him to stop), I swore I would never fly with him again -and I didn’t until he was 16 and in better control of himself.