As a generation of children whose lives have been defined by COVID-19 prepare to take to the skies for the first time, parents of children with autism face a new set of challenges brought on by travel. Both adults and children who experience neurodivergence in some form can be affected by sensory-processing difficulties, leading them to become more easily overwhelmed by disruptions to their daily routine as well as overcrowded transit hubs and the unfamiliar settings that come with traveling. Using these sensory-friendly travel hacks, parents and travel companions can prepare for a journey that embodies comfort and fun.
Walk through a day of travel
It’s important to properly introduce new environments, activities and disruptions. For parents, showing their child photos of new places, modeling how to interact with new settings and talking through travel days with a visual schedule are all techniques that could help those with neurodivergent tendencies prepare for travel ahead of departure day. Programs like Wings for Autism set up practice travel days for families to have a chance to walk through the process in advance, which serves the dual purpose of helping service providers learn how to accommodate families with special needs.
People with autism or other sensory processing-related diagnoses can find themselves overwhelmed by the crowds, uncomfortable spaces and competing noises that accompany travel. An extra comfortable, long-sleeved outfit can help sensitive travelers feel grounded and limit their exposure to undesirable textures. A hat, sunglasses and headphones playing music or soothing, familiar sounds can also help by limiting the excess inputs that could lead to a sensory overload. Packing snacks with different textures and stimulating flavors like crunchy pretzels or sour chews can help an autistic person regulate their emotional level by providing additional stimulation.
Comfort items can range from things that provide emotional support, such as a favorite water bottle or toy, to items that help regulate sensory input like a soft weighted blanket or fidget device. Knowing what comfort items help you or your child regulate their emotions can create an outlet for moments of overstimulation. A variety of activities that stimulate different sensory systems can also help with these efforts. For example, an iPad can provide visual stimulation while a coloring book offers a tactile release. With anticipation, preparation and accommodation, neurodivergent travel days don’t have to be so stressful. Together, these strategies help travelers create safe spaces that facilitate smoother travel experiences that are more comfortable and fun for everyone.