How to travel well with autistic kids

Holiday travel with autistic kids can be stressful. The long car journeys, the new routines and schedules, the strange foods and beds. So how do you travel well with autistic kids, or is a staycation the solution to stress-free holidays?

The worst car journey or “how not to travel well with autistic kids”

“Are we there yet?”  “I feel car sick.” 

The joys of holiday travel never end when its travel with autistic kids. I used to get upset about all the travel experiences we’d never have because we’re an ASD family. But over time we’ve learnt through trial and error how to travel well with our autistic kids. This enables us to venture beyond a staycation in our own city, and enjoy travel further abroad, including long car trips.

One trip we made interstate featured 5 episodes of projectile vomit in the backseat. Admittedly we were on a windy road heading up into the mountain ranges. We went through all the spare towels in the back, all the plastic bags and still the motion sickness kept coming. When we arrived at the caravan park, we had the joy of cleaning out the car seat and removing all the chunky vomit from the tiny crevices of the car seat in the sink of the shared laundry. We learnt from that trip to always pack car sickness tablets and to limit reading in the car. We’ve since learnt that motion sickness is more frequent in children with autism because of an over-responsive vestibular system.

All our terrible travel experiences have taught us much about how to plan, execute, survive and thrive travel with our autistic children. Here are our top 5 hints.

1. Plan ahead, together

Now the kids are older (primary school aged), they are part of our travel planning. They get to have a say in where we go, how we get there, what we do, and where we stay. Most recently, our son chose an awesome beach shack as our holiday stay and it made the stay more enjoyable having his buy-in.

We also prepare with social stories and conversations well in advance. Get kids to help pack their own bags (picking the clothes they want), and select their own snacks. They can also pack their own little entertainment bag for in the car with them. Involve kids in whatever you can such as choosing the accommodation, the schedule and the things to see.

Part of preparing well also means well-considered packing. For long car travel, we have a packing list for in the car that covers all our emergencies and stops fights and boredom in the back seat.

We always pack:

  • Travel sickness tablets for kids
  • Snacks (shared and individual snack boxes for each child with their own selection of snacks) and drink bottles
  • Magazine or books for the kids or game/puzzle book that’s new
  • Favourite toy
  • Old towels and plastic bags and change of clothes easily accessible
  • Baby wipes and hand sanitiser
  • Face washers that can be soaked in water and places on back of neck to cool down in warm weather and blankets to put on lap in cold weather

We also make sure we leave early (as early as possible). Where we can, we want to arrive at our destination just after lunch. Partly this is to manage toileting needs, but also it gets most of the driving out the way before the hottest part of the day if we’re traveling in summer.

Our son drinks lots when he’s bored (which we learnt on another car trip), so leaving early also helps us have frequent stops. Our kids can manage about an hour or two in the car before needing to stretch their legs. On bad days, we need to stop every 20 km for a toilet break (it’s that ‘drinking lots of water when bored’ issue again). We also include the kids in finding things to look at along the way (which playground, natural landmark, tourist landmark) so they have something to look forward to at the next stop.

2. Prepare plenty of activities

Boredom is one of the worst things to happen on a long travel journey. We pack a variety of non-screen activities with us to keep the kids entertained. The car glove box always has:

  • mints or lollies to suck on
  • a set of travel game cards
  • bubble mixture or stickers

For long car journeys, lucky dips get added for ‘surprises’ throughout the ride.

Our travel game cards include:

12 car games that don’t suck for travel with autistic kids

We learnt in yet another holiday that too much reading makes our kids motion sick in the car. To avoid too much reading, screens and looking down in the car we play road games.

Twelve of our favourite road games and activities include:

1. Shiritori (first letter, last letter)

This Japanese word game has you taking turns saying words around a circle. One person says a word- for challenge pick a theme like animals or foods – and then the next person has to say a word that starts with the last letter of the previous word. With foods you might say “potato” then the next person says “oregano” then the next person “olive” and so on. House rules might include no repeats of words, a time limit on how long you can think of a word, or it might be collaborative where each person suggests a word and the best word gets picked to move ahead.

2. Eye spy

Eye spy is an oldie but a goodie, and keeps people looking out the front window rather than down at their laps getting motion sick. For little kids, eye spy using colours (“I spy with my little eye something red”) is easier. Eye spy as something hidden in the car (“I spy with my little eye something hidden in the car”) helps if you’re traveling at high speed and can’t keep track of the scenery. You can give clues for hotter or colder in how close the guesses are getting with hide and seek eye spy, or allow yes/no response questions for clues. Traditional eye spy gives a starting letter (“I spy with my little eye something starting with L”)

3. Counting things

Lots of these games are language based, but counting things is a fun number game. Pick an object (e.g. electric cars, street lights, trees, kangaroos, trucks) and see who can get to 20 items first. Alternatively, set a timer and see who can count the highest number of those items in that time. To make it collaborative, set up a group tally and all players contribute to the score.

4. Timed competitions

Friendly competition (but not too competitive or the fights will start again) is a fun way to speed up time in the car. Our favourite competitions include:
– who can suck on a lolly for the longest time before it disappears
– can you take the most bites out of a single potato chip
– who can stay quiet or close their eyes the longest
– who can fold a piece of paper the most times
– can you keep smiling for the longest time
– who can sing and hold the longest musical note

5. One word/sentence stories

Telling a story in a circle where each person says a word or sentence that contributes to the story. We get the most fun from starting with three prompts, such as “the story is about Frankie, going on holiday, and features a dragon”.

6. Guess who

This game could be a mix of taboo, guess who, celebrity heads or another other guessing game. We play it where one person thinks of an item/person/event/movie/game/country and everyone else has to ask yes/no questions to guess what it is. If you have a set of pictionary or taboo cards from a game board you could bring them along and use them as prompts.

7. If I was on a deserted island I would pack…

This game is good for filling 10 minutes quickly. Everyone gets told they about to be shipwrecked on a deserted island and can only pack 5 (or 10) items to go with them from the endless supplies on the ship (or plane – pick the transport you’re NOT currently on because you don’t want to tempt fate!).

8. Follow me

One person makes a sound, clapping rhythm or alliterative phrase. The next person repeats and adds their own. Continue around the circle. If doing alliterative phrases, the game ends when you’ve gone through the alphabet e.g. angry alligator, brave butterfly, courageous capybara, dainty dugong etc)

9. Bingo/spot-o cards

If you know where you’re going, or a good idea of what might been seen along the way, you can make up bingo cards. Give each person a highligher and a bingo card that might include items (depending on where you’re traveling) such as a kangaroo, a landrover on a pole, a giant koala, a giant lobster, the beach, a cemetery, a truck stop, an electric car and a flock of galahs. Alternatively, you can list landmarks in order of your travel and it becomes a checklist of the journey towards your destination.

10. Sing a longs to your Travel Days playlist

While not a game per se, the construction of a playlist can be done in the car as long as you have access to internet or songs. We have many playlists that we’ve constructed over the years that get played at different times. Our Travel Days playlist is for car travel and only includes songs about places or modes of transport (cue “Africa”, “April Sun in Cuba” and “Barcelona”). We have family playlists where each member of our family contributes a song in order. That way you only have to wait another 3 songs and you’re guaranteed one of your favourite songs). We also have separate ‘relaxing music’ playlists for each child that’s their calm down and sleep music. When we’re sick of listening to each other talk, we put on a playlist and crank the tunes.

11. Listen to podcasts or audiobooks

Again, not a game per se, but many of our podcasts that we listen to are educational and interactive. We might listen to ABC Kids News Time, But Why, Brains On, Coffee Break (insert language here), History Storytime or one of many others. They often have puzzles, mystery sounds, quizzes, repeating phrases back or other interactive elements that make them a fun way to spend time.

12. Would you rather questions

Asking questions of each other is a great way to build social skills, learn more about each other, practice listening and turn taking. Would you rather is a fun one that often devolves into the gross and silly quickly with our kids (would you rather eat poo or drink wee?). However, there are lots of other possibilities such as ‘would you rather live in the past or the future’ or ‘would you rather be a dragon or a unicorn?’ or ‘would you rather only eat sweets or savories?’. Another variation is to ask questions of each other. If you have Ungame cards or other conversational card games you can use these to prompt questions and conversations.

We have 38 different card activities and games (including the 12 games above) in the Travel Cards pack, available for download here.

3. Novelty wins for travel

Having new things that capture attention (even for a little while) is a win for long travel. We include a mix of old and new things in our packing. Some new things might include:

  • On one of our best car trips we packed a bag of little lucky dips (with a chocolate, pencil, fidget toy or stickers – just remember to pack duplicates of each in case the kids get jealous and will fight if they have different things). When the kids got restless they got offered a lucky dip. Being able to unwrap the present and see something surprising and new inside kept the novelty up. And it gave them a new toy to play with until the next town.
  • Buying a new magazine and only giving it to them an hour into the trip. New things to read and play with were a success for us. But remember about travel sickness if reading causes issues. Kid’s magazines with a bonus items included (like stickers, a hat, or a puzzle) are always a winner.
  • Fun foods like cereal necklaces (with cherrios or froot loop style cereal) to keep them with a ready supply of snacks around their neck in a fun way.

4. Don’t forget the familiar

While novelty is great for entertainment and avoiding boredom, autistic kids also need familiar items. Include:

  • something familiar for calming (like a soft toy, blanket, chew toy or fidget toy that they like). Our kids will pack a favourite soft toy with them so they can cuddle at night, and have something comforting in the car.
  • something familiar to eat. Strange foods and having to eat out at restaurants can push the limits of safe foods for autistic kids. Pack favourite snacks so there’s a safe food available. We’ll go shopping for snacks in the supermarket with the kids in advance. This means they each get to pick some snacks they want as their special foods in their snack boxes.

5. Be flexible with time

Travel will take longer. Be flexible with time, while also giving choice of how to spend the time to kids where possible.

  • Use a schedule planner/journal to help structure the day with a visual schedule, but also make sure to stay somewhat flexible. Schedules avoid many meltdowns while on holidays, as kids know what is coming up, can be reassured that their preferred activity is scheduled, and reminds you not to squeeze too much in. Don’t forget to schedule downtime for regulation! Even with older kids, we generally only schedule one big outing a day.
  • Give kids access to timers. Timers on their watches/phone can to help separate the day. This gives them a sense of control over the time until the next break or activity. Our daughter felt so much better when she had a sense of the time. When we could tell her that the next town was in 10 minutes, she would set her watch timer. She could then manage sitting still (while waiting for the timer to tick down) until we reached our next stop.

Other hints for travel with autistic kids

If you have supportive friends and family, holidaying together can help share the parenting load. But beware the holiday with people who don’t understand autism – you may find a friendship strained when a meltdown hits or when you say no to activities to allow for downtime.

It’s also worthwhile picking family friendly places to stay. Caravan parks with playgrounds, bouncing pillows and swimming pools provide entertainment, as well as sensory input for regulation.

Finally, if all those items packed, games to play and other hints don’t get you through the journey, then pull out the devices. We use a tablet for movies (downloaded in advance) or games. Also, having access to a cheap camera (or a parent’s phone) so they can take their own photos allows them to document things they are interested in.

Generally, travel with autistic kids does get easier!

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