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Tips and Tools for Traveling With a Special Needs Child

Let’s be honest: traveling is exhausting under the best of circumstances. From making plans to completing the journey, it can be a challenge to keep your sanity even when you’re off on a relaxing vacation. And when you’re a parent of a child with special needs, finding the easiest and most accessible route to getting where you’re going can be that much more difficult.

With the holiday travel season coming up, we want to help you and your family navigate the uncertainty of airports or road trips in the best way possible. We’ve put together a list of tips, tools and other resources that will hopefully ease some of the difficulty you might face when traveling.

Just a heads up: This article is going to be a long one. So ladies and gentlemen, please fasten your seatbelt while the “fasten seat belt” light is on. Please refrain from walking about the cabin during takeoff and landing. Please make sure your seat back and folding trays are in their full upright position.

Let’s fly!

Just the thought of navigating an airport can raise a person’s blood pressure. Luckily, most airports are more than ready and equipped to help individuals with physical limitations and disabilities fly thanks to federal law. The Air Carrier Access Act makes that explicit:

The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) is a law that makes it illegal for airlines to discriminate against passengers because of their disability.  The Department of Transportation is responsible for enforcing the ACAA, which applies to all flights to, from, or within the United States.

That said, here are a few basics to consider before you get to the gate:

  • There’s a reason why everyone suggests getting to the airport early. It’s the simplest thing you can do to reduce stress when traveling. You’ll feel a lot better about checking bags and getting through security if you’re not rushing to the gate before it closes.
  • Bring snacks and sensory toys in your carry-on. A nice travel kit can ensure you have everything you need before you board all in one place.
  • Remember: Wheelchairs, pushchairs, and other assistive devices are NOT considered luggage and don’t need to be checked. Airlines are required to help individuals stow, board, and deplane with them.

For individuals with autism, finding the right airline can be a bit tricky. Don’t worry, The Mighty have done the research for you, from calling airlines and piecing together all the information you need to know before flying with a child with ASD. Each airline is different and can serve your child in different ways. You can read the full list here.

If your child or adult has never flown before, it’s a good idea that you prepare them for the experience as much as possible. It’s important to help them understand what will be happening in airports, from security checkpoints, to a lack of personal space, to small cabins in airplanes. Airport walk-through can help a lot with that, especially if your child is on the spectrum.

There are a few United States airports that allow families to do a walk through or practice airport situation before the big travel day. There are about fifteen of them dusted throughout the U.S., and here’s a list of those.

If the airport you’re flying out of does not offer a practice session, using social stories such as this one can be a big help.

Let’s take the car!

On the surface, car travel seems a lot easier, but road trips have their own difficulties with which to tend. Your child might be more mentally comfortable in the familiar family car, but being confined to one space for hours, unable to stretch and move as boredom creeps in, can make everyone in the car a little stressed out.

Our friends at Friendship Circle have a long list of tips to help you, your child with special needs, and your family on a road trip. Here are just a few highlights:

  • Make sure you plan for frequent stops as you travel! No one likes being cooped up in the car for hours, so make sure you hit the rest stops and regional oddities along the way. Even a quick trip into a strip mall or gas station can help break the monotony of car travel and give kids the physical activity they need to get through the trip.
  • Limit distractions to the driver. If possible, consider sitting in the backseat with your children to keep them from getting loud or disruptive. At the very least, it’ll keep them from playing “I’m not touching you.”
  • The wiggles and squirmies can sometimes get the best of kids. To keep them safe and contained, it might be a good idea to purchase a BuckleRoo, which is a small plastic seat beat cover that little escape artists can’t break out of.

Avoiding Overstimulation

One of the easiest ways to prevent tantrums is to eliminate overstimulation. Whether it’s in the car or on a plane, a good idea is to get some sensory processing toys. Check out the travel sensory kit, the sensory first aid kit, and the tactile sensory kit. They’re filled to the brim with toys and stims that can help kids decompress.

To avoid those pesky, and sometimes unexpected, ear popping situations, we recommend chewing gum or oral stimming chewies. Whether you’ll be flying in the skies or traveling through high altitudes, giving the kids something to help their ears pop can probably prevent overstimulation or confusion.


Don’t get lost!

Individuals with special needs sometimes elope or wander, which can be frightening. Keep them close to you and keep a good eye on them, especially in unfamiliar and crowded places. The newness of people and places can be overwhelming for any kid. Having strategies to help you in an elopement situation is a necessary part of vacations.

For parents worried about losing a child in a crowd, equipping them with a GPS tracking device Is a simple and discreet way to ensure your child’s safety. A medical I.D. bracelet informing others that your child is autistic or has some other special need can also offer peace of mind.

Where to stay

While choosing a hotel, a factor that you might want to consider is what accommodations they are able to provide for you and your child. While it may be difficult and frustrating to call around to hotels, it’s worth it. There are many of them that can provide equipment like shower chairs, accessible beds that are closer to the ground, or even hospital beds. Those things, however, usually need to be arranged ahead of time.

About the destination

Whether you’re going on a vacation or visiting family for the holidays, the destination can be just as important as the journey. For children with special needs, it might be a good plan of action to try to prepare them for what’s to come to the best of your ability.

Tell them where you’re going, what you’ll be doing, and how long you’ll be there. Show them pictures of the destination. If you’ll be somewhere that has sand or an ocean, it’s a great idea to acclimate them to the feelings and sights of sand, sunscreen, saltwater, or various other senses of the beach beforehand. Heading to a crowded city or amusement park? Introduce your little traveler to the loud or distracting sounds they might hear.

Bring it on home

The good news about going home is that there’s not a lot of uncertainty about traveling anymore. You and your child have gotten to the destination, all you have to do is retrace your steps and get on home. While they might know how the structure of things will transpire with the journey, they can sometimes get a bit more restless than before. Bring some of their favorite toys or electronics to keep them occupied, and hopefully things go well.


While these strategies might work for some, they may not be applicable to all. You can plan the heck out of a trip, and it still might not go as you imagined. But that’s okay! At the end of the day, what really matters is that you spend quality time together.


No Tears Transitions—How to help children with ASD move from one thing to the next

For individuals with ASD, transition between activities or environments can be difficult for a number of factors. They can create anxiety because of the shift in attention, sensory issues, and uncertainty about what’s to come. Since Autism is a developmental disorder that affects social and communicative abilities, children with ASD have a difficult time conveying their thoughts about transitions, which morphs into frustration, which can turn into a tantrum.

To help kids make transitions easier, there are a few techniques and activities that might be able to help. Please keep in mind that every child is different, so while these suggestions may work for some, they might not work for all.

Visualize it

When a routine or transition is brand new, a child’s anxiety level can go through the roof with feelings of uncertainty. Going from a favored activity to something new that isn’t as exciting can also be tantrum-inducing when they don’t see it coming.

Visual schedules are a great way to provide a road map though their day. By clearly outlining activities, kids get a better idea of what’s next no matter what they’re doing, removing anxiety about transitions. You can find some adorable and interactive visual schedules from Sesame Street for examples.

Visual schedules can also be a great way to reinforce time limits, which bring us to our next tip…

Time it out

Giving any child a timer to visually insinuate a transition can help them mentally prepare for the next activity. For kids with ASD, a timer can make or break the transition from one environment to the next. For example, in the mornings, when a child is getting ready in the bathroom, you can give them a timer and an allotted amount of time so that they know when to move from one activity to the next.

You can find a wide array of timers, from drop timers to good old fashioned stopwatches here.

Encourage questions

Kids are naturally curious. Letting them ask questions about what’s coming next is a dandy way to reduce their uncertainty. Reducing uncertainty can help prevent tears during transitions, whether it’s from one activity to the next, or from one environment to the next. Try to answer their questions to the best of your ability. You’re human, and if there is a question you can’t answer, just simply state that you don’t know the answer to that question. Or Google it if you want.

Use positive reinforcement (sometimes)

A tit-for-tat strategy is a tried and true method that Autism moms and dads swear by. The power of reward valence and positive reinforcement should never be underestimated. Bribing kids with a simple, “I’ll give you one gummy worm if you do ________,” provides them with the external motivation to move from one activity to the next. Maybe don’t only use candy, though, ‘cause those dentist bills will be huge for the cavities. Fruits and vegetables, or even trail mix, can be great reinforcement tools.

Of course, this is a tactic best used sparingly. A constant stream of rewards for transitions well done can be detrimental to the development of the internal motivations that will help them socially when they’re older. Still, when you’re struggling to accept transitioning for certain activities, a little treat could provide the breakthrough you need to build on.

Transitioning from transitioning

Struggling with transitions is something every parent faces no matter what their child’s ability or developmental level. Even with all the planning and prep in the world, things might not go smoothly. There might be a lot of tears and tantrums, especially at first, during transitions.

That’s okay! You’re doing amazing things. Remember to stay calm, be clear about expectations, and be consistent with your chose routine. So much of parenting is trial and error, and getting to know what works best for you, your family, and your child. Transitions are tough, but you’re tougher.

How To Win Bedtime Battles

Struggling with a child over bedtime is basically a rite of passage for parents. Sometimes it feels like all the storybooks, lullabies, goodnight kisses, and sheep counting in the world just won’t do the trick. And this can be especially true of children on the Autism spectrum who sometimes have to work that much harder to get comfortable enough for sleep.

Sleep is an important component to a child’s health and behavioral happiness. If a child is not getting enough sleep, they don’t get drowsy like adults do. Kids are more apt to be wound up and hyperactive when they’re tired, which can make it difficult for them to best acclimate to their home and school environments.

What’s a sleepy, somewhat frustrated parent to do? We don’t have all the answers, but there are a few things you might want to try before another bedtime battle.

9 Hacks for winning bedtime

Reinforcing Routines

For any child, bedtime routines can be a crucial element of staying – and falling – asleep. For each kid, bedtimes routines will differ with their preferences. For children who are on the Autism spectrum, routines and habits can be the easiest and best way to help them acclimate to a routine of falling and staying asleep.

Visual schedules are a great way to help any child, especially ASD children, envision their bedtime routines. We found you a cute, downloadable and printable resource that you can use as a guide for their bedtime routine. If that bedtime visual schedule isn’t perfect for you, consider searching “Bedtime visual schedule” on the internet to find the perfect one. If you really want to devote a lot of time to it, you could even draw out your own!

Carry that weight

Weighted blankets have become a very popular in recent years as a go-to for parents with restless children. Used for years by moms and therapists alike, they provide the proprioceptive input and sensory stimulation that some restless bodies crave, helping kids calm and quiet their mind for the best possible night’s sleep.

But before purchasing a weighted blanket, there are some guidelines and rules to keep in mind. These guidelines have been derived The Weighted Blanket Guide, by Eileen Parker and Cara Koscinski.

  • Always consult your pediatrician or occupational therapist before you purchase and use a weighted blanket.
  • Weighted blankets are NOT recommended for use with children under 3 years of age.
  • Don’t put the weighted blanket in the microwave (how would you even fit it in there?!) because it’ll probably melt the beads inside and that will smell really bad. Plus, now you’ve destroyed your weighted blanket.
  • Don’t roll your kids up in a weighted blanket. Just place it over their bodies and let them go to sleep gently.
  • The weight of the weighted blanket should be 10% of the child’s body weight, plus one extra pound. Example: if a child is 60 pounds, a 7-pound weighted blanket would be a good suggestion for weight.

If your child has sensory processing disorders, the texture and feeling of a weighted blanket can also be a determining factor. eSpecial Needs offers cotton weighted blankets, poly-blend and flannel options, and even a slip cover to keep you “covered” all through the night.

Stretching out bedtime

If you’ve got sensory seeker on your hands, you might try some low-key pre-bedtime physical activity to satisfy their craving for input. Stretches and bends, slow push-up or sit-up, even a little bedtime yoga can release those last bits of energy that keep kids for restful sleep.

We found this adorable animated video narrated by a calming British lady that details some simple poses and breathing exercises that can help relax their bodies and focus minds. For children that have more physical limitations, meditation and breathing exercises can be a comparable solution for quieting the mind and body.

Sleepy sounds

The silence of a dark, empty room makes lots of kids anxious about bedtime. Add the creaks old floor boards and a whistling wind just outside, and you’ve got an aural combination that could frighten the toughest adult.

A small CD player, MP3 player, or Bluetooth speaker playing soothing lullabies or other music at a low volume can help an anxious mind focus on something nice. White noise machines are also a great way to use sound to relax the body and mind, helping children fall—and stay – asleep.

“Can I cuddle with you tonight?”

Sleeping in a parent’s big bed is something that a lot of kids want to do. It’s warm, safe, and filled with the people that love them most. And when they can’t do that, kids ask if a parent might join them in their bed to soothe them to sleep.

Every parent has a different opinion on co-sleeping. It’s an idea and practice that has worked for some and caused problems with encouraging independence for others.

Before jumping into co-sleeping, set clear boundaries for personal space and consider setting limits, then be clear about your expectations with your child. Maybe allow the child to fall asleep in your bed and then move them to their own. Cuddle with them in their bed for a while then go back to your own room when they start snoring. No matter how you go about it, take the time to create a co-sleeping plan that best for everyone.

Good Night, Sleep Tight

Use any of these techniques at your own discretion and level of comfortability. You know your boundaries and your child better than anyone else, so while some of these suggestions might work for some people, it doesn’t work for everyone. And that’s okay.