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Looking for autism travel tips so you can avoid Sensory Meltdowns on vacation? You’re in the right place!
Are you finally going on that family vacation you’ve been dreaming about but you’re scared to death your child will meltdown on the plane?
In the car?
In a line?
I feel you. One of the most challenging aspects of parenting a child with autism is helping them through a sensory meltdown. Sometimes it pushes you to the brink of insanity. Our special needs kid’s sensory meltdowns can occur seemingly out of nowhere, and when they do, it’s up to us to be prepared. You know this. I bet you have an arsenal of supportive tools and toys at home, but when you’re on the road, it’s much harder to manage.
Today I wanted to share a few travel tips along with 8 items to pack when you’re traveling with an autistic child to make meltdowns a little easier on everyone.
Autism, Meltdowns, & Memphis Oh My!
Let’s take a moment to talk about meltdowns. For the past three years, I’ve been in deep trying to find every piece of info available on the topic. My son has autism. And Sensory Processing Disorder. And Mega-Meltdowns. As you know, meltdowns happen as a result of sensory overload. Sensory overload occurs because your child’s central nervous system is overwhelmed due to too much stimulation.
Sights, sounds, tastes, movement, and touch all can cause your child to shift into sensory overload especially if he’s in a crowded, unusual, and busy space. During a meltdown, your child loses control of his behavior.
Sometimes you may lose it a little too.
Memphis Meltdown-A Cautionary Tale
A few months ago we packed up the fam & headed to the happiest place on earth-Walt Disney World. My daughter’s show choir was performing so we made it into a family vacation. I planned our airport entrance strategy & exit strategy-like an FBI agent. I was on fire. I thought I had it all together. But I didn’t plane for the TSA line.
I had read (and obsessively printed out) an article about TSA Cares & airlines making travel easier for autism. [Here’s the LINK TO THAT HELPFUL ARTICLE YOU NEED FROM NBC]
The TSA program is fabulous-when it’s done right. Y’all, you have to call them in advance & let them know you’re coming so you WON’T HAVE TO WAIT & SOMEONE CONSIDERATE WILL HELP YOU.
I did not have this information going in. I thought you just needed to check in & tell the TSA attendant you were there with a special needs child.
As we were sorting our situation out, of course, Nathan started to meltdown. Usually, I give him bubbles (to encourage deep breathing) when I see he is close to losing it. (I believe these are known as triggers. The goal is to catch on early before the meltdown occurs.) But guess what’s not allowed in the TSA line?
Liquids or foods that help calm a meltdown.
I had nothing to help my red-faced son who was starting to hyperventilate right there in the home of the Delta Blues. Not even a crayon.
When I asked the Memphis TSA rep (a gentleman we’ll call Jim-I have his real name on file), he told me I should split up my family to accommodate them.
Yes, he said I should have been more considerate of the TSA and sent my gigantic (party of 3 because it was mandatory for Savannah to take the bus on the way down) through the line single file style?
Memphis We Have A Problem.
That’s when I had full out Mom Meltdown. I swear I was shaking I was so damn mad. I wanted to burn that mother down. I was smart enough to keep my big mouth shut otherwise nobody was going to travel that day-autistic or not. Feeling helpless as a mother is a nightmare & I was living it. I couldn’t help my son & ignorance surrounded me. Stupid Jim & what felt like hundreds of folks walking past me as I begged my son to please stop crying & tried to carry him through the line. He weighed over 60 pounds and was doing the limp noodle thing with his body. I weigh in around 120. It was a struggle. Nobody offered to help.
Don’t worry, once we made it to Orlando I made a few phone calls. Wrote a letter to the TSA. Took care of ignorant Jim & arranged for a miraculous TSA VIP treatment on the way home. Seriously, they rolled out the red carpet. (It was kind of stained, but they tried.)
And it doesn’t even end there. Ever seen snakes on a plane? Airplane? Any cliche movie where a kid freaks out before takeoff & everybody stares & whispers?
That was us.
Yep. Nathan’s meltdown did not end when we boarded the plane. The fact that it was sitting still for so long & he was required to FASTEN SEATBELTS didn’t jive. I was seated next to him, and my daughter & hubs were an aisle to the side so they couldn’t help. (Most airlines offer special needs kids boarding options based on their needs. You just have to ask. For the right one. We opted to board first. Another mistake.
I had to use all of my body weight to keep him seated before takeoff.
He was hysterical & so was I. An old lady complained about him & the flight attendants told her if she didn’t like the noise she could pay $5 to rent noise-canceling headphones. LOVE that!
Those Delta Flight Attendants became my squad. They brought us blankets, crayons, drinks, snacks. Several patted me on the shoulder as they passed by & one brought me a Cosmopolitan. On the house. But nothing helped until they moved us to First Class to sit next to a therapy dog.
A Yorkshire Terrier named Terrance.
That’s what did it. Like magic. I don’t know for sure if it was the movement of the plane or the dog, but we made it through to Disney. And it was totally worth it. I think Disney World is one of the most magical fantastic places to take any child, but for a child with sensory issues like Na, it’s a dream come true. I wish you could’ve seen his precious little face light up on It’s A Small World. Pure bliss.
Each child reacts differently to sensory overload. As parents, our goal is to keep our kids safe and regain control. You’re going to have to find the special combo that works for your child. If there was a magic potion to calm autism meltdowns I’d be singing it’s praises from every mountain top. Until then there are a few items that may help!
If you’re planning a family trip with a child with sensory sensitivities like autism or sensory processing disorder here are a few things to remember to avoid a repeat of my performance!
- If you’re flying call the TSA Cares Hotline & schedule your arrival! (1-855-787-2227) If you are reading this on your way to the airport & you think it’s too late-it’s NOT. It isn’t mandatory that you call ahead-just highly recommended. Ask for a Support Service Agent at the TSA gate. They’ll know what to do. You won’t need any documentation that says your child has autism.
- If you are flying call the airline & find out what your boarding options are. Would it be better for your child to get on the plane first? (And have to sit still & wait forever? Or last?) If you live near an airport most airlines will let you bring your child a few days before the trip to look around & get a feel for things. They’ll give you a tour of the plane & this will help your child anticipate travel day!
- Pack a carry on bag for your child full of any calm down items that may help! (See list.) If your child is an iPad/gamer & you’re flying keep in mind that the iPad apps that run on WiFi don’t always work in the air! Download the games onto the device &/or bring a backup form of entertainment!
- Pack essentials in your carry on! All medications (The TSA will allow you to bring liquid meds you just have to notify them & go through a special screening-it only takes 5 minutes.) Pack Advil, Tylenol, Benadryl, anything your child may take for motion sickness-and a medicine dropper! They don’t sell those at the airport! (Or any resort hotel I have ever seen!) Also pack pajamas & a change of clothes in case of a spill!
- Safety. I don’t have to tell you our kids with autism wander off. Maybe you’re lucky & you don’t have that concern? Unfortunately, we do. We moved to stay safe! Before I go rambling on-I’ll just say-if you’ve been thinking of getting a tracker or safety device for your child do it before you go on vacation. That’s the last thing you need to worry about. Here’s what you need to know about autism GPS Trackers.
- Pack 10X the number of snacks you think is enough. Same for busy books like sticker pads & coloring books & crayons. You can never have enough. I went into Memphis thinking a huge lunch plus 5 bags of Peanut M&M’s 6 Juice boxes & a jumbo box of fruit snacks was adequate & look what happened to me!
- Yes, all of this is worth it! I know it seems like a lot of trouble & effort. And on travel day you are going to be exhausted, but you will enjoy every minute of your vacation. And you’ll make memories that will last a LIFETIME!!!!
8 Calming Travel Toys
The Weighted Worm by Fun & Function provides soothing deep pressure to help calm your child’s central nervous system. I love the worm because it travels well and you can use it two different ways to provide proprioceptive feedback. Drape it around your child’s neck like a scarf to provide sensory input like a weighted vest or let the worm rest in his lap to calm him like a weighted lap pad!
Buy now here
Oral proprioceptive input is calming and can help with self-regulation. This necklace is an inconspicuous, stylish sensory aide that your child can wear every day or you can keep in your purse for emergencies! It’s also offered in blue!
Buy now here
Consider a pair of sensory-friendly headphones if your child is sensitive to sounds. Child-themed noise protection headphones like these panda themed ones by Califone aren’t as intimidating to kids!
Buy now here
Buy now here
Wikki Stix are great travel calm down kit items because they’re relatively small and fit a variety of kid’s needs. I’ve found that the fuzzy texture is often enough to sustain my son’s need for tactile input. Wikki Stix are also excellent as fidgets!
Buy now here
You can purchase scented and non-scented versions of putty like Crazy Aaron’s for your child to discretly self-regulate in the car, at a restaurant, or in the classroom. These tins are the perfect size for your travel kit and purse!
Buy now here
The no-mess magnetic drawing board is a great item to add to any calm down kit if your child enjoys stamping and drawing! It comes with three shape stampers: Love, Circle, and Flower. They all wipe off easily thanks to the bottom lever that’s simple for kids to use. This mini size is ideal for travel and fits perfectly in small hands.
Buy now here
Buy now here
Parenting a child with autism in the midst of a sensory meltdown can be a nightmare for parents especially when you’re away from home! You’ve got to be prepared for everything! You can find more ideas for a calm down kit in this post 50 Tools Every Autism Mom Should Have in Her Calm Down Kit.