Preparing Children on the Autism Spectrum for Travel | Organization for Autism Research

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Ernst O. VanBergeijk, PhD, MSW, is the associate dean and executive director of New York Institute of VanBergeijkTechnology Vocational Independence Program (V.I.P.). Prior to joining V.I.P., Dr. VanBergeijk was an assistant professor at Fordham University’s Graduate School of Social Service, where he served as chairman of the college’s local institutional review board and as a research associate for the Children and Families Institute for Research, Support and Training. In addition, he served as a field advisor and lecturer at the Columbia University School of Social Work and as a research associate at Yale University Child Study Center in the autism clinic. Dr. VanBergeijk has more than 25 years’ experience in the special education and social service fields.

The thought of traveling in public with a child on the spectrum can be overwhelming. Travel involves changes in routine, anticipatory anxiety, and dealing with sensory issues. There is very little research evidence to guide parents, teachers, and caregivers on how to best prepare a child on the spectrum for travel. The majority of what is published on travel training deals with children with physical or significant cognitive disabilities and is not specific to autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Or it is written as practice wisdom, i.e., what professionals in the field believe to be true after working with the population for years.

Getting Ready for Vacation
In preparing the child on the spectrum for travel, one must decide if the travel is for pleasure (e.g. a family vacation) or is it a part of independent living skills and vocational training.

These tips can help parents and other caregivers prepare children for vacation travel:

  • Engaging the child in the planning of a family vacation can help reduce anticipatory anxiety. Higher functioning children can help use the Internet to research the mode of transportation the family is about to take, look up sightseeing tours or points of interest, and review the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) rules regarding what passengers can bring on an airplane as a part of carry-on luggage, how to transport toiletries, etc.
  • Giving the child a visualization of what to expect at airport security can help prevent a meltdown. Some airports (e.g. Newark Liberty International) have initiated programs for individuals with ASDs where they are given an orientation to air travel and go through a mock travel scenario. The orientation includes going through security and even boarding an airplane. The program was highly successful and has been replicated at other airports nationally.
  • Anticipating what the child should wear on the plane trip can reduce the stress he or she feels in the security scanning line. The guiding principle should be to have the child remove as little as possible from their bodies while going through security. Therefore, an effort should be made ahead of time to reduce metal items (e.g. use belts with plastic buckles). Having the child wear slip on shoes can also expedite the process and reduce stress.
  • Reviewing what are the rules about the type of words one must avoid while in an airport or airplane can help avoid embarrassing situations.
  • Reviewing when one cannot use electronic devices can also help prevent a meltdown.
  • When traveling, it is often a good idea to alert airline personnel that you are accompanying an individual with an ASD. Identify the lead flight attendant and let him or her know what to expect.
  • Summer camps that have travel programs can also help children with ASDs learn about and enjoy travel.

Preparing for Independence
For many individuals with ASDs, independence includes learning how to get around his or her community. Many individuals with ASDs may never learn to drive an automobile. Consequently, in order for the person with an ASD to be fully independent and engage in the world of work, he or she must be able to navigate a public mass transit system or utilize a para-transit system. The lack of reliable transportation is one of the most significant barriers to employment.

Training children with ASDs to use public transportation should begin at an early age and should progress in its complexity as the child ages developmentally and masters basic building blocks for more complex tasks. These tips can help parents and other caregivers prepare children for using public transportation:

  • Like with travel for fun, the Internet can be a good way to introduce the topic of transportation and preview routes and modes of transportation.
  • Parents and caregivers should teach children basic pedestrian, basic safety, and contingency management skills.
  • Parents and teachers should review repeatedly what to do if the child/student becomes separated from the group or travel trainer. Emergency telephone numbers should be pre-programmed into the child’s cell phone as a speed dial number. This scenario should be practiced including using the speed dial feature.
  • If parents are unsuccessful in training their children to use mass transit, then they should consider adding travel training to the child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) as a part of his or her transition plan under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) once the student reaches age 14.
  • The state office of vocational and rehabilitative services, which will have different names depending on the state, can also help with training an individual to travel to work.
  • College-based Comprehensive Transition Programs may have both travel for work and pleasure as a part of their curricula.

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