Family travels. Parent with children at international airport with luggage in a cart. Mother holding baby toddler girl and boy flying by airplane.

Family traveling at airport. ()

Traveling is an enriching experience and a great opportunity to create memories. However, when you, your partner, or your children are neurodivergent, planning a trip requires a lot more research.

According to a 2019 survey, only about 13 percent of families with children who have autism go on vacation. Many families feel there are not enough accessible autism-certified travel options. While we have made progress, there is still a deep stigma around mental health. The director of AASPIRE, a community-partnered research initiative centering on adults with autism, notes that individuals with autism are often flagged by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) due to “suspicious behavior.”

Unexpected challenges such as delayed flights, overbooking, and luggage check-in are not only overwhelming but can potentially create additional disruptions for neurodivergent individuals. Here are some suggestions on how to plan for a vacation while traveling with neurodivergent companions.

Sensory-Friendly Suites

In the United States, several airports have constructed sensory rooms featuring soft lights, comfortable seating, calming visuals, and sounds to reduce anxiety before a flight or minimize sensory overload. Sensory rooms are specifically designed spaces to provide a more enjoyable or multi-sensory calming experience for children and adults. Outside of the U.S., some sensory rooms are in airports in the UK and Ireland.

Minimizing Stress

To minimize stress, it is essential to call the airline and inform them of any medical equipment or if you are bringing a service animal on board. Once at the airport, inform the staff that you need priority boarding as your companion requires additional time to board and get comfortable before takeoff.

Many airports, such as London City Airport, Liverpool Airport, and Aberdeen just to mention some currently offer a program that allows individuals with disabilities to practice entering the airport, including obtaining boarding passes, going through security, and boarding the plane.

Stay Informed

Organizations like Autism Double Checked are certifying companies and organizations to provide autism services. They are planning to introduce a directory for neurodivergent families to find hotels, airlines, and attractions with autism-friendly staff and resources.

Another valuable resource is the Hidden Disability Sunflower initiative, which provides lanyards with sunflowers on them for individuals with hidden disabilities. This initiative has been launched in various countries including Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Latin America. If traveling by air, the Disabled Passenger with Intellectual or Developmental Disability Needing Assistance code can be added to the plane ticket at the request of the passenger.

Lastly, Autism on the Seas has partnered with Royal Caribbean, among other cruise lines, to provide services, including respite care for neurodivergent individuals and their families.

Take Away

While there are challenges in traveling with neurodivergent individuals, it’s heartening to see the progress being made in creating more inclusive and accessible travel options. As awareness grows and initiatives like sensory rooms and certification programs become more widespread, we can hope for a future where everyone, regardless of neurodiversity, can enjoy the enriching experience of travel. By staying informed and advocating for these changes, we contribute to making the world a more inclusive place for all.

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