Monday, May 17, 2010

Car & Air Travel for Children with Autism

As summertime approaches, families are thinking about where to spend their vacation time. For many parents, however, the mere thought of traveling by airplane or car to a far-off oasis causes them to break out in hives. Many children with autism have difficulties sitting for long periods of time. Accompanied with unpredictable transitions, particularly in unfamiliar surroundings, this can lead to a very unpleasant journey for everyone involved.

Airplane and Car Travel

There are several steps that can be taken to prepare your child for an airplane flight or a long car ride. We recommend starting to work on these suggestions a month or two in advance of the trip:

1) There are many books and videos available that show air travel from a child's perspective. The Good Little Traveler website has a wide selection of preparation tools, books, toys and games, and videos.

2) The TSA website dedicates a page to Traveling with Children with Disabilities and includes many helpful suggestions.

3) If you live near an aviation museum or know someone that has connections to the airline industry, arrange a visit to allow your child to experience sitting on an airplane and viewing the cockpit. If you live in Utah, take a trip to Discovery Gateway in Salt Lake City, where your child can sit in a real helicopter, or to Hill Aerospace Museum. Take a trial run to the airport, watch the planes take off and land, take the shuttle bus, and identify any problem areas that may need to be worked on at home before the vacation.

4) Many parents find that airplane travel is often more successful if they choose to fly during times that there child would typically be taking a nap or falling asleep for the night. If possible, pick and choose your flights to coincide with these drowsy times.

5) Stock up on plenty of your child's favorite toys, treats, and books. Restrict access to these items for at least a week before the trip so that they are novel reinforcers once travel time arrives.

6) Visit the public library to borrow several new books or DVDs for the trip, or pick up a new coloring book. These novel items are more likely to capture your child's interest for a longer period of time.

7) While we are not proponents of excess time playing video games, having a handheld game can make the minutes and hours fly by. If you are traveling by air and your child will tolerate them, buy a pair of earphones/buds for the device so that you and the other passengers are not bothered by the sound of the game. You may need to teach your child to wear earphones/buds for a longer period of time.

8) Work to increase the amount of time that your child can sit before needing to walk around. Set up chairs to simulate an air plane seating arrangement, with 2 to 3 chairs in your aisle and chairs directly in front of you. To start, determine how long your child will typically sit while being entertained by books and toys (use toys that you plan to bring with you). Next, require your child to sit for approximately 15 seconds less than this baseline time. Once the time is up, initiate standing up and walking up and down the "aisle", paired with plenty of praise and other effective primary (food or drink) or secondary (toys and social) reinforcers. It is important that you are the one to initiate standing up so that your child learns that he/she cannot stand up whenever he/she wishes. As your child is successful, gradually increase the amount to time that he/she is required to sit before standing up by 5 to 60 second intervals. While sitting, be sure to provide your child with activities such as books and toys.

9) Social stories can be an effective way to prepare your child for air or car travel. Put together a social story, using photos from Google Images, that shows the different steps of your trip (e.g., packing a bag, driving to the airport, checking in, going through security, etc.). Place the pictures in a small photo album and use them to help your child to anticipate the next step on travel day.

10) If you are currently running an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) program with your child, speak to your consultant about customizing your preparation to meet the unique needs of your child.

Keeping track of your child

If you are concerned about your child's ability to stay with you, particularly in large crowded places such as the airport or Disneyland, consider using a device such as the one offered by Securatrac. This device is available for purchase or can be rented by the day for a very reasonable price. It uses GPS technology and your mobile phone to locate your child and report it back through the SecuraTrac network. This type of safety net can provide you with piece of mind that if your child does wander away, he/she can be quickly located and found.
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