Travel Tips Part 2: Utilizing Social Narratives and Functional Activity Routines

As we discussed in the last episode of our travel series, the challenges of traveling with a child with autism (or any young child, for that matter) are more manageable when the child is prepared for the new experiences that await him.

In my last post, I recommended that you:

1. Identify the core vocabulary and concepts necessary for your trip

2. Find a good picture book to introduce target features of your journey

3. Make a visual schedule for crucial pieces of your trip

Depending on how many steps in the process you want to target and how many concepts you want to “unpack,” you may be using multiple books and schedules on your trip.  And if you do, GOLD STAR!

Continuing our tour of helpful strategies…..

4. Use modified social narratives

Social narratives, originally popularized by Carol Gray, are an evidence-based practice shown to be effective with children with ASD.  They may be extremely helpful in preparing a child with social skills difficulties to understand a variety of social situations. Though originally intended to help a child work through a situation that is already known to be difficult for him, by modifying the technique slightly, social narratives can also be helpful in AVOIDING problem situations before they happen.  They can be particularly useful in breaking down, or “unpacking”, complex situations for the child so that they can better understand the situation and know how to respond appropriately.

For instance, you might anticipate that following the “rules” of riding on an airplane might be difficult for your child.  In this instance, you could write a social narrative of sorts to outline expectations in the airplane.  There is a lot to cover in terms of rules in airplanes (even without discussing what you can and can’t SAY on an airplane), so it might be helpful to break them up into multiple stories to avoid overloading the child.

Below, I have included some example social stories to spark your creativity.  Please note that the length of the story should be tailored to your child’s attentional abilities and the language you choose should be appropriate to your child’s language and developmental level, their core vocabulary, and what interests your child.  Don’t forget to take into consideration what your child’s sensory experience in a given situation might be and address those as well, with the help of your Occupational Therapist (OT).  Disclaimer:  The social narratives below are likely highly imperfect for your individual child.  These are intended purely as examples from which I hope you are able to draw inspiration. Please consult your child’s special educator, speech-language pathologist, and/or occupational therapist for assistance and input.  


Example 1: Going through Security

At the airport, all passengers need to go through the security station.

The job of the security station is to keep all the people safe.

At the security station, there are people called TSA Agents.

TSA agents have important jobs.

I have jobs at the security station too.

Mom and Dad can help me.

First, I wait in line.

Next, I put my backpack in a box.

I take off my shoes.  I put my shoes in a box.

Then, I put the boxes on the black conveyor belt.

Mom and Dad can help me.

The conveyor belt will take my backpack and my shoes.

This is ok.

I will get my things in a few minutes.

When it is my turn, I walk through the metal detector.

The metal detector is like a small bridge or a big rectangle.

Sometimes there is a body scanner. It looks like a small glass room.

When the TSA agent says it is ok, I can get my box with my shoes and backpack.

I can put my shoes back on.

I can put my backpack on.

Going through security is finished.

***The narrative above utilizes higher level vocabulary, as well as the vocabulary specific to a TSA security station. If your child at this level and you wish to teach vocabulary such as “conveyor belt,” “metal detector,” etc., have a picture from a book or a photograph or even a website so that you can SHOW them what you are referring to in the narrative.  If you wish to address the security station but your child is not yet at this level, you can replace the more difficult words with core vocabulary words your child already knows that fit the bill.  Focus on the actions that your child will need to complete, and skip over the TSA-specific vocabulary if your child is not yet ready.


Example 2: Boarding the Airplane (and preparing for takeoff)

On an airplane

I try to sit in my seat

I put my backpack under the seat in front of me

I buckle my seatbelt

I try to stay very quiet

I can read books

I can draw

I can watch movies on my ipad

Mommy and Daddy are happy when I sit quietly in my seat.

Example 3: Rules of the Airplane

On an airplane, there are rules.

My ticket tells me where to sit.

I need to sit in the seat number on my ticket.

I will try to stay sitting down.

I will try to leave my seatbelt on.

When the pilot says it’s ok, I can unbuckle my seatbelt.

If I need to go to the restroom on an airplane, I need to ask my <mom/dad> if it’s ok.

Sometimes I might need to wait until the pilot says it’s ok to unbuckle my seatbelt.

People (Mom/Dad/the Pilot/the Flight Attendant/other passengers, depending on what’s most appropriate for your child) like it when I do a good job following the rules on an airplane.

I will try to follow the rules of an airplane.


As I said with regard to schedules, any social narrative you write should be tailored specifically to the challenges you fear your child may face, as well as to the language level of your child.  Be sure to include things the child CAN do, rather than focusing on what he CAN’T do.  There is a debate in the professional community as to whether you ever put negative emotions or unwanted behaviors in a social story.  My personal rule of thumb is that if your child hasn’t displayed any negative behaviors or expressed any negative emotions, don’t give them any big ideas.  I only use negative emotion words or behaviors in a social narrative IF the child has displayed that specific negative thing in their personal experience and we are trying to teach them how to curb that behavior in favor of doing something else–and even then I do so cautiously and reservedly.  We are trying to teach them what TO do, rather than what NOT to do.  Therefore, your narrative should center on how to navigate a situation successfully without mentioning how to fail.

These social stories can be with picture symbols or without.  Remember though that when your child is going to be challenged by another element, he is not in his optimal state of emotional regulation.  Remember that when your child is NOT emotionally regulated, he isn’t comfortable in his own skin and may be unable to listen, learn and participate.  Simplify your language—even if it means that you’d normally be talking beneath his level.  It will help him to process your words if you use fewer of them.

Other possible challenges might be checking bags, waiting for bags in baggage claim, riding in a different car, riding in a different car seat….and that’s all before you get to your travel lodging.  The more advanced preparation you can do that things will be different, the more likely you’ll be to experience success!


5. Practice!

We all get better with practice.  Once you’ve read your book, drafted your schedules, and written your social narratives, and your child has had several repetitions of them, plan a time when you can practice.  You could practice by pretending any element of the process.  Since symbolic play (or pretend play) is frequently a challenge for children with ASD, utilizing the books and schedules you’ve written (particularly using picture symbols) will support this process. Using the tools you’ve already built, you can create a functional activity routine. For instance, if you’d like to practice waiting in line to get on the airplane, boarding, then sitting down, you might make single-word labels for a “waiting” area, set up chairs in a line and label them “airplane,” and you could even label yourself as “flight attendant.”  Then have your schedule to refer to as you walk your child through it.**

Also, if you happen to live in an area that has a flight museum (we in Dallas are lucky to have the Frontiers of Flight Museum), you might see whether they have an old airplane that they might be able to actually board.  For instance, the Frontiers of Flight museum in Dallas has a retired Southwest Airlines jet, complete with seats, which visitors are able to board and sit in.  Even seeing and experiencing it once might help your child to be more comfortable when the time comes to really do it.

6. Be sensitive to the sensory demands of travel situations

If you’ve not yet enlisted the help of an occupational therapist (OT) with a specialty in sensory processing disorder, I would strongly recommend looking into it.  These professionals do so much to help families and children recognize what theirbodies are feeling and teach them strategies to help in hard times.  For instance, crowded situations pose one kind of sensory challenge.  Loud situations pose another kind of challenge.  Turbulence on the plane might cause another challenge.  The way your ears feel in an airplane might be a problem.  Sleeping in a different bed, still another.  Occupational therapists are incredibly helpful and knowledgeable in strategies to support better emotional regulation in stressful situations, such as noise-cancelling headphones, taking deep breaths, counting to 10, using stress balls, etc.  But I’m no OT!  Please consult yours for recommendations specific to the need of your individual child.

7. Don’t forget about the destination! 

Talking to your child about your destination can help all of you get excited!  Look at pictures on the internet together, look at brochures, read books about it, and make plans!  I put a lot of emphasis on the journey, but it will help all of you to push through the struggles on the journey when you can also be talking about the destination.

Take Pictures!

Lastly, for our next little project together, I ask you to take lots of pictures during your trip, even of less than beautiful moments happening in the airport, in the taxi, etc.  It doesn’t have to be beautiful to be memorable for your child.  My kids remember the funniest things—like tray tables on airplanes.  Take pictures of things that are special to your child.  Later, we will use these pictures to build a memory book.  Watch for my next post on sharing memories with your child.


**In the curriculum portion of our book, Facilitating Early Social Communication: From Theory to Practice, Dr. Rollins and I have written a curriculum unit for “Going on an Airplane,” including picture book recommendations, songs, games, and functional activity routines for “going on an airplane.”

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