Travel Tips Part I: Steps for Planning a Successful Journey

“This is not a vacation; this is a work trip!”

— Claire, “Modern Family” on ABC

Let’s face it: traveling with kids is never easy.  Unfortunately, traveling with a child with autism usually adds another layer of challenge.  The crowded, unfamiliar places, with unfamiliar rules and expectations, the unpredictable schedule outside of the norm…these are hard things for all children, but particularly hard for a child on the autism spectrum.  The key to aiding your child in understanding new situations is pre-organization, or advanced preparation.

 Tips for a Smoother Journey:

1. Think about any new core vocabulary words you will need for your trip: 

Walking through a predicted vacation day in your mind, think about any core vocabulary your child might need that he doesn’t already have.  For instance, if you’re ambitious enough to go to Disney World (I haven’t been brave enough yet), we know for sure that you’re going to need the core vocabulary word, “wait.”  If you are flying on a plane and it’s your child’s first time, you will likely need to introduce core vocabulary and concepts for staying in your seat, checking bags, bags under seat, take turns going to the bathroom, sitting in an assigned seat, etc.  The core vocabulary you select will guide you as you move to the next step.

 2. Find a good picture book: 

One to two weeks before your trip, find a good picture book that shows parts of the journey that you think your child may have the most difficulty with, and that clearly depicts the core vocabulary words or concepts you are targeting.  For instance, if your child has never traveled on an airplane, try to find a picture book that has clear pictures showing steps in the travel experience.  I tend to like the Usborne First Experience series because they clearly depict key steps in a process, though their pictures can be a bit busy.  As an example, check out “Going on a Plane” by Anna Civardi, Usborne First Experiences.

Things to look for in a book (in a nutshell):

  1. Clear pictures (not too busy, or too much to look at; ideally, the picture should show ONLY what you want to highlight without too much background…this is where I think Usborne’s cute pictures fell short for kids with ASD, though they are perfect for typically developing young children)
  2. Depict steps in the process (i.e., going through security, waiting in line, what the inside of the airplane looks like, sitting in the seats, storing items in overhead bins, flight attendants, take off, staying in seat, landing, waiting)
  3. Keep it simple—try to avoid books with too much drama or plot twists!  We are trying to simply depict the steps in a social situation.  Feel free to skip any pages unnecessary to the story you are trying to tell.  (I usually just paperclip them together but if you want to make your choice permanent, you can always glue pages together too.)

Don’t feel pressure to read the words!  Many commercially available are too wordy for their target audience anyway, but can be particularly wordy for a child with autism trying to wrap their mind around something new.  Become the author of your child’s book—choose the core vocabulary you want to give your child for this trip, and use this vocabulary in 1-3 word phrases describing the features you want to highlight.  Read the book in the same way each time.  (For more on selecting and re-writing picture books, PLEASE check out this post.

Read your book at least once a day in the days leading up to your trip.  In this way, the child may be able to internalize the steps in the process, which will help him to make sense of what’s happening when the time finally comes. And then BRING THIS BOOK WITH YOU to the airport, to read in the airport, on the plane, etc.!  It will help to be able to refer to it in times of trouble.

 3. Make a visual schedule

Think about the steps that you’ll need to go through to get onto the airplane, off the airplane, to your hotel, etc.  You may need to break down legs of the journey so that your child will know what to expect.  (For a more detailed explanation, see my previous post on making visual schedules for an activity or for a day.)  If you have found a book to show the process you are targeting, follow the order of steps presented in your book as closely as possible, and utilize the book as a reference when talking your child through the schedule.


For instance, you might make a visual schedule just for getting to the airport.

            Going to the Airport

Going to the Airport


You might also need a schedule to walk him through boarding and getting situated on the plane, such as:

On the Airplane

On the Airplane

I could also really see a need for a visual schedule for walking through security.  Even for a neurotypical adult, the security checkpoint is confusing and unnerving.  Unfortunately, I could not find any commercially-available icons for security station, TSA agent, metal detector, conveyor belt, etc.  If your child is verbal enough though, or can read, I’d suggest writing a social narrative (which we’ll discuss in Part II) to prepare your child for the steps of the “going through airport security” process.

To make a visual schedule, you can use a variety of commercially-available software programs.  Boardmaker is a very popular, though expensive one.  You might also check out ( for $30) for a more affordable option.  The “On the Airplane” board you see above is a combination of Boardmaker and Lessonpix.  Whatever you symbol you choose, be consistent.  Your child will be learning the pictures as he learns words.  Don’t confuse things by giving them a bunch of words for the same thing. As an academic side note, for children with ASD, icons such as the ones I’ve used above have been shown to have better symbolic meaning than photographs of the same thing; however, if you don’t have access to iconic symbols, photographs will work better than nothing.  For more on selecting visual symbols, please see my “academic pit stop”.

Please keep in mind that the schedules above are examples.  The core vocabulary you choose and the steps in the process that you highlight–or even what processes you highlight–should be based on your knowledge of your individual child.  You (and your teachers and therapists) can likely predict situations that might be stumbling blocks; these are what we need to focus on.   PLEASE utilize your child’s teachers and therapists to help you select appropriate books or create helpful visual schedules.  Also, feel free to contact me with questions.

By pre-organizing your child for new experiences, we are able to shed light on a situation that might otherwise to incomprehensible to the child, or be too overwhelming to process.  Preparation for new experiences is the key to success!

More Strategies to Come!

To be Continued….

**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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