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Last updated: June 2, 2023

Guide to Traveling with Autism

Plan ahead to ensure the trip is enjoyable for everyone, including children with autism.

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Traveling is an excellent way to expand your worldview, see new sights, and experience other cultures. While this sounds amazing for many people, the experience can be overwhelming for someone who is autistic, as well as for the people traveling with them. In fact, the new sights and sounds, combined with disrupted routines, can lead to meltdowns.

When a meltdown occurs, it can significantly affect the ability of your party to enjoy the trip. However, you can reduce travel stress by anticipating challenges and practicing for new situations. In the process, you’ll help the autistic person set expectations for and handle new experiences. This article about traveling with autism breaks down the nuances of specific modes of travel and how you can prepare.

By Airplane

Flying is the fastest way to travel long distances, but it can be stressful for anyone, regardless of whether they have autism, due to strict schedules, crowded security checkpoints, and unexpected delays.1 On top of that, once you get on the plane, the noise and turbulence may be triggers for an autistic person. Here’s how to prepare.

  1. Create a one-page sheet: The first thing you can do is prepare a one-page sheet that you can present to officials, like TSA officers at checkpoints and the flight crew on the plane. The sheet should summarize the autism diagnosis, state any allergies the person may have, and explain the person’s ability to communicate. You want people who interact with the autistic person to have the right information so they can be more effective in working with the person.
  2. Give the autistic person identification: Make sure the autistic person carries their own form of identification, like a state ID. An ID helps to get through screening and will be extremely useful if you become separated from the autistic person.
  3. Use GPS tracking: Set up GPS tracking on cell phones to significantly reduce your reunification time if you are accidentally separated from the autistic person.
  4. Travel with a special item: Bring a special item that makes the autistic person feel comfortable. This item might be a stuffed animal or other toy, or even a certain jacket. Coloring books and fidget toys can be helpful, as well.
  5. Rehearse: Take the time to rehearse what will happen during the trip, like going through security, including steps such as placing items in the bins, walking through the scanner, and having a wand waved around your body.


If possible, request bulk seating or purchase an extra seat when flying. Bulk seating gives you extra space for the autistic person to get comfortable and not feel like they are packed in.

Long Road Trips

Car travel for someone with a disability can be challenging and, in autistic individuals, can lead to boredom and frustration when normal routines are broken up. The following tips can help.

  1. Break down the trip into smaller chunks: Create a new routine that breaks down the journey into chunks. For example, break up a 300-mile road trip into 10 chunks of 30 miles. Doing so will help the autistic person build order in their mind and focus their energy on smaller segments.
  2. Set a schedule: The schedule should include what you will do as you make stops along the way. Include places where you’ll take pictures, stop for sightseeing, and take toilet breaks. Helping the autistic person prepare for what’s next will reduce anxiety and meltdowns.
  3. Get used to public restrooms: Practice using public restrooms before you depart. You may have some frustrating moments, but it may be easier to handle those when you’re close to home and not when you’re on a schedule to get somewhere.
  4. Use positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement is the use of encouraging language and incentives to reinforce good behavior. For example, you may extend praise for good behavior on a long car ride, despite the traffic.

Public Transportation

When you travel, there may be times when you need to use public transportation. Crowded buses and trains, along with the loud noises they emit, are common triggers for autistic people. Here are some tips to make your trip go more smoothly.

  1. Write out a schedule: Before you use public transit, write out the schedule for the autistic person so they know what to expect.
  2. Get noise-canceling headphones: Equip them with noise-canceling headphones so they aren’t troubled by loud and unfamiliar noises.
  3. Use a navigation app: It might be helpful to download a route-tracking app, such as Moovit, that monitors public transit routes and arrivals.
  4. Explain visual cues: Point out the visual cues, such as arrows on signs saying where things are, that help an autistic person feel more comfortable with their surroundings.2


Cruises are a great way to see new cultures, but being on a ship can pose many challenges for an autistic person.

  1. Choose an autism-friendly cruise: There are autism-friendly cruises that will help reduce stress. Royal Caribbean is one such cruise line that caters to autistic children.3 Autism-friendly cruises offer priority check-in, boarding, and departure at no additional cost. On top of that, the staff understands that autistic individuals often have dietary allergies, and the staff can provide gluten- or dairy-free options. These cruises provide flexible grouping for activities, such as smaller groups or age adjustments. Lastly, many of these cruises offer pagers or phones for parents with children on tours.
  2. Tour the ship: When you first step onto the ship, take the time to walk around and get familiarized, reducing the stress of new surroundings.
  3. Bring a comfort item: Settle into the cabin and make sure to bring a stuffed animal or another comfort item that helps the autistic person feel comfortable in an unfamiliar room.


Find out what the autistic person is excited about on the cruise and help them enjoy this activity. For example, if they are interested in what the captain does, set up a time for them to meet the captain and tour the bridge.

Do’s and Don’ts for Traveling with an Autistic Child

Here’s how to make the travel experience, whether it’s a car ride or a plane ride, great for autistic travelers, and what not to do to avoid sensory overload.


  1. Create social stories. These are stories customized to help autistic children fit into social norms. For example, you may create a story around getting through security or waiting in restroom lines.
  2. Be organized in your schedule, packing, and activities. The more organized you are, the better you can guide the person from activity to activity.
  3. Review the steps of travel activities to set expectations with the autistic person.
  4. Always have a comforting item for the person.
  5. Travel with a sensory kit. A sensory kit is a small container that has different items in it that engage the senses, such as sand, Play-Doh, or water with toys.4
  6. Plan to have a lot of time for required stops and activities.
  7. Use direct language. Say phrases like “This is a rest stop to use the bathroom” rather than “Let’s go use the facilities.”


  1. Don’t rush people.
  2. Don’t set expectations that everything will go smoothly through the entire trip.
  3. Don’t use indirect language.

What Is Autism Spectrum Disorder?

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition that affects a person’s communication and socialization skills. Autistic people may have trouble expressing themselves, may get triggered easily, and may have emotional meltdowns when overstimulated. Additionally, they have a high sensitivity to senses such as noises and touch.5


Autistic people can enjoy traveling when the trip is properly planned and prepared for. The goals of preparation are to reduce the chances of meltdowns and to keep the trip upbeat and fun for everyone. Steps such as practicing using public restrooms can make all the difference between a productive rest stop and an overwhelming experience.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do airlines accommodate autism?

Many airlines take steps to accommodate people with autism. Emirates, JetBlue, and Alaska Airlines are known to go the extra mile for autistic individuals, with great customer service and accommodations, like pre-boarding and complimentary movie packages with headphones.

Can you get priority boarding if you have autism?

People with autism can get priority boarding on airplanes and cruise ships, giving them extra time to settle while the crowds are less daunting.

What is the airline code for kids with autism?

Airlines use the code “DPNA” for people with autism. This acronym stands for “disabled passenger with an intellectual or developmental disability needing assistance.” The code goes in the free-text box on the booking page.


  1. Traveling with Autism. Autism Speaks. (2023).

  2. Autism-friendly public bus transport: A personal experience-based perspective. PubMed. (2022, Nov 6).

  3. AUTISM FRIENDLY SHIPS. Royal Caribbean. (2023).

  4. Autistic While Traveling: Haley Moss’ Top Tips for a Successful Trip. Milestones Autistic Resources. (2019, Nov 6).

  5. Signs and Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorder. CDC. (2023).