Summer Travel Tips for Vacation-Goers on the Autism Spectrum

We’ve spent many summers traveling from CA to Seattle to visit family and go to summer camp. Generally, we traveled in the car sometimes by plane.

The car was longer but overall easier. Especially when we first got Pebble (our service dog), she was not trained or ready for the plane. Eventually, we did train her for going on the plane which made air travel less stressful.

Planning for a road trip

In preparation for our road trips, I planned at least a week in advance for the 3 days in the car. I’d find the best places to stop, take breaks, eat and sleep. Taking these pre-trip steps proved very important to how the trip would go for all of us.

The trip to Seattle was 20 hours from our home in California. We planned between 6-7 hours per day on the road, giving us plenty of opportunity to take breaks, rest and eat. Knowing the amount of time we wanted to spend on the road each day, I could then focus on a plan which included:

  • Where to stop for breaks. The quickest and easiest were rest stops along the freeway.  Pebble our dog got to get out, Maci and I did as well. We had water, snack and stretch time. I planned we’d be back on the road in 20 min.
  • Where to eat. I generally packed food for all of us and water. I like to look up parks along our route so we could picnic. A park stop gave everyone fresh air, a chance to run around for a bit and having a homemade lunch guaranteed we had gluten free and healthy options. 
  • Other great driving-break options. I think it is nice when stopping for gas or other breaks making time to grab a treat, coffee and/or additional snack. Starbucks, Chipotle and even McDonalds have good healthy choices.
  • Where to stay. Hugely important! Traveling with Pebble, we had to have places that accepted dogs. I also like to get places that offer suites. Homewood Suites, Hilton and Marriott have been great options. We can then get settled into our room and not have to leave again to go out for dinner.  I generally plan on bringing something for dinner with us to make in the room. 

Preparing for the road trip I like to do the following;

  • Make a food list of snacks, lunches and dinner.
  • I help Maci have a lot of options for things to do in the car.  We like to go to Target for fun ideas. Their $1.00 section usually has some fun toys etc. I have not tried the Dollar Store but imagine it would have great options as well. I pack 1 bag just for her “in-the-car” activities.
  • Most important – I create a social story book/journal of our trip – a guide for what is going to happen – and give it to Maci before we leave. It is the best the most fantastic way to lessen any anxiety, uncertainty and fear for the upcoming trip.

I started making a social story about our trips after I shared how horrible a trip to the beach one afternoon had gone to our occupational therapist. She shared with me the idea of making a social story and showed me her ideas. I started doing the social stories for little outings, going to the grocery store, getting haircuts, etc.  It was wonderful.  I decided I would try it for our trips and traveling. 

Ideas for creating a social story:

  • Think chronologically of the entire trip what is going to happen. I started with packing a few days before the trip.  Maci would see me laying out clothes, the suitcases and preparing.  She would start to know we were doing something and didn’t know what.  It would trigger her anxiety and meltdowns. 
  • Before anything else, creating the social story book from the very beginning helped her to see, understand and know what was going to happen.
  • I had pictures of every step, packing, suitcases, our car, picnic places, rest stops, gas stations, snacks, food, toys, hotels, beds, anything I thought should be included.  I even had a clock in the book to help understand how long each day in the car would be. 
  • A map showing the road trip staring at our home and where each day we would be driving.
  • One time we stayed with friends so I showed pictures of their family, the kids, dogs and their house.
  • When we did start to travel in the airplane, I created social stories of going to the airport, checking in, going through security, waiting for the plane, finding our seats, sitting in our seats, seatbelts, tray table, airline food and snacks and getting our rental car. 

I give Maci the book a few days prior to our trip. We talk and go through it together.  She loves to read it with me, look at all the pictures and talk about it. Over the days prior to our trip, I often see her pull out her book and look though it on her own. It has been a life saver for us. 

We recently took a trip to New Jersey, Maci’s longest plane trip; all day of traveling and time changes. We had to get up at 4:00 in the morning to get to the airport and we did not get into our hotel room in New Jersey until 7:00pm, a very LONG day. 

Maci did a fantastic job. The trip was long but it went smoothly. She had her social story book with her the entire time. 

I hope some of these strategies and tips for your summer travel help you have an easy, stress free and enjoyable trip wherever you may be traveling.