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Travelling with special kids

PREPARATION is key when travelling long distances with your ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) or ASD (Autism spectrum disorder) child.

Depending on their age, it might help if you distract them, keep them occupied and prepare them for the long travel time on the bus or flight.

Learning and behaviour consultant for ASD children Intan Miranti says that how a child reacts to long distance travel depends on his age and communication skills.

Her son Andi, now 16, has ASD. They have flown to the United States a total of five times since he was one year old.

“The flights were gruelling as they were three to four legs, with travel times ranging from 26 to 40 hours.

“At one year old, it was fairly easy as he slept a lot.

“At 2½ years old, he was at the peak of his severity. At this stage he could not understand instructions, could not co-operate and did not have any verbal mode of communication.

Therefore, we thought ahead and decided to use cough medicine to keep him drowsy during the flight. Part of the severity was that he did not have many play skills so it was very hard to find toys to distract him on long flights.

“At five, he had undergone three years of early intervention therapy, so he had an increased understanding of the world and the ability to communicate and understand the communication of others. However, he also had a lot of routines and rigidities which made any novel experience a miserable one for him and us.

“We did massive amounts of preparation including role-playing different aspects of the flight, we had a hand-drawn visual timetable to show the different lengths of the flights and layovers in airports, and many, many small toys to distract him and entertain him throughout the 30-hour journey,” says Intan.

According to her, travelling with Andi at the ages of 12 and 14 were much better as he was able to understand more abstract concepts like distance and time. In addition, he was not as rigid and obsessive about routines.

“He was very accommodating to various difficulties throughout the flight and was a very happy, easy traveller,” informs Intan.

Mum of two S.C. Teo also relates having a hard time travelling with her ASD child when he was 2.5 years old because he was not able to express himself.

“Our first trip to Melbourne was a nightmare. He had trouble sitting still and calming himself. He was too young to express himself then, and he had separation anxiety. I couldn’t even go to the toilet as he would cry!” says Teo.

They didn’t fly again until he was four and could better communicate. Teo and her husband also made sure they prepared their son by telling him two months in advance what the flight would involve and what was expected of him. They also made sure they loaded the tablet PC with enough movies to keep him occupied for the seven-hour flight.

Psychologist and family therapist Ivy Tan recommends that parents travelling with ASD or

ADHD children should first identify their own stress and triggers concerning the travel and develop strategies to manage them if these worries do occur.

She says that the family should plan ahead.

According to her, they should:

  1. Look for the timing of the flight/bus/train ride that best suits the family. For example, if your child is used to having a nap at a certain time of the day, try to plan your travel around these key events in order not to deviate too much from their normal routine. If possible, book a direct flight to avoid the process of switching planes as well as look into a seating chart that is best suited for the family.

  2. Prepare an authorised letter from your physician/psychologist (medical professionals) identifying your child’s disability and needs. This letter would assist in ensuring the family would not have any problems with the airport/customs security should there be a need.

  3. Pack a carry-on bag with essential items. This includes favourite and reinforcing items from home that the child is familiar with such as their favourite snacks, books, toys, headphones, tablet PC, downloaded movies or cartoons to watch for the journey, games that are travel-friendly. Some kids have a cool down box that consist of all the things that helps to calm them down when they get upset. This can also ease the child during the long travel.

  4. Understand the child’s strengths and be creative with the intervention during travelling. For example, headphones provide the proprioceptive input that helps children with sensory issues, in addition to direct auditory input, without the distraction of all the noise in an airplane/bus/train. The visual distraction of a movie or videogame for a preschool or older child is helpful. Snacks are helpful due to the sensory input of chewing. Fidget toys such as Play Doh, Rubik’s cube and squishy toys are helpful to provide much needed sensory input for both ADHD and autistic kids.

  5. For high functioning ASD and ADHD children who understand consequences, if the child is on a behaviour chart/reward programme, continue to use the behaviour management activity for the child to gain rewards for showing appropriate behaviour during the flight/train/bus ride. For example, small rewards for every 30 minutes of showing appropriate behaviour or reserve a larger reward at the end of the flight/ride. Alternatively, parents can implement a behaviour/reward system prior to travelling by first identifying to their child what appropriate behaviours they would need to express during the rides.

Tan also recommends preparing the child in advance by exposing him or her to crowds and practise sitting for long periods of time.

“If the child has difficulty being around loud and crowded places, parents can first take them to crowded places such as a mall or playground to help desensitise them to crowds and loud environments. This is because naturally, airports, train or bus stations are very busy and crowded. Parents can then grasp their child’s strengths and weaknesses and develop strategies that best help them cope with the environment,” says Tan.

She also suggests parents help the child practise sitting for long periods of time. Parents can use behaviour charts to first reinforce good sitting behaviours in the car and incorporate tablet PCs or a portable DVD player to keep the child busy.

Parents can also watch with the child, videos of airplanes taking off and landing, or if time permits, visit the airport to watch airplanes. They can also read stories about family road trips or flying.

“These visual activities help the child to anticipate and know what is expected and decrease anxiety towards unfamiliar environments,” explains Tan.

She also suggests creating a vacation calendar and marking off the days leading up to the trip and even noting when the trip will begin and when the family will return home.

Parents might also consider creating visual schedules. “Because many children with autism do well with structure, visual schedules are helpful to assist children to anticipate activities that are to happen during the travel. It is good to review the schedules in the weeks leading up to the travel day and keep the schedule simple, such as drive to airport, take plane, drive to grandma’s,” she says.

While many parents do not inform the bus or train company, or the airline, in advance, Tan says that they can do so if they want to.

“This is because there have been numerous cases of airlines removing passengers or refusing to allow them on board due to their behaviours. This is to ensure that the parents and child would be treated fairly. When pre-informed, most airlines would assist to allow the family to board ahead before other passengers and provide additional assistance if


“Although not all airport/bus/train personnel are trained to assist families with special needs, it may be helpful to let the flight attendants know how, when, or if they might be able to provide assistance.

“Parents can first discuss with a designated flight attendant on how to respond should there be a situation. This will help parents avoid a confrontation while in the middle of trying to help their child to meet their needs,” says Tan.

While she recognises parents’ frustration and desire for a quick fix, Tan is against the use of medication to sedate the child during long journeys.

“Professionally, I’m not a medical doctor and as far as I’m concerned, medication is prescribed only when kids are ill. Nevertheless, personally and ethically, I do not agree with medicating a child to sleep or make them drowsy. With the exception that it is prescribed strictly by the doctor for cases like ADHD (kids who have been on medication prior to the trip and upon consultation with the doctor regarding dosages during flight/bus/train ride).

“When a child is upset or getting into a tantrum, it is because they are frustrated and not able to express what they truly need. In other words, their needs are not met. Therefore, they throw a tantrum or cry to display their frustration. It is important for parents to first identify what are the triggers and how to prevent them from going into a full-blown meltdown.

“Once the triggers are identified, you can prevent the behaviour from happening and that changes the outcome of the situation. Learning and anticipating triggers is an extremely helpful tool in preventing inappropriate behaviours,” says Tan.

Here are her tips for parents going on long journeys with their ADHD or ASD kids:

Look up more information online on travelling with autism and ADHD children as much as possible. Websites such as: are helpful.Look for airlines that have priority check-in, quality entertainment and really care about families to ensure smooth family travel.Look for airlines that provide suitable meals for children.Getting pre-seating and pre-boarding priority is important to not overwhelm the children before the crowd sets in.For a long haul flight, in-seat entertainment is essential or else portable gadgets, laptops, tablets can come in handy.Find out which are the top child-friendly airlines at early at the airport to have plenty of time to check in and board on time.Make sure the kids are well fed and have enough sleep.Most importantly, parents need to keep calm and composed as children do pick up on adults’ vibes and emotional reactions.When in doubt, always discuss ahead with the child’s physician, paediatrician, psychiatrist or psychologist.

Additionally, Teo says it would help to avoid sugary, carbonated drinks and juices, or foods high in carbohydrates, which may drastically spike up their sugar level.

“Instead, take a high protein meal, such as eggs (if your child is not allergic to eggs) and meats, which will last them longer,” says Teo.

If the child is old enough to understand, Teo advises parents to constantly remind the child what to expect and the good choices he can make, and the rewards or consequences, if he makes bad choices.

For bigger children, parents might also ask the child to write about his good or bad travel experiences and why it was good or bad. This will help the child express his feelings and discuss what can be done to improve the situation the next time you travel.

Article republished from Brigitte Rozario (25 May 2015, ThotsnTots)


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