Taking a holiday is fun but it can also be stressful, from booking flights, sorting out accommodation and planning the itinerary. It gets even more demanding if one travels with children with special needs, such as autism.
For children with autism, travelling can be a struggle. Autism or “neurodivergent” is when people have differences in mental and neurological functions of their brains.
This is not a deficit. Instead, it’s a developmental concern where such children possess varying strengths and challenges, and therefore, are different from those who are considered “neurotypical”.
Children who are neurodivergent include those who suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD children tend to struggle without a routine; they also have sensory sensitivity so the overload tends to happen when travelling to new places out of their comfort zone.
“Depending on their sensitivities, and coping ability, any unexpected delays or new places which cause overstimulation could lead to an outburst.
“Things like hunger, lack of sleep, limited access to comfortable toilets, close proximity to family members like siblings for an extended period of time, could all contribute to an ‘episode’,” he added.
Dr Syed said that small things which are overlooked, such as the texture of seats and even the toilets onboard, can prove to be a point of distress for children with autism. “The unusual flushing mechanism and its corresponding sound can come as a shock to them, is one example.”
GOOD PLANNING IS KEY
Medical experts said that most parents and guardians would already know what sensitivities their children have and prepare for them.
For children who have never travelled long-distance, practise makes perfect.
Before you travel, simulate the trip
Dr Syed said if a long drive or going on a road trip is expected, simulate the trip in Singapore by taking a longer-than-usual bus or train ride, or even driving around the island without stopping to see how the child responds.
“If you’re going on a cruise, consider boat rides to Pulau Ubin or nearby islands of Bintan and Batam as a start to see how the child fares,” he said.
He added that planning ahead to minimise disruptions and delays would help. Things like choice of airport and airline, transit times and even time of day for travel and mode, will make the transition from routine to holiday less disruptive.
Research and be alert to assistance
Dr Abraham advised parents to research which airlines and airports provide assistance for children with neurodivergence.
For example, Changi Airport Group launched an initiative to support those with invisible disabilities such as ASD, down syndrome and dementia. A lanyard is provided to those with these conditions and it alerts airport staff to their presence and needs. What’s more, there are staff who have been trained to assist and a step-by-step guide is also provided for such passengers.
A similar initiative, called the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower scheme is available in New Zealand across all their major airports like Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington.
Be flexible and realistic
Keeping things free and easy on your travel itinerary is a great way to anticipate any episodes and to manage any outbursts. While the structure of a tour group is fuss-free for many, it may not work for younger children with autism who are not used to travel.
Dr Syed recommends taking a relaxed approach with sightseeing and not to pack too many activities into the itinerary so as not to overload the child.
TAKING A BREAK
Dr Syed noted that while all parents need respite from work and the daily grind of parenthood, not all neurodivergent children appreciate holidays in the same way, But there is good in taking trips. It builds their ability to adapt even if it requires lots of planning in advance.
His advice: Find out what works for the child and ensure that their interests are considered as part of the travel plans.
Dr Abraham shared a similar thought but also reminded parents of neurodivergent children to ensure they run through their travel itinerary with the child, plan ahead with packing familiar staples, snacks, devices and even toys. Fidget toys, or sensory items, have been known to help younger children with autism.