World Autism Awareness Day: Tips for travelling with neurodiverse children

  • 02/04/2023
World Autism Awareness Day: Tips for travelling with neurodiverse children.
Photo credit: Getty Images

Travelling with little ones can be quite a challenge, but travelling with neurodiverse children can bring an extra level of difficulty.

Today, April 2, is World Autism Awareness Day, on which Member States of the United Nations are encouraged to take measures to raise awareness about autistic individuals throughout the world.

To mark the day, Flight Centre has released its top tips for families thinking about travelling with neurodiversity. 

"Airports, airplanes and transfers can be triggering for those on the autism spectrum. These environments can easily overload delicate sensory systems, heighten anxiety and overwhelm some children," said Heidi Walker, Flight Centre General Manager of Leisure.

"Ensure your child has appropriate Sensory Supports such as ear defenders, fidget toys, scented markers, weighted vests can help your child to cope with intensity of new environments.

"Unpredictability can be very difficult for kids on the autism spectrum to process. As a caregiver, you can increase feelings of stability and predictability by ensuring your child has access to favourite foods, special toys, and their favourite tv shows or movies wherever possible."

Many airlines can offer extra assistance such as priority boarding, and many hotels, airlines, airports and other businesses in the travel industry have staff trained to be aware of disabilities which may not be immediately visible.

Parents and caregivers can still take steps to ensure all family members have a relaxing, fun and enjoyable holiday.

"A lot of it ultimately comes down to preparation. Many kids on the autism spectrum are visual learners. Use teaching stories and visual support to show what to expect at the airport, what the airplane will look like, where you will be staying," Walker said.

"Waiting patiently in long queues can be challenging for neurodivergent kids. Some strategies to help might be having a lollipop ready to unwrap when their patience is running low, or having a favourite video downloaded and ready to view on a device."

Additional tips for families with neurodiverse children from Flight Centre:

  • If you have a young person who is particularly sensitive to loud and busy environments, consider traveling offseason. Shorter queues, quieter airplanes can all contribute to a more enjoyable travel experience.
  • Kids on the autism spectrum often eat a more restricted diet, and sensory processing differences can make mealtimes in restaurants challenging. If this sounds familiar, consider self-catering accommodation. This gives you more control over mealtimes, and a controlled environment for your child to eat in.
  • Transitions from A to B can be difficult for families with neurodivergent children. Consider the number of transitions in getting to and from your destination, as too many transitions may overwhelm your child.
  • If the thought of travelling internationally with your neurodivergent child overwhelms you, consider travelling within New Zealand. This gives your child the opportunity to experience airports, fly on an airplane and experience travel, with the benefit of shorter flight-times, less transitions and more predictability - you'll probably still be able to buy your child's favourite foods at the local supermarket.
  • Auckland, Wellington, New Plymouth, Christchurch and Queenstown airports have adopted the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard Scheme. If you, or someone you are travelling with has a hidden disability, you can choose to wear a Sunflower Lanyard and make your disability visible to airport staff. The Sunflower Scheme offers you a discrete way to indicate to staff your child has a hidden disability and may need a little extra support, guidance, or time with the airport process. Prior to your travel, you can request a free lanyard from the airport, which you can collect at the airport to keep and use on future trips. If you're departing from other international airports, or would like to know more, visit the Hidden Disabilities website.