5 Tips for an Amazing Vacation Including Long-haul Flights with your Children with Autism

Victoria Falls
One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

When you are a parent of special-needs children, sometimes doing things you love may seem like an impossible dream.  Just getting through your regular day can be challenging.  I love to travel.  That’s how a kid who grew up enjoying the warm openness of the African Savannah and in awe of intricately balanced granite rocks ended up living in a Canadian city famous for it’s very cold and very long winters!  Not only do I love to just take off and explore the world but my parents and most of my relatives live 3 long flights away, a journey that takes about 30 hours. It’s certainly a challenging journey for anyone and one that unfortunately, I haven’t travelled recently.  I last visited my parents in my previous life when my oldest son was 5 months old and autism was not yet our reality.

An elephant crossing the Chobe river, Botswana

For many years, even though I knew that I would make the trip back home at some point, probably forced by some unpleasant, unavoidable situation, it was beyond my imagination how I would make that happen.  Not that long ago, the idea of getting on a plane and somehow making it through airport noises, jet-leg, unfamiliar routines, spectacular tantrums, picky eating, and all things associated with travelling just seemed too crazy to even contemplate.  However, less than two weeks ago, my family, which includes our two boys who have autism, just got back from a successful vacation in Southern Africa, travelling through 3 continents and 5 countries in 6 flights and many road trips.

A few things went into transforming the trip from an impossible dream to reality.  If you have a long-haul trip that is still an impossible dream, here are five tips that helped transform ours to reality.

1. Start preparations early

By early I mean start preparing even when you don’t think the trip can be a reality.  Four years before our trip, I used points on our credit card to get a set of good-quality luggage for the trip we would make one day.  My parents were around at the time and I remember trying to explain to them how the luggage was free; they didn’t get it.  They had just made the long trip to visit us and also didn’t get how WE could possibly make it to visit them.

Take advantage of the airport familiarization program for children with autism.  It’s an opportunity to experience what it’s like to go through ticketing, security and boarding a plane. I suggest checking-out the plane’s toilet with your child as it is a rather unique space!  In the USA where it originally started, it’s known as Wings for Autism.


In Montreal it’s called Enfants en Première/ Premium Kids.  Since our children had essentially never been on a plane, I felt that it would be helpful for all of us to have a practise-run.  We went to the first event when our trip was still at the impossible dream stage and again when we had booked our vacation.  For most programs, registration fills up very fast; in Montreal registration opens in January for the event in April.  We went to the airport several times after that, including driving there at night in preparation for our first flight.

As we got closer to the trip, I re-started daily QST (qigong massage) with the children at bedtime.  My aim was to calm the children’s nervous systems as much as possible.  We read a social story called “my first plane trip” and regularly looked at the photos from the Airport Familiarization Event.

In addition to preparing the kids, I also had to prepare myself.  I had to be prepared for things not going smoothly, my own reaction to testing situations and for family members not being very understanding.  I knew that as long as I was calm and in control my children would be okay no matter where we were.

Graceful giraffe at Chobe National Park, Botswana



2. Pack familiar food and objects

When you are away and everything is different for the kids, it helps to have a few familiar objects, just something for the kids to hold on to when they are out of their comfort-zone.  This could be a stuffed animal, small toys or books.  Similarly, while experiencing different cuisine is part of the overall experience of travelling, depending on your children, it may be helpful to pack some familiar food and snacks you know your children will usually be happy to eat.  Even when your children are tired and jet-legged, at least you’ll know they are not hungry on top of all that.


3. Leave enough room in your itinerary for some downtime

Even though you may be tempted to see, touch and experience everything during your vacation, remember to leave some downtime in between activities.  You will all benefit from the time to unwind and recharge.  I know some people may be worried about the kids being bored and wanting something to do but their bodies and minds truly need a break every now and then.  Just let them rest and if they get bored enough, they’ll probably find something to occupy themselves with.  When children are overly tired, they tend to have more tantrums and have a harder time accepting new situations.

Sunset on the Chobe river, Botswana


4. Remember to pack your sense of humour



I may not know where you are going but I do know that a little sense of humour will help you sail through some sticky situations during your vacation.  A sense of humour will cure almost all the challenges of travelling.  Everything depends on how you look at it and if you can’t see the funny side of a situation, just keep looking.


5. Enjoy your vacation

Make a decision to enjoy your vacation.  Often whether or not one has a good time has less to do with one’s circumstances than one’s decision to have a good time.  You’ve travelled so far away from home, are in a different location, perhaps a different culture, different flora and fauna, make sure you enjoy yourself.  Don’t waste time dwelling on the little things that don’t go exactly as planned, after all, you knew they would happen.  You have worked hard to make your dream vacation a reality; it’s time to sit back and enjoy the time with your family.  Have a wonderful vacation!


Choose river view
Relaxing views of the Chobe River, Botswana


When you get back home, take a moment to acknowledge and celebrate what you’ve just achieved.

Please share if you know someone who could benefit from this information.


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