Even the bravest travelers may find family travel intimidating. It can be much more challenging to explore the world with a neurodiverse household that includes both neurotypical and neurodivergent children.

Basically, it’s all about the novelty: for someone with autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or another type of neurodivergence, strange foods, unpredictable settings, uncontrollable noises, unfamiliar sleeping environments, unfamiliar smells, and jet lag can be extremely upsetting. For all family members traveling, behavioral problems associated with these emotional breakdowns might bring a vacation to an abrupt end.


This reality prompts many neurodiverse families to stay home. In a 2019 survey, the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, a nonprofit devoted to raising autism awareness and acceptance, asked 1,000 parents with at least one autistic child for input about travel, and a whopping 87 percent said they do not currently take family vacations because it’s simply too difficult.

In the same survey, 93 percent of respondents said they would be more likely to travel if autism-certified options were available, and 97 percent said they are not satisfied with current travel options for families with autistic individuals.

Neurodiverse family travel doesn’t have to be so daunting. I’m the single parent of a family with mixed neurotypes—my oldest daughter, who is 14, is autistic; my two other daughters, ages 11 and 7, are not. After a decade of family travel with these kids, I’ve learned some valuable tricks. Here, in no particular order, are six tips for making vacations with neurodivergent kids easier for everyone involved.

1. Don’t leave home without the headphones, fidgets, and other self-soothers.

Neurodivergent kids crave control of their environment—something that isn’t exactly always possible when you’re traveling to new places. One way to make this easier is to travel with tools to help kids stay regulated. My autistic child, Sage, swears by her bedazzled noise-canceling headphones; she dons them in cities and theme parks and whenever she feels foreign environments are too loud. She wore those things all over Legoland California on a visit earlier this summer. She’ll bring them to the county fair in our home county next month.

It’s also a good idea to bring fidgets and other items that might help sooth kids with sensory issues. Sage always stocks her mini backpack with fidget snakes, origami, and string for making friendship bracelets—three tools that help her stay regulated when the environment around her can be triggering.

Finally—as silly as this might sound—parents of neurodivergent kids may want to tote a Ziploc full of random stuff that seems to always come in handy. When Sage was a toddler, for instance, before her formal diagnosis, she was terrified of automatic toilets, so I always carried a pad of Post-It notes to blind the electric eyes and guarantee her a quiet trip to the women’s room. This trick worked like a charm.

2. Pack familiar snacks to help kids stay calm.

Many children with sensory issues turn to food to regulate their nervous system. This means it’s extra important to travel with snacks that can help neurodivergent kids stay calm. I always pack my carry-on with 12–16 hours’ worth of snacks: usually granola bars, fruit leathers, trail mix, and, of course, some form of chocolate. Sage also must have her Pepperidge Farm cheddar goldfish—she says the crunch is a sensory soother for her—and I’m obsessive about making sure I have those little crackers whenever we leave the house (even in the car).

Recognizing the value of snacks for my neurodivergent kid also often means buying extra food when we’re out and about in the wild. On a 2019 trip to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., after I saw that Sage liked the red grapes they were selling in the cafeteria, I bought two or three extra packages to tote around for the rest of the day. Every time she asked for a grape, I delivered it. The grapes helped her manage boredom, and we were able to stay at the museum for nearly three hours.

I also like to reward patience and kindness with special treats. On one of our trips to Las Vegas, for instance, after everyone behaved on our ride in the gondolas at the Venetian, we indulged in giant ice cream shakes from Black Tap.



3. Protect physical space—even by booking more rooms than usual.

At home, my neurodivergent child has her own bedroom. When we travel, I always try to book accommodations that preserve and protect her space in similar fashion. I recognize this is a tall order, especially when we’re traveling internationally or to destinations here in the United States where square footage comes at a premium. Nevertheless, I’ve learned that spending more money for larger accommodations generally makes everyone’s travel experience far more chill.

The easiest way to fulfill this objective is to book vacation rentals. I prefer rentals with three bedrooms—that configuration guarantees Sage her own room that she can set up however makes her comfortable. (TBH, it’s mostly about device charger management.) If the only options are two-bedroom rentals and she and her middle sister must share a space, I try to make sure each girl has her own bed. The youngest daughter is still young enough to crash with me.

When we must book hotel rooms, I try my best to spring for a suite or connecting rooms. On a recent visit to San Luis Obispo, for example, we booked a two-room suite at the Hotel SLO and Sage claimed the foldout. Even though her bed was in the main room, she loved having the autonomy of a spot that was all hers. The rest of us shared the king in the bedroom.

4. Write down the day’s schedule for all to see.

Most neurodivergent kids thrive on routine. Obviously, when you’re traveling away from home, that’s hard to accomplish. Many of these kids seem to do better with changes to the status quo if you give them a comprehensive sense of what to expect instead. Put differently, it’s helpful to spell out for neurodivergent kiddos the daily agenda every morning.

In our family, we use a notebook-sized whiteboard. I write with dry-erase markers the basic schedule for the day and estimated times for each item on the list. If Sage seems anxious, I’ll be more specific, breaking the day into 30-minute increments. If she seems to be in a good place, I might fudge things a bit and set aside a two-hour chunk for “lunch and window-shopping.” Sometimes I’ll even list travel times, though when we’re traveling to busy places such as Los Angeles or New York, that can create more problems than it solves.

Most trips, I place the schedule in a visible spot like the kitchen (if we’re staying in a vacation rental) or the bathroom (in hotels), and I make a point of reading it to all three kids. I encourage them to refer to it if they have questions about the day. Generally, I don’t take the whiteboard with us; instead, I’ll photograph it, so I have it for reference if Sage or one of her sisters asks to refer to it again.

5. Line up reinforcements.

When you’re traveling with neurodivergent kids, there’s no shame in asking loved ones for help—especially when you’re a single parent like I am. I always try to book our family’s travel so it overlaps at least some of the time with my parents, just in case I need some backup. Over the past two summers, this strategy has proven to be invaluable—and it has saved two potentially vacation-busting moments.

The most recent save came on our two-week road trip to Southern California. When loud music and unfamiliar lunch food (no rice, bean, and cheese burritos) triggered a meltdown for Sage at Sea World San Diego, my father took her out of the park and back toward where we were staying for a more palatable lunch and an afternoon of thrifting.

Grampy came to the rescue last summer, too. On a family trip to New York, Sage couldn’t handle the throng of people waiting to get in to see Hamilton, so she and my father went to a much quieter art exhibit and my mother saw the show in Sage’s place. (The two of them met the four of us for dinner uptown after.)

It’s worth noting that reinforcements don’t have to be family members; over the years my autistic kiddo has found great comfort improvising with family friends, too. Because she’s 14, because we use the Life360 app for location tracking, in certain situations I’ve gotten comfortable letting her and our family friends go off and do their own thing, so long as they agree to regular check-ins.

6. Go with the flow.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider when traveling with a neurodivergent child: Nothing can be set in stone. Inevitably there will be times when your child won’t want to take a particular tour or visit a specific site; when traveling with a neurodivergent kid, it’s important to take each day one hour at a time. Even if you’ve prepaid for activities, even if bailing on something means you’ll lose money, even if you may need to pass up your one chance to see something you’ve been waiting for years to see, it’s imperative to listen to your kid and adjust.

It has taken me nearly a decade to learn this. When we lived in London back in 2013, I needed four visits to the Natural History Museum to see all the relics and artifacts I wanted to see. On a trip to Las Vegas in 2019, it took one interminable rotation on the High Roller observation wheel to find out Sage is afraid of heights (she spent the entire time cowering in her mother’s lap). Most recently, this past spring, Sage and I had to leave a much-anticipated Maggie Rogers concert after five songs because my daughter had a sensory overload.

I don’t see any of these experiences as disappointments; instead, I see them as opportunities for everyone in our family to grow. At the end of the day, growth is what travel is all about—no matter what your neurotype might be.




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