Travel training is the process of learning how to get from one place to another on your own. For people with autism, travel training is critically important: it’s the key to independent living.
But depending on your location and available programs and resources, your child with autism may become an adult without having a clear idea of how to navigate or access transportation outside of their home and school.
In many cases, parents provide the lion’s share of travel training once their child is old enough to need transportation to work, day programs, or community activities. In this article, learn who should receive travel training, general tips, and tips and resources for specific types of travel.
Who Should Receive Travel Training
Not all adults with autism will have the ability to travel independently. Those who can travel independently may not have the ability to drive on their own. But for those who are capable of walking, using public transportation, or driving, travel training can lead to greater self-confidence, flexibility, and independence.
To successfully travel independently in any way, your child should—at a minimum—be able to:
- Effectively communicate their wants and needs
- Manage their emotions in a challenging situation
- Follow rules and regulations when those rules are previewed
- Answer unexpected questions from strangers
- Request help as needed using a cell phone or interacting with strangers
- Cope with the noise, smells, and other sensory experiences that are part of their chosen environment and form of transportation
Of course, your child will also have to navigate situations such as following a schedule and paying for travel, but those challenges can be managed efficiently through apps, alarms, and other tools.
General Tips for Travel Training
Different types of travel present different challenges and opportunities. Perhaps the least challenging is a simple walk from one nearby location to another. But some of the same challenges and tips apply to every form of travel. These general tips are a great place to start:
- Before sending your child with autism out into the world, introduce them to the local police. Provide the police with a photo and any important information they might need should something come up. Consider providing your child with an ID that includes name, address, contact information, and diagnostic information. They may never use the card, but it’s a safeguard.
- Preview your route. No matter where you’re traveling, spend some time getting to know the route. Will you need to cross streets at lights? Will you need to communicate with someone like a bus driver? The more you know in advance, the easier it will be to help your loved one with autism.
- Think through potential challenges, and brainstorm solutions. For example, if your loved one with autism is not good at telling time, could you set an alarm to help them be ready for transportation on time?
- Create (or find) a social story. Social stories are simple illustrated stories that preview a planned event or task. More advanced social stories provide options in case of unexpected changes. For example, “If the bus doesn’t come by 10:45, I can call home and ask for help.” Also, you can look for videos that show the general process of (for example) catching a bus or taking a plane.
- Practice as often as necessary. Work with your child (or their aide if they have one) to travel the route together as often as necessary to help your child feel comfortable with the process and the people. Practice coping with common challenges (the bus is late, for example) or emergencies (the plane was canceled). Always provide your child with a “Plan B” in case problems arise.
- Use roleplay to plan for expected challenges. Pretend you’re a bus driver asking for a fare, a crossing guard saying “wait for cars to pass,” etc. Ask typical questions of your child (“Are you getting off here?”), and have your child practice typical questions (“When will the train arrive?”).
- Take it slow. Before sending your child off solo, give them the opportunity to take the lead. Support them as they think through the process of leaving on time, using transportation, and arriving at their destination. Then meet them at the destination. Do this as many times as necessary.
Group vs. Solo Travel Training
Travel training is often offered by schools and programs for disabled adults. Of course, such training is offered in group situations: learners work together to solve problems and overcome challenges with the support of a staff person.
Remember that group travel training is not the same as individual training. In groups, there is always the possibility that someone besides your child will take the initiative, give direction, or—alternatively—create problems. While group training can be valuable, it can’t take the place of individual learning.
Nothing is more important for your child’s welfare than safety. By its very nature, however, independent travel carries risks. As you think about your child’s abilities and needs, it’s usually best to err on the side of safety, particularly if your child:
- Reacts badly to changes in schedule, route, driver, etc.
- Has difficulty communicating with strangers or asking/answering questions
- Is likely to exhibit unexpected behaviors when feeling anxious or stressed
- Is particularly vulnerable to negative behaviors such as bullying, scams, etc. (We are all vulnerable at some level, but if your child is easily led or upset, the danger is greater.)
Before your child travels solo, practice safety procedures. Specifically:
- Calling a parent or other well-known adult for help
- Asking for help from an authority such as a police officer or bus driver
- Handling a missed bus, train, etc.
- Interacting with an authority figure such as a TSA or police officer
Tips and Resources for Specific Types of Travel
Most people with autism can and should be able to walk around the neighborhood or through a grocery store independently. Many can use public transportation, including buses, trains, and planes, with appropriate support. There are also support organizations that can help with travel by air, sea, and ride-sharing.
Only a limited number of people with autism, however, can safely drive a car. That’s not because adults with autism can’t master the physical process of driving (many can), but because safe driving requires an ability to “read the mind” of other drivers who may be driving erratically, stopping short, or otherwise creating hazards.
Bus and Train Travel
Both bus and train services are set up to provide discounted travel to people with disabilities, so it’s well worth checking into and signing up for local discounts. Bus and train travel may be the best option for your child, but it can be complex.
In some cases, your child may have to switch from one route to another to get to their destination. If they run late, they may have to read schedules to find the next bus or train. Bad weather can make buses and trains late, and connections may be missed. These challenges aren’t minor.
If your child is planning to use bus and/or train transportation, you may want to take advantage of group travel training programs that focus on these skills locally. In addition, you’ll want to teach skills in a safe setting and move forward slowly toward independence.
These tips may help:
- Start by researching your local transportation systems so that you know the routes, options, and disability services available.
- If there are disability services that can help your child, and your child is willing to use them, then take advantage of them.
- If your child needs to learn a specific route, take it yourself ahead of time in good and bad weather. Take pictures along the way, and consider making videos of the process.
- Use the pictures to create a discreet social story flipbook that your child can consult; go through it several times with your child. Use the video to show and discuss the process.
- Ride with your child several times as they take the route. Then meet them at their destination when they’re ready to ride alone.
- If you anticipate bad weather, delays, etc., practice working through these with your child. Allow your child to take the lead in managing and solving the problems so they know what to do when the time comes.
- Be sure your child knows how and when to contact you should an issue arise. Buses and trains can be canceled or changed, accidents can happen, etc., and your child should have a simple “Plan B” they can follow if needed.
Air travel, oddly enough, can be far less complex than bus or train travel, especially if the journey will require no connections. In addition, there are groups such as Wings for Autism that work with airports and airlines to ensure accessibility.
Of course, your child must be able to sit for the period required, communicate verbally, and engage in simple conversation with the people around them.
These tips may be helpful:
- Connect with the airline and airport in advance, and be sure you know what accommodations are available for a person with autism. Often they can get preferential status in terms of security lines, boarding, and support while on the airplane.
- Ask whether you can set up a time to take your child to the airport and do a “dry run” through security. The airport may allow this, and/or they may work with groups that provide this type of experience. Wings for Autism runs events that take disabled fliers all the way through the airport to the plane.
- In most cases, a caregiver can accompany a disabled person to the gate, and it’s also possible for another person to meet the traveler at the destination gate. Just ask in advance. That means your child’s job is literally to sit on the plane, have a snack, and deplane.
- If your child is comfortable with it, tell the TSA officer in your security line that your child has special needs. TSA officers are carefully trained to manage challenging situations and will make an effort to smooth the experience.
- Be sure your child understands the rules and expected behavior aboard a plane. For example, they should understand that they should never leave their bags unattended, that they must follow any instructions given aboard the plane, and that conversation with a neighbor should be friendly but not intimate.
- If possible, fly the planned route with your child at least once. Take photos and make videos as possible to help your child remember exactly what to expect.
While it can be hard to find a taxi in many small towns, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are almost everywhere. They can provide independent transportation for a fee, and the apps make the process almost seamless.
Ride-sharing can be the ideal answer to getting to and from work in a semi-rural area. In some cases, it is possible to find funding for a disabled Uber or Lyft user through adult services.
As with every form of independent travel, there are risks associated with ride-sharing. Many, however, have been eliminated by the addition of clear safety features:
- Riders with autism do not need to carry cash.
- The app makes the transaction, so there is no need to go through the process of negotiating, paying, or managing change.
- It is possible to track your ride on the app; even better, it’s possible to see a picture of the driver and their credentials ahead of time.
- It’s easy for parents to follow the process of independent travel using their smartphone.
- Uber will provide rides to support animals with their owners.
To support ride-share use, be sure to:
- Download the app and use the ride-share service yourself so you know what to expect.
- Help your child download the app, load a credit card, and call a driver.
- Ride with your child until they are comfortable with the process.
- Meet your child at the end of their first few independent rides.
- Use the available features to track your child’s rides. If there is an issue, you’ll be able to step in or provide reassurance as needed. (Traffic jams and new drivers can be anxiety-provoking, though they’re not actually dangerous.)
Driving is probably the toughest form of independent transportation for people with autism. It requires an understanding of technical details and rules. But it also—and more significantly—requires an ability to bend the rules when necessary.
Drivers need to guess what other drivers will do, observe pedestrians and animals, and react accordingly. In the case of an accident, they need to interact appropriately with police.
If your child truly wants to drive and you believe they have the intellectual, emotional, and social skills necessary:
- Go through an accredited driver’s education school.
- Communicate with the school ahead of time, and be sure the instructor has experience working with learners with autism.
- Help your child understand the challenges, and role-play potential difficult situations.
- As with any independent situation, be sure your child knows who to contact in an emergency, how to handle ordinary challenges (filling the gas tank, handling a breakdown, avoiding hitchhikers, etc.), and how to interact properly with others in the case of an accident.
People with autism can benefit from travel training so they can travel independently. The mode of transportation will depend on the person’s abilities. Some challenges are common for all travel modes, while there are specific challenges and benefits for bus or train travel, ride-sharing, air travel, and driving.