Travel Anxiety Attacks

child with autism travel anxiety

by: Nicole Thibault, CATP – Magical Storybook Travels

It’s probably a given that if your child has an Autism diagnosis, he or she most likely struggles with anxiety as well. They kinda go hand-in-hand.

Anxiety while traveling is a real struggle for families with children on the Spectrum. You’re away from home, outside the child’s comfort zone, going to places with different sensory experiences, trying new foods and more. All of these factors can be overwhelming for someone with Autism and anxiety.

For my son with Autism, I do a lot of vacation prep before we go on any trip. We “social story” parts of the trip, review the details of our itinerary, and look for photos and videos of our experiences to watch before we travel, so that there are very few “unknowns” that can send my son into an anxiety panic attack.

But travel can be unpredictable. You can always plan for every detail, every emergency that may come up.

For example, on a recent trip from Key West, Florida, to the Dry Tortugas/Fort Jefferson National Park, our shuttle boat hit rough seas. The boat was hitting the waves, rising high into the air, and then dropping suddenly with each swell.

We knew we might experience some “turbulence” on the water, so we all took preventative motion sickness medicine, but no one was expecting such rough seas. It wasn’t long before many on the boat were green in the face and groaning with motion sickness.

(My other son with Sensory Processing Disorder LOVED the waves, and would throw his hands up in the air, and shout “Wheeee!” and giggle with every wave, just like on a roller coaster.)

Many people around us began vomiting into motion sickness bags. We were instructed by the Crew not to go into the restroom, but to stay seated, even if sick, due to the motion of the boat. So we witnessed many people getting sick around us.

My son with Autism wasn’t sick himself, but he saw everyone around us doubled over and vomiting, and he began to have an anxiety attack. He was worried that he too would vomit; he started to cry, hyperventilate, and repeat, “I don’t ever want to go on a boat again!”

So what to do to calm down a child in the midst of an anxiety attack while on vacation?

  1. Use words of comfort. “You’re safe, I’m right here.” Find language that lets your child know that even if the environment is uncertain at the moment, you are there and not going anywhere.
  2. Ask for feedback. If your child is verbal, he or she might be able to tell you their feelings, or even give you suggestions on how to make the situation less scary for them. Let them guide you, if they’re able.
  3. Give assurances. Let your child know that whatever anxiety-producing situation you may be in at the moment is not permanent and that you’re working towards being somewhere less stressful shortly.
  4. Deep compression hugs. Deep tissue touch can be a calming force for kids with Autism and anxiety. Use a strong-held and long-lasting hug to improve your child’s ability to cope with anxiety and also give them sensory input to assist with focus and calm.