Traveling with Autism: Five steps to keep your summer road trip safe & smooth during hurricane season

Published 06/04/2015

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SPRING, Texas — The severe thunderstorms and excessive rain this spring along the Gulf Coast are a daily reminder that we are fast approaching hurricane season, which started June 1. Along with planning the itinerary for a summer trip, families traveling in the Gulf and Atlantic coastal regions should also make plans for what to do if they encounter severe weather while on the road. Preparation is even more vital when traveling with someone who has autism, said Paul Louden, autism advocate and nationally recognized speaker.

Louden, who was diagnosed with autism as a young adult and is the host of “Theories of Mind” radio on Business 1110 KTEK-AM in Houston, said that facing unexpected events in a strange environment is especially stressful for those with autism. “People on the autism spectrum are hypersensitive to changes in routine. Not knowing what comes next can be panic-inducing.”

Louden said the first step is to do the basic preparation that applies to any family about to set off on a summer vacation. This includes servicing your car, letting someone outside the family know your plans, and stocking your car with drinking water, shelf-stable food, a flashlight, extra batteries and a good first-aid kit.

“For a family member with autism, there are additional considerations, so it’s crucial to do the extra planning necessary to ensure that the trip goes smoothly,” said Louden. Here are five ways parents of children with autism can prepare for the potential of a weather emergency on the road:

Read a Book About It: Create a visualization of what the trip will be like and what your family's plan will be if rough weather is encountered. A picture book can serve this purpose, or make a chart with picture icons of the steps you will take if a weather emergency arises. Your child can keep the book or chart in a backpack along with an itinerary of the trip and other personal preparedness items. That way the information can be reviewed whenever your child would like.

Include Your Child in the Emergency Prep: Your child can help put together the basic items for an emergency kit that can be kept in a weather proof travel container inside the car. Knowing that the family has the items needed to handle common injuries, illnesses and safety situations is a vital reassurance for children with autism, said Louden.

Do a Practice Drill: Before the trip, practice what your family will do if there is a severe weather emergency while you are driving. Act out the steps you will take if there is an accident or if you are forced to seek shelter. Listen to a recording of the sounds of thunder, tornado sirens and high winds so that these are less of a shock to your child if they occur. Show your child photos or video of what first responders look like, and how to contact them or react to them if the situation arises.

Pack Smart: Remember to pack all medications as well as a list of your child’s prescriptions. If your child is non-verbal, a medical bracelet or I.D. tag is important. Pack plenty of your child's favorite non-perishable comfort foods, as well as favorite toys and familiar clothing so that your child will feel more secure in an unfamiliar environment.

Know Your Child's Sensitivities and Triggers: Anticipate your child's anxieties and what you can do to head them off. Louden said that technology provides structure and comfort for many autistic children. Bring along noise-canceling headphones that can be connected to a portable device loaded with favorite music, apps, movies and games. Louden suggests investing in a portable battery charter and, if your child uses the Internet regularly, a mobile wi-fi hotspot. “These items take on even more importance if you’re forced to take an evacuation route, because you could be in the car for many hours,” said Louden.

Visit www.theoriesofmindradio.com and listen to “Theories of Mind” Tuesdays from 10:00 to 11:00 a.m. on Business Newsmakers Radio 1110 KTEK-AM, a Wall Street Journal Radio Network, Bloomberg Radio Station in Houston, to find out more about the mental health challenges in the news today and how differences shape our lives.