Traveling with Sensory Processing Issues

When you or someone in your family has a sensory processing disorder, the sights and sounds of a trip can become stressful. But travel doesn’t have to mean packed airports and noisy hotels.

There are many ways to travel. Thanks to growing awareness of sensory disorders, there are more sensory-friendly travel options than ever. By planning ahead and packing some key items, you can have a relaxing, memorable trip.

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Traveling with Sensory Processing Issues

You can’t control every aspect of travel. But thinking about how you travel, where you’re staying, and more can help avoid sensory overload. Try these tips for a sensory-friendly travel experience.

Consider less busy travel times

If you have a choice of when you travel, consider less busy times. Try to avoid the December holidays or spring break if you can.

Is your destination one that’s popular in the summer? You may find fewer crowds — and still great weather — in June or September. You can also depart and return during reduced train station, airport, or road traffic.

Also, look online to find out the busiest times for restaurants, museums, and other sights. That way, you can time your visit early in the morning, late in the evening, or before the mealtime rush.

Pack ear protection and other sensory-friendly travel items

Think about the kinds of sensory stimulation you might encounter on your trip. Then, consider sensory-friendly travel items to reduce these inputs’ sensitivity. For example, consider sunglasses, noise-canceling headphones, foam ear plugs, smell-reducing nose plugs, a sleep eye mask, and more.

Comfortable clothing can take on greater importance when traveling. Feeling itchy or sweaty will only add stress. Pack comfortable clothes and layer options so you can add or remove layers based on temperature.

Your favorite travel pillow and blanket or shawl can add comfort and help you relax on a plane, train, bus, or car ride.

Seek out sensory-friendly travel accommodations

A number of tourism businesses cater to people traveling with sensory processing issues. Many people with autism have sensory processing challenges.

When you travel, look for “autism-friendly” hotels at your destination. These hotels often have quiet rooms, dimmer lighting, and other accommodations for people with sensory issues.

Call ahead to your hotel or bed and breakfast and talk to them about your needs. Some questions you may want to ask include:

  • Can they avoid scented cleaning supplies?
  • Can they put you in a room that is extra quiet?
  • Do they have a fridge so that you can bring your own food?
  • Do they offer 100% cotton bedding?

Take your time

You may feel pressure to see and do all you can when you have the chance. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed, you’re defeating the purpose of travel. That is, to relax, enjoy yourself, and take in the magic of a new place.

Schedule extra breaks so you can recharge and unwind. Consider scheduling more time at the airport, train station, or that iconic site. If you’re feeling rushed, sensory stimulation may cause you even more stress.

Enroll in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) PreCheck® program

When you enroll in the TSA PreCheck® program, you can use PreCheck lanes at the airport. That means you don’t have to take off your shoes and belt or take out liquids.

You won’t have to stay around beeping machines for as much time. You can search for a PreCheck enrollment location near you.

Sensory-Friendly Travel for Kids: Special Considerations

A successful trip with your sensory processing-sensitive kiddo means planning ahead and involving them in the process. The more your child feels in control and has their basic needs met, the more fun they’ll have. Here are some helpful tips for traveling with kids.

Talk about the trip

Loud noises, bright lights, and big crowds are less scary when your child knows what’s happening. Talk to your child before the trip about what will happen. Explain how long they’ll wait to board a plane and what security gates are like.

You can also talk about what sights you’ll see and, if your child is old enough, get their input. They could choose the restaurant in advance or decide if they want to go to a nature reserve or beach first. This will give your child a feeling of control and help them avoid sensory overload.

Speak to staff ahead of time

Many travel destinations and transit hubs have accommodations for kids traveling with sensory disorders like autism. For example, some airports will offer simulations so that children can see what it’s like to go through security at an airport.

Other staff might let your family board in advance or do security screening that doesn’t involve a pat-down. Staff can also accommodate your child by speaking in soft voices or giving a “heads up” about sights or sounds.

Whatever your child needs, it’s worth calling ahead or taking a staff member aside to see how they can help.

Pack a sensory-friendly travel kid’s bag

A sensory-friendly travel bag for your child might include:

  • Fidget toys.
  • Music players.
  • Noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Snacks and water (remember, your child may not like the snack options on the road).
  • Their favorite stuffy or blanket.

Pack these items in a separate bag so your child can find what they need with ease.

Try vacation items like sunscreen, bug spray, and hats ahead of the trip so they’re more familiar to your child. You may want to try a few options to see what works for them.

Stick to your routine

Sensory overload is likely if your child doesn’t get enough time to rest and refuel. Ideally, they should sleep and eat at times similar to when they would at home.

Your child may engage in more activities in the morning but prefer more quiet time in the afternoon. Try to plan a schedule that somewhat mimics the ebbs and flows of their days.

Also, schedule extra time for your child to wind down before bed. After all, they’re in a new environment and will likely feel excited, making sleep more difficult.

American Academy of Family Physicians. Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Link

Autism Speaks. Becoming an autism-friendly hotel. Link

Autism Speaks. Oh, the Places You'll Go...With These 10 Travel Tips. Link

Amanda Morin. 10 tips to help kids avoid travel meltdowns and sensory overload. Understood. Link

Child Mind Institute. Sensory Processing Issues Explained. Link

Meagan Shelley. The Travel Industry Is Waking up to the Needs of Neurodivergent Adults. Condé Nast Traveler. Link

TSA PreCheck®. Link

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