For a passenger with autism spectrum disorder, a cruise can be a minefield. A ship's an unfamiliar place that's likely to be loud and full of surprises, with new experiences at every turn. Anything from crowded theaters to noisy muster drills could cause a meltdown.
But with careful preparation, a cruise can also make for a wonderful family vacation. Here's what you need to know about traveling with an autistic companion.
First consider the size of the ship. Although the largest ships tend to have the latest amenities, a smaller vessel might be better for someone on the autism spectrum. Next, consider the time of year. A cruise during summer vacation season or school breaks is likely to have more children and be noisier. If it's at all possible to travel during the offseason, it could make for a smoother trip.
One of the easiest ways to travel is with Autism on the Seas, a company that partners with major cruise lines to provide autism-friendly sailings. These group cruises typically have about a dozen families, each with an autistic child or adult, and the organization provides a staff member for every two people with autism.
In addition, many cruise lines strive to meet the needs of autistic passengers on every sailing, but it's important to check in with them before the trip. Most lines have a special needs or disability desk that can provide information and special services, like priority boarding and early cabin access.
Royal Caribbean, for example, provides special services on all cruises, including autism-friendly, low-volume films and flexible children's program polices, regarding age groupings and toilet training.
It also has a downloadable social story booklet to introduce travelers to cruising and to preview the trip, so there are fewer surprises. This can be used for any trip on any cruise line and is free.
Before the trip, also check with the port to see if it offers special-needs boarding, or a quiet place a family could wait if the crowds are overwhelming.
Check in with your airline, which can offer special accommodations to passengers with autism, such as preboarding or late boarding. And see if your airport has programs for autistic passengers, letting them rehearse the steps for boarding a plane. Groups offering such services include Wings for Autism, while Blue Horizons for Autism has a downloadable social story about the airport experience.
Leave plenty of time for your flight, and try to fly nonstop, or at least avoid tight connections. Also, check the seat map. It may be worth paying extra for a bulkhead seat, which provides more room and will avoid the problem of kicking the seat in front.
At security, let the screener know you're traveling with an autism patient, and carry a copy of the patient's diagnosis.
If the traveler doesn't protest, have them wear a neck pouch with their travel itinerary and the cell number of their parents or travel companions in case they are separated.
Bring plenty of distracting games, toys, DVDs or other comfort items to keep the patient occupied, especially during inevitable delays. Do your best to keep calm. If you're frustrated, angry or nervous, the patient will pick up on it.
Most cruise lines offer boarding for special needs passengers, which will reduce waiting time. Once aboard, confirm that dietary concerns have been noted, and check on any specific requests, such as a smaller dining table so you won't be required to eat with strangers.
Many of the same strategies that work at home will help at sea. If loud noises bother the patient, bring noise canceling headphones to wear. Loud sounds can be a problem during muster drills. Make sure to have ear protection at that time, and ask about special accommodations. Some cruise lines offer a "quiet muster," letting families meet at a muster station separate from the main one. Or, they may allow families to come and leave early.
Also ask the staff about times the ship is typically quiet, and arrange your schedule to dine, swim and explore at those hours. Plan for breaks throughout the day, allowing you to retreat to your cabin or spend time in a quiet place, such as the library or a lounge.
Likewise, families should consider shore excursions carefully. Unless there's an activity you know the autistic passenger will like, port visits can be a great time to stay aboard the ship, which is much more relaxed then on a sea day.
Watch the passenger closely for positive reactions, and follow their lead. Some autistic passengers may become fascinated by an aspect of ship operations, and will want to learn more about it, which should be encouraged. Often special behind-the-scenes tours are available, although they may have an additional cost. Other passengers may discover that the ship's motion has a calming effect.
For information about cruising with a different medical condition, see our articles on: