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Autistic Children on a Cruise Line: Not a Bad Idea For a Vacation


I have been freelance writing ever since elementary school. My passions include music, age-appropriate dance, travel, and more.

People go on cruises with their favorite cruise lines for a reason. They sail on the high seas on a ship with all the makings of a resort to bond with like-minded (those who share the same hobby) people, see the world in their own eyes, bond with family and friends, and merely get away from the stresses of the home shores.

On a typical but good cruise ship, travelers can taste cuisine from the casual (pizzas and hamburgers) to the elegant (foie gras and Angus prime rib roast au jus with tourneed potatoes). The ship might include a theater, where production shows on the scale of Broadway or the West End delight the senses.

The excursions range from challenging (such as hikes on the Mediterranean coast) to utter, languid paradise (like the private islands in the Caribbean). The staterooms go above and beyond in the comfort field, with fluffy pillows and windows overlooking the sea.

Most of you who have children on the autism spectrum fear that meltdowns will derail your family vacation enjoyment, thus blocking your dreams of, say, your cruise on the Carnival Fantasy. You are hesitant about cruising because there are many factors that can incite stare-inducing, rant-causing episodes from your child.

A Cruise May Be Your Idea of a Relaxing Vacation

But for most families with children on the spectrum, it's anything but. Here's a photo of me and my late father chilling out in the whirlpool on the Carnival Fantasy in February 1996.

But for most families with children on the spectrum, it's anything but. Here's a photo of me and my late father chilling out in the whirlpool on the Carnival Fantasy in February 1996.

With Proper Planning, Cruising with Children with Autism Isn't a Bad Idea at All! Just Look at How Much Fun they are Having!

What Stops Parents of Autistic Children from Cruising

Besides fears of having children go missing, other fears parents their own with autism have about cruising relate to the many amenities and activities that can rattle children's nerves. From the constant slot machine bells to the cavernous atrium, most elements and times on a cruise ship can induce bouts of screaming and stimming.

Change in Routine

Many children with autism resist change, often with meltdowns. Transitions can range from going to church before going to the park to going on a vacation. A cruise is definitely a vacation.

When unplanned, your travel will be a wreck, with you watching over a melting-down child on a ship thousands of miles from home. That is also true even if your child lives near a cruise terminal because even hundreds of miles can set a child off.


Even in peak seasons, some children with autism can manage through high crowd levels, but most others generally can’t handle them. I think that the closeness of strangers in one single area – either the dining room or the main show lounge – can easily set them off. Most of them cannot process multiple sensory information as well as unaffected children.

Factor in the chatting and bustle surrounding them, and many a sensory-sensitive child can scream and flail. If their families cruise during the holidays or in the hurricane-filled summertime, the situation will get worse.

Feel Free to Have Your Kid Skip the Shows

But if you can't help but take the WHOLE family to them, prepare him or her.

But if you can't help but take the WHOLE family to them, prepare him or her.

Production Shows

Some of the largest sources of sensory overload for autistic children on a cruise are the big shows, where there are a lot of dancers, singers, and props. Things that can induce a meltdown include bright lighting, flashy costumes, glittery props, and sound effects (like explosions). The supposed culprit is the music that accompanies them.

Except for Disney Cruise Line and a few others (to name a few who offer equally loud shows, despite wholly taped music accompaniment), large liners generally provide semi-live music accompaniment.

In other words, it’s a cocktail of prerecorded and click tracks mixed with a seven- to even a twelve-piece orchestra (think keyboards, guitars, basses, drums, saxes, flutes, clarinets, trumpets, and trombones) off to the side, in a pit, or on the rear end of the stage.

On large vessels, parents with children with autism are set back by the loudness of the shows.

Read More from WanderWisdom

Me, on the Carnival Inspiration, June, 2007

Me, on the Carnival Inspiration, June, 2007

Me, in Roatan, Honduras, in May, 2010

Me, in Roatan, Honduras, in May, 2010

About to board the Celebrity Century, May, 2010

About to board the Celebrity Century, May, 2010

With Planning, Cruising With Children with Autism Can Be Enjoyable!

Fortunately, there are a growing number of cruise packages designed for families traveling with children with autism. Autism on the Seas, by travel agent Alumni Cruises, is a great example. But with great packages like this, you should still plan your cruise trip.

Book Early and in the Off-Season

Travel agents and experts touted the value of booking a cruise at least 3 months (my preferred time range) ahead of embarkation, but I think there’s more to that. From my experiences with cruises in the season, the summer months are very popular.

Here's a caution about summer cruises: chances are that the ship will be crowded with families with children, autistic or neuro-typical, and it will be burdensome for most those in the former group who are sensitive to crowds.

Booking in the off-season offers more than good weather, lower rates, and less port cancellations – it’s respite for them. Cruise Critic has an article on the whens of cruising by destination. For example, cruising in the Caribbean (which is, in my opinion, a popular destination for such vacations) on early October generally means less crowds since many children are still suffering from classroom fever in their public schools.

Speaking of which, ask your school administration if they have flexibility in school absence policy and school holidays.

Plan for Special Considerations

Are your children on a GFCF diet? Consult the cruise ahead of time to make special arrangements for dining to meet their needs. Keep in mind that some people will stare or ridicule you if your child melts down. If you fear your children being disruptive to their table, arrange for a private one.

Prepare Your Children

Again, one of the hurdles families with autistics face are the changes in routine. To overcome this, involve children in the planning. One way is to provide them visuals of the airports, home port, ship, and ports of call. If you don’t have a printer or just don’t want to waste paper by printing pictures, have your children go online with you and have them look at the photo galleries on the websites.

Also, share social stories with them to let them know what’s expected. I suggest that you consult their therapist(s) to write additional ones. Tailor visual schedules (and use PECS, or the Picture Exchange Communication System, if your child is nonverbal) to let them know what’s coming up next.

Tours May Be Stressful for Some Children with Autism

Plan your own excursions to save money and autistic episodes.

Plan your own excursions to save money and autistic episodes.

Let Everyone Onboard Know About Your Child

Nothing ruins a vacation like a child’s multiple meltdowns, which have people staring at you and wishing you would smack him. You should print out or buy autism awareness cards for fellow passengers, so that you will face less embarrassment on the trip. Also, bring your children's doctor's diagnosis reports with you in case someone needs to be aware of them.

Pack Sensory Diffusers

Sensory diffusers range from weighted vests to noise-canceling headphones. Don't be afraid to pack them in your luggage if you can. Also, pack acupressure bracelets to ease seasickness.

Stay Overnight on or Near Port Before Embarkation

Arriving on embarkation day means grabbing your bags from the baggage claim, getting on a shuttle to the port, and heading straight for the ship: a potentially stressful trip. Ditto for driving a hundred or more miles back from the port afterward. With all that stimulation going on, both ways can mean a lot of meltdowns from your children and a lot of grief to you.

You may want to consider booking an overnight stay at a nearby hotel to help them recuperate. (It also ensures that you board the ship on time.) It's not required if the child lives at most two hours from port.

Plan Your Own Excursions

Not only does planning your own trip save money in the long run, but it gives your children more freedom to roam the port of call. (But be sure to have your watches set to ship time to ensure that you and your family will be back onboard at least 1 hour before it departs from the port.) They won't have to be in a group all the time, bustling with other cruise travelers who booked the same shore excursions you did.

Again, many children with autism find crowds mentally exhausting.

In the kiddie pool on the Carnival Tropicale, September, 1995

In the kiddie pool on the Carnival Tropicale, September, 1995

If you have not sailed on a cruise with an autistic child before, don’t be afraid. Prepare yourself, your family, and them and head out to the port as fast as you can say, “Bon voyage!”

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