Some autistic kids have trouble traveling due to motion sickness, which may result from an over-responsive vestibular (balance) system.

Sensory issues are common in autistic children and adults. Sensitivity to loud noises or lights, or the feeling of being enclosed or in constant motion can make an autistic child feel anxious or even nauseous.

If your child is prone to motion sickness there are a few things you can do to help ease their discomfort and make your travel experience a whole lot better.

A 2021 study suggested that many autistic children have some degree of dysfunction in their vestibular system, which is the system that keeps you balanced. This may make them more prone to motion sickness.

Your vestibular system is located between your eyes and your inner ears. It helps to regulate your sense of balance. When it’s not working properly your brain receives conflicting signals, causing your body’s responses to go haywire. This leads to motion sickness.

If you have sensory sensitivities, as well as an overly sensitive vestibular system, then you may be more susceptible to motion sickness.

Whether you’re autistic or not, motion sickness is quite common for children between the ages of 2 and 12, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Travel sickness symptoms

Children experiencing motion sickness may commonly exhibit some of the following symptoms when traveling in a car, plane, or boat:

  • feelings of nausea or uneasiness
  • gagging or vomiting
  • cold sweats or a warm sensation
  • headache
  • fatigue
  • dizziness
  • yawing
  • sweating
  • hyperventilation

Before you hit the road or airline there are a few things you can do to help ease motion sickness for those who are susceptible. Here are a few things to consider:

Avoid scents

A common trait in autism is a heightened sensitivity to smell, which may cause or worsen motion sickness.

Before hitting the road try removing anything with a strong smell, such as air fresheners and certain foods. It might help to avoid wearing perfumes or scented lotions. You might ask others traveling with you to do the same.

Reduce motion perception

Try to optimize your child’s position to reduce any motion, or at least the perception of motion, if you can. For example, have them sit in the front seat or by the window. If you’re on a plane, try sitting on the wing. And on a bus or train, sit as close to the front as you can.

Ask your child how they travel best and try and place them where they feel most comfortable for as long as possible.

Use distractions

Distractions are key to getting to your destination with as few episodes of motion sickness as possible. Here are a few ideas on how to distract your child while traveling:

  • watching a movie (looking straight forward, not down)
  • listening to music
  • playing a road trip game
  • teaching them controlled breathing

Face forward when traveling

Motion sickness can occur when your ears recognize movement, but your eyes do not. If your child is sitting in the back seat and looking out the window triggers their motion sickness, try blocking the side windows so they will have to look straight ahead.

You might try placing your child’s seat in a position where they will have an unobstructed view of the front, such as in the middle seat.

Stay hydrated

To help minimize motion sickness try to keep your child hydrated. Have them drink sips of water before and throughout the trip.

Consider eating at least two hours before you hit the road, then eat only small, light meals throughout the rest of the trip to reduce the risk of sickness.

Reduce sensory input

Many autistic kids are prone to sensory overload. You can reduce your child’s sensory input by asking them to focus on the horizon or a point in the distance. You can also have them close their eyes to help minimize any head movements that are making them feel unwell.

Children’s nausea medication

Children prone to motion sickness may be prescribed medication to help ease their discomfort while traveling. The most commonly used medication to treat motion sickness is an antihistamine.

Antihistamines, such as Dramamine or Benadryl can be given to children ages 2 to 12 an hour before departure, then again every 6 hours during travel.

These medications may make some kids feel hyper, so it’s important to give them a trial dose at home to ensure a successful outcome while traveling.

Another medication used for nausea is Scopolamine. This can be given orally or in a patch behind the ear. This medication may be an effective treatment for children 12 and older because of its lasting effect.

However, it’s not recommended for children under 12 due to the high risk of adverse effects.

Motion sickness is common in children. Autistic children may be more prone to motion sickness because of an overly sensitive vestibular system.

Children who experience motion sickness may have feelings of nausea or fatigue and may even vomit. To help reduce motion sickness, people can:

  • avoid things that smell
  • face forward or sit in the front seat
  • use distractions, such as deep breathing
  • stay hydrated
  • reduce sensory overload, like focusing on the horizon
  • use medication