Tips for flying with a child on the autism spectrum

Aug 8, 2021

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When you are traveling with a child with autism, it is very important to prepare them for the travel you will be doing. The idea of being away from home, and in a new place, can be incredibly scary to some children with autism. After all, they are being taken out of their normal routine, which is difficult for those who have strict routines in place. Add in the new sights, sounds, smells and people, and the combination of it all can be terrifying to say the least.

My autistic son is most terrified of the sounds and the fear of the unknown. Every airport has new sounds and sights, so that always makes him anxious. He always wants to make sure I am close to him at all times.

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Navigating the huge number of people inside the airport can be scary, so I constantly consider the time of day we fly. It mitigates some of his anxiety flying when there are fewer people in the airport. Keep that in mind, because it is one of many things you can do to prepare your autistic child for air travel.

Will it be easy to travel with your child with autism? It may be challenging, but it is not impossible — especially with some planning and preparation. I always say travel is for everyone and that travel and autism CAN go hand in hand.

Here are a few of my tips to help make traveling with an autistic child easier:

Prep your child well in advance

The night before you leave is not the time to start preparing your autistic child for your vacation. I like to work with my son’s OT (occupational therapist) to prepare for travel well in advance. In therapy, they can work on things like what to expect at the airport via social stories, controlled modeling, and discussions.

When he is home, I share videos about the airports we will be visiting via YouTube.

If you have a child who really enjoys transportation, this will also be an excellent chance to share about the airplanes that you will be taking during your trip. My son enjoys knowing the actual model of the airplane, how many people can be on board, and how fast the plane goes. I think answering these questions actually alleviates some of my son’s anxiety when it comes to flying.

Related: 6 tips for planning a vacation with a child or travel companion with autism

One of the programs I always recommend to my clients who are flying with their autistic children is Wings for Autism. While this program is currently not being offered due to the pandemic, you can find a few variations of it with different airlines.

During a Wings event, you can expect a simulated:

  • Check in to receive boarding passes
  • Pass through the TSA security checkpoint
  • Wait in the boarding area
  • Board an aircraft (that does not take off)
  • Deboard aircraft and pick up luggage at baggage claim

Programs like this really model the behavior you will experience when you travel. This means your child will know what to expect when it is time to leave for your vacation. A program like this will give you an idea of how your child will tolerate the airport and how you can put strategies and coping skills in place that will work for your child.

Fly small

When booking your flights for travel, I recommend considering the airport you are traveling out of. I personally like to fly out of the smaller airports to keep wait times short. My son struggles to wait for a long time and those longer waits allow the opportunity for him to become more anxious.

Smaller airports also offer smaller crowds, which is perfect if your child does not like to be around lots of people. It might be a little more expensive to fly out of these smaller airports, but the peace of mind for making your travel experience easier is well worth the extra money.

If you must travel out of a larger airport, I recommend bringing along the following items to support your child:

  • A special needs stroller, such as the Freedom Pushchair Stroller
  • Noise-cancelling headphones
  • Electronics like a tablet or other device you know your child loves
  • Sunglasses and ball cap
  • Snacks, snacks and more snacks
  • A favorite toy or blanket (but make sure it is not one that would cause a problem if it was lost)
  • Medications

Additionally, if you are traveling via a larger airport, it is best to sign up for programs like the TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. A little-known program like TSA Cares can also be helpful. Anyone with a visible or hidden disability can ask a TSA officer or supervisor for a passenger support specialist. The specialist can provide on-the-spot assistance. Many times, members of the Wounded Warrior Program also participate in this program.

Related: Should you get TSA PreCheck or CLEAR — or both?

How TSA Cares works:

  • Call the TSA Cares hotline at least 72 hours before your flight
  • Relay your flight information for arrival and departure as well
  • Tell the agent what needs will need to be considered during the security screening

I always sign up for this program to help support my son. I did this before a long trip to Turkey when I needed help traveling with my two boys. The agent helped us get through security quickly and with as little wait as possible. She also helped me by showing me where the lounge was at and took us to our gate before parting ways.

Use sensory rooms and support

A few airports are getting on board with supporting those with hidden disabilities. A sensory room allows for a quiet and secure place for individuals with a sensory need or a sensory processing issue. It is an excellent place to take a break and relax from the overstimulation caused by crowds, bright lights, smells and loud noises. Working with a travel advisor can help remove the stress of identifying a sensory room at an airport. However, larger airports usually have the budget for these spaces.

A couple airports where you will find sensory rooms include:

Another way to make visiting an airport with your autistic child easier is by signing up for the Sunflower Lanyard Program. While only a few airports in the U.S. are participating, there are several in Europe that participate in this program since its inception in the U.K. You can easily keep up to date with a list of airports that participate in the program around the world here.

Related: Pittsburgh Airport Opens ‘Sensory Room’ to Help Flyers With Autism

Travelers purchase a green lanyard with a little yellow sunflower on it. A subdued but visible sign informs airport staff of the wearer’s hidden disability, which may require additional help in navigating the airport, more time in going through the gate, and much more. It’s a completely voluntary program, but highly supportive.

Timing

I always try to schedule our flights for when my boys are most awake. I know some swear by flying around nap times, but I think the combination of tired children and a stressful environment simply won’t work for us. This is highly subjective, and you know your child best.

I book our flights around waking hours. My son really wants to check out the new place we are visiting, even if it is visiting family. He needs time to settle in our new location before he can get to sleep. My son being fully awake also makes him a little more agreeable for navigating the airport and more apt to advocate for himself when he is feeling scared. The more tired he gets, the more apt he is to have a meltdown. A meltdown is something I can handle, and we can work through together, but I would never want to subject him to that if I don’t need to.

Travel with friends and family

I’m not afraid to travel alone with my boys, and I have done it five or six times since my oldest was diagnosed with autism. However, I am not against traveling with friends and family. After all, the more hands you have to help you, the better the journey will be. Traveling with friends and family may allow you to use the bathroom or grab that cup of coffee while getting a break for a few minutes. Family and friends can also be helpful if you are traveling with more than one child, and you need to solely focus on one of your children for a few minutes.

Related: Your guide to visiting Disney World with a child on the autism spectrum

Getting on the plane

I always make it known to the gate attendants that my child has autism. I have no shame about his autism, and I need and will take all the support we can get while boarding the plane. You are able to preboard the plane with many airlines. Some ask that you call ahead, like American Airlines, while others simply require you to notify a gate agent. Delta, Southwest, and United all allow this extra support. JetBlue may be a low-budget carrier, but they have a program that allows for silent boarding, so passengers with disabilities can settle in and get used to their surroundings before the other passengers’ board.

Choosing seats

It stinks, but for some of the low-budget carriers, you must make sure to purchase seats that are next to each other. Some airlines will make accommodations if you notify them beforehand but don’t hold your breath. I always book seats that are together, and I purchase them beforehand. When traveling domestically, I am a diehard Southwest fan. I don’t want to risk my children not being seated with me or asking for the grace of a stranger to switch seats with me. Trust me, purchase the seats or fly on Southwest if traveling domestically.

My favorite saying is that whatever works at home will work while traveling. Use the strategies you have in place at home in conjunction with some of my tips to make your flight a lot easier. The last bonus tip I’d recommend is working with a travel advisor that is a certified autism travel professional. They can help you book your flights, notify airlines about your child’s disability, and remove a lot of the stress that might come with even the thought of traveling.

You can easily travel with your child with autism with some extra prep and planning. Once you’ve flown once, you can fly again and again, using whatever works best for your child. Flying informed makes the subsequent flights a lot easier to manage.

Don’t think you can’t fly with your autistic child and never take a vacation again. Instead, embrace this time and the memories you will make while your autistic child learns about this whole other world outside your home. Make your travel dreams a reality together.

Related: A guide to visiting theme parks with a child on the autism spectrum

Featured image by FamVeld/Shutterstock

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