3 tips for supporting families with autistic children when flying

Aug 22, 2021

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Airports are getting busier by the day, which is why, as a traveler, you see numerous types of people any time you are trying to catch your flight. Business travelers, honeymooners, and an endless number of families can all be on the same airplane as you. You may not pay too much attention to many of these people, unless something happens to capture your attention. And most of the time, the thing that will catch your attention is a child, whether they are playing, running around, or having a meltdown.

What you may not know is that the child having the meltdown may be autistic. Their parent, or caregiver, is most likely trying every trick they have to keep their autistic child calm and happy until they reach their destination. But going to an airport can be challenging for children with autism. All the sights, sounds, people, smells, and colors can create overstimulation.

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For example, my oldest son, who is autistic, can be very anxious in that environment. When he gets too anxious, he can have an autism-induced meltdown.

While I can control certain aspects of our travel, there are always unpredictable and unexpected things happening at airports. This is the number one reason why I always recommend using support services when you are traveling. As a travel advisor for autistic families, I arrange for these services when I am planning trips for all my clients. Since one of the biggest travel challenges is the airport, I always connect my clients with TSA Cares to ensure the support needed is available.

Personally, I prepare my son with videos prior to our travel dates. I also make sure he is traveling at a time of day that is best for him. My son will have eaten a good meal before we arrive at the airport, and I always bring lots of his favorite snacks. The electronics are completely charged as well, so he has something to keep him distracted from a few of the overstimulating obstacles he will encounter.

Related: Tips for flying with a child on the autism spectrum

We all know that things don’t always go as planned and adjustments will need to be made. My strategies do not always work, because my son is a person and not a robot. We could honestly plan for weeks, and something will still derail what appears to be the best plan. Thankfully, there are a couple things fellow travelers can do to help families who are traveling with autistic children.

Be empathetic

Everyone has good days and bad days. If you happen to see a child having a meltdown in the airport, remember there is a big difference between a meltdown and a temper tantrum. An autistic child having a meltdown might appear the same, because it looks like a temper tantrum from the outside. However, autistic children cannot control their emotions when they are overwhelmed. On the inside, they are tired, angry, overstimulated, and even excited about the journey they are taking.

When you see an autistic child having a meltdown, it is not the time to give dirty looks, judgmental stares, or make snide comments to the parent. All those things will only make the meltdown even worse. It is best if you simply walk away, so the parent or caregiver can handle the situation appropriately. This is always my number one recommendation.

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

(Photo by Luke Chan / EyeEm / Getty Images)

Offer words of support and encouragement

Of course, if you feel obligated to support a family in the middle of a meltdown, do not engage with the child. Instead, offer words of support or offer to assist with a task that doesn’t involve the meltdown. You may consider gathering a few of their belongings, helping with another child, or going to get them some water. If you have a blanket, you can offer that to the parent, because some autistic children feel calmer when they have a blanket over them.

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

When you offer assistance to a family with an autistic child, they may tell you they don’t need anything. That is okay and at that time, you can simply walk away. Your kind offer, and non-judgmental ways, will have still made this challenging time a little easier.

Give families some space

My last tip is to make sure a family traveling with an autistic child has the space they need and to ensure the area is safe. By removing objects that could pose a hazard, you are allowing the parent or caregiver to focus on their child and their child’s needs. A little extra space is helpful too, because it will allow the family to take a breath and determine which steps to take next. Don’t worry, if support is needed, they will ask for help. Simply look for guidance from the parent or caregiver and try to help as best you can.

You may not encounter an autistic child every time you fly, but these tips will help you each time you do. The next time you are at the airport, and see a family with an autistic child, you now know you have options for making that family’s trip better, even if they do experience a meltdown they tried to prevent.

As an autistic travel advisor, I make sure my clients have all the support services they need when they are traveling. Between those services, and your help, I know my clients, and their autistic children, will experience the amazing vacations they deserve.

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

Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

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