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3 tips for supporting families with autistic children when flying

Aug. 22, 2021
6 min read
A man, woman, and young child, all wearing masks, wheel luggage through an airport.
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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.

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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

Featured image by MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
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    Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®

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  • Annual Fee

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    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
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Why We Chose It

If you are looking to take your premium rewards to the highest level, this card is really a no brainer in our eyes. Chase's Ultimate Rewards make points easy to redeem, with a wide range of 10 airline and three hotel transfer partners and a friendly user interface. Despite the high annual fee, Chase is consistently adding new benefits to keep the card competitive in a fierce premium rewards field.

Pros

  • $300 annual travel credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year
  • Access to Chase Ultimate Rewards hotel and airline travel partners
  • Unlimited 3x points on the broad category of travel and dining
  • 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • Broad definitions for travel and dining bonus categories

Cons

  • Steep $550 annual fee
  • May not make sense for people that don't travel frequently
  • You must spend the $300 travel credit before earning 3x points for travel and dining
  • No automatic hotel elite status
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,200 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
  • $300 Annual Travel Credit as reimbursement for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year.
  • Earn 5x total points on flights and 10x total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards® immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. Earn 3x points on other travel and dining & 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases
  • Get 50% more value when you redeem your points for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,200 toward travel
  • 1:1 point transfer to leading airline and hotel loyalty programs
  • Access to 1,300+ airport lounges worldwide after an easy, one-time enrollment in Priority Pass™ Select and up to $100 application fee credit every four years for Global Entry, NEXUS, or TSA PreCheck®
  • Count on Trip Cancellation/Interruption Insurance, Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver, Lost Luggage Insurance and more