Up, Up, and
Away: The Ultimate Guide to Flying with Autistic Children
Table of Contents
Before, During, and
After the Flight Checklist
Items to Pack in Your
How to Handle Sensory
Ask the Expert Q&A
It’s no surprise that flying with a child with autism
is filled with much trepidation for parents and caregivers. Bustling crowds,
loud noises, and hyperactivity, which can overwhelm an autistic child, are
unavoidable in airports and on airplanes. The result is that many parents avoid
air travel altogether. Instead, they settle for trips that can be taken by car
or simply stay at home.
parents of autistic children want to do everything they can to help their child
avoid traumatic experiences. But while it can be a challenge, traveling by
plane doesn’t have to be a no-go.
If you’re a
parent or caregiver to a child with autism, this guide can help. It compiles
resources, tips, and other advice to ease the challenges that arise when flying
with autistic children.
Before, During, After the Flight Checklist
Via Flickr – by H.
Planning for the expected and the unknown is an essential aspect
of caring for a child with autism. For parents and caregivers who fly with
their autistic child, a good plan is certainly imperative. Below is a checklist
for before, during, and after take off to help you provide the best travel
experience for your child:
Show your child
pictures. Help your child visualize what will happen throughout the travel
for Autism recommends that parents and caregivers use
pictures or videos of the airport and an airplane. The organization also notes
that social stories, such as these, are a great form of prep.
Try a mock flight.
Some airlines offer mock flight programs . They allow children to
experience every aspect of flying. Children go through security, wait at the
gate, practice getting on and off the plane, and more in a controlled setting.
A list of airports that provide rehearsal programs can be found here. If you aren’t able to take advantage of one
of these programs, you might consider testing the waters with a short flight
first to see how your child handles it.
Ask the airline (ahead
of time) to make certain accommodations. Generally, airlines are very
helpful to parents of children with special needs. In this blog post, a mother of an autistic child explains
the accommodations she always asks airlines to make. For example, she requests
seats near the front of the cabin and priority boarding.
Arrive early. FamilyEducation.com
says that you can avoid further stress when you arrive
with plenty of time to go through security, get food, etc., without having to
rush from place to place.
– by dan paluska
Know what to do at
security. Be sure to let TSA agents know your child is autistic. The
Transportation Security Administration provides specific information for people with autism or
intellectual disabilities to help them navigate the screening process.
Put safety first.
Airports are busy and crowded. In order to keep your child safe, Talk About Curing
Autism recommends that you take certain safety
precautions in case your child becomes separated from you. For example, dress
your child in bright colors and have them wear an ID bracelet or name tag.
Bring an assortment of distractions.
Keeping your child occupied will be the key to success. In this Time.com tip, one mother of an autistic child
lists the items she brings when she flies with her children. It includes,
crayons coloring books, and Play-Doh.
Charge up your
electronics. Hand-held devices like iPads, iPods, iPhones, DVD players, and
other electronics can be lifesavers when you’re in need of a way to entertain
any child on a flight. Parenting.com provides these iPad app suggestions that are great for children
Kid in Story
Create a visual
schedule. In its “Airports, Airplanes, & Autism,” the University of
South Florida’s Center for Autism and Related Disabilities advises
parents to use visual schedules to help guide their child through the
experience. Break the flight down into blocks of time, and then show them a
picture schedule of the activities they’ll do during each time period.
Share some calming
music. If your child becomes agitated, try calming them with music. Operation
Autism suggests that you travel with instrumental songs
to help soothe them.
Prepare your child for
the restroom. As Life with Aspergers notes in a blog post, airplane restrooms will be unlike any
other restroom your child has used. Specifically, the father in the post says
he was sure to prepare his kid for the way the toilet flushes.
– peter burge
Accept that meltdowns
may happen. And that’s okay. You can take every possible precaution to
prepare a child with special needs for travel, pack everything you think you’ll
need, and still not be able to avoid a meltdown. To help manage meltdowns, Parents.com advises that you “focus on your
child,” and let the flight attendants know ahead of time how they can help if a
Get back to your child’s
routine. Children with ASD can have trouble with changes in routine. RaisingChildren.net
offers advice on how to help your child manage
disruptions, such as those that might come up while you’re traveling.
Reinforce a job well
done. Children with autism respond well to positive reinforcement. Once you
Center for Autism suggests that you tell your child what a great
job they did and even give them candy, a sticker, or another reinforcer that
Items to Pack in Your Carry On
It may be helpful to pack everything
your child will need in one designated bag. That way, as Family Travel Forum notes, if any delays or other
unpredictable events occur you can go straight to your bag to get an activity
or item to help distract or comfort your child. Here are a few essentials
you’ll want to be sure to pack:
Headphones or earplugs.
“Flying with Autism” presents advice from Richard
Kargel, a Delta Airlines pilot. One section of the piece advises parents on
what they should bring with them. Because planes can be quite loud, Kargel
recommends that parents with children who are sensitive to sound bring
noise-canceling headphones or earplugs.
For parents whose children are on a gluten-free diet, in “Ten Strategies for Traveling with a Child with Autism”
reminds that it’s important that you bring your own snacks. You may be able to
find a gluten-free option once you go through security, but it’s best not to
risk it. The TSA explains what food and beverages it will allow through
Hard candy or gum.
Your child’s ears may pop as you ascend and descend. MyAspergersChild.com suggests that your child chew gum or a eat a
lollipop to help them deal with this discomfort.
Medications. If your
child is on any medications, be sure to include those in your carry on, and
follow the TSA’s medication guidelines.
Favorite toy. Of
course, you’ll want to have several activities to keep your child occupied. But
as this article from Matador Network notes, if there is a specific toy that brings
your child comfort, don’t check it. Put it in your child’s carry on.
How to Help a Child with Sensory Issues
sensitivity is common among people with ASD. Naturally, for those with sensory
issues, airports and airplanes can be especially overwhelming. Here are a few
suggestions on how you can help manage your child’s sensory sensitivity in
these difficult environments:
Don’t try to pack light.
Bring anything and everything you think you’ll need. As a mom of a child with
autism blogs at SpectrumMyMummy.com, sure you may end up with
stuff you don’t need, but you never know when an item you considered leaving at
home will become a lifesaver.
– by Maurizio Pesce
At the airport, scope
out a quiet place to wait. There may come a time, especially at the
airport, when your child will struggle with the amount of sensory stimulation. Autism Asperger’s
Digest advises that you look for a quiet area to take
your child if this occurs. You may be able to get a recommendation from the
airline staff at the gate.
Bring a “weighty”
object. Children with sensory processing disorders find comfort in weight.
According to North Shore Pediatric Therapy, items such as “a
book, laptop, or a weighted blanket or vest,” will work well.
Be prepared to manage
temperature. Planes can be hot and stuffy one second and cold the next.
This article provides advice on how you can help your
child deal with temperature changes. For example, for hot situations, have an
ice pack on hand, and to fight off the cold, bring a blanket or extra layers.
– by Toshiyuki IMAI
Focus on comfort.
BrainBalanceCenters.com provides “Travel Tips for Kids with Sensory Sensitivities.”
One tip suggests that you dress your child in comfortable, soft clothes.
Ask the Expert Q&A
Paula Kramer, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA, is a
pediatric occupational therapist for more than 30 years, professor of
occupational therapy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia, pediatric expert from the American Occupational
Therapy Association, and mom to
an 18-year-old with ADHD.
What can parents of children
with sensory issues do to keep their child as comfortable as possible both at
the airport and on the plane?
First, know your child and what
sets them off. Then, help them prepare by going over each step of the process
For example, if crowds set your
child off, prior to getting to the airport, tell them all the steps you’re
going to go through where you will deal with crowds. Then, they’ll be aware of
what will happen, and once you’re there, you can say, “Here’s what we talked
about.” My son has ADHD and doesn’t like crowds, so when we traveled when he
was younger, I would say to him, “The first thing we’re going to do is drop our
bags. There may be crowds, there may not be. Then, we’re going to go through
security…” And so on.
Tick off each step. Say, “One step
down…Two steps down” as you go through the process.
Second, focus on keeping your child
comfortable. You know what your child’s comfort items are. My son loved soft
blankets. So, we always brought a soft blanket from home. Remember, it’s much
easier to bring the blanket or other comfort item with you than to hope you’ll
be able to get one at the airport or on the plane.
If a blanket is what works for them
and your child is younger, you may even swaddle them with it. This is very
Keep in mind, too, that they might
find the most comfort in something that’s yours. They might want something that
smells like you or reminds them of home.
Help them be happy and relaxed.
Fill their carry on with their favorite little toys, favorite snacks, and so
on. When I would fly with my son, I would break my own rules. He loved fruit
bars so I would let him have as many as he wanted. If you don’t normally allow
chewing gum or candy, let your child have it on the plane.
Distract them with the iPad or
stream a video. Sometimes I would download a new video game for my son.
Something new to them might distract them longer.
If they’re sensitive to sounds,
bring headphones. Let them wear them through the whole process, the headphones
will block out some of the noise from the airport and the plane.
Third, don’t worry about your child
looking odd. Some autistic children find comfort in chew tubes. If that is what
works for your child, use it. Don’t worry what other people might think. Focus
on doing what you can to keep your child comfortable and calm on the plane.
You know your child. Play to their
strengths. Remind them nothing bad is going to happen. Emphasize that you’re
together and will be together the whole time. Highlight the fun and excitement
of the trip.
What can parents do via
occupational therapy to prepare their child for the airport and the airplane?
The unknown is very scary,
particularly for autistic kids. So, as I mentioned before, start by creating a
list with them of every part of the trip. When you have this physical list of
steps, they’ll know what to expect. Always, always emphasize that you’re going to
be right next to them.
If you can take them to the airport
before the day of your trip, do so. That will allow your child to see what it
looks like and see what the security lines look like. Then, they’ll know
exactly what to expect.
Prepare them for what it’s like to
board the plane. Explain that the gate will be very busy. Tell them if you’re
lucky you’ll get to go first. As a side note for parents, my advice is to
either ask for priority boarding so that you can go on first or to wait and go
at the very end. Don’t go in the middle of that cattle car. It can be very
stressful for your child.
The key really is preparation,
preparation, preparation. It makes life much easier.
What accommodations should
parents ask the airline to make for their child?
Security screening is one of the
key points where there is a lot of noise and crowds that can be disturbing for
an autistic child. So, be vocal. Call the airport and airline before you go.
Tell them you’re flying with a child with a disability. Ask for priority
screening at security. This will help keep you and your child out of the
Some airports and airlines are
responsive to kids with disabilities. For example, I know from experience that
the Philadelphia airport is very responsive and has a separate security line
for kids with disabilities. Some may let you go through the executive security
lines. It never hurts to ask.
Always ask for priority boarding.
If your child is on the plane first and seated, and they feel secure, then it’s
easier. Explain the situation. Let the airline staff know that you don’t want
your child to be upset; you want it to be a good experience for him so that
he’ll want to fly again. They’ll want to keep you as a customer.
What if a child becomes upset?
If a child is overly excited or has
the jitters, they may kick the seat in front of them. A great way to handle
this is to simply take their shoes off. With their shoes off, kicking the seat
will hurt their toes, so they’ll stop.
If a child becomes upset, hug them.
Hugging should be the first line of defense because it calms the central
nervous system. Talk to them lowly, softly, and calmly. Have them take deep
breaths. Sing a song together. Look them square in the eye. Make the contact
with them. If your child responds to classical music, have a playlist for them
to listen to.
Distract them from what’s upsetting
them. Go to your carry on. This is when it is a good time to have a few items
that your child doesn’t know you have. Surprising them with a favorite item
from home will help them refocus their attention.
Are there any other specific
recommendations you’d make to parents of children with autism who are preparing
Prepare yourself and your child.
When kids are prepared, they do rise to the occasion.
And don’t forget to talk about
what’s on the other end of the trip so that they won’t be fearful. Look at
pictures of where you’re going or read guidebooks. When I would travel with my
son, we would read about where we were going, and I would have him pick what he
wanted to do once we got there. Help them get excited about what’s to come.
When the trip is over and it’s time
to fly home, you can recall the first flight and say, “Remember, it was fun
when we did this.”
Lastly, thank the people around you
for being so understanding. But if you do run into trouble, don’t panic. You
paid for your seat, too. Other people might get upset, and that’s ok. As long
as you’re prepared and your child is prepared, you will get through it.
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