Amazing Tips for A Successful Flight With Your Child With Autism

There are many reasons why a family may use air travel. Maybe your child with autism wants to visit his/her grandparents. It could be a holiday visit with family members who live out of state. A simple summer vacation trip out of state could involve your child with special needs preparing to board a plane for the first time.

Amazing Tips for A Successful Flight With Your Child With Autism

Take a look at the following tips for making your flying experience with your child with autism more enjoyable.

1. Consider noise levels when walking through the airport

Some people with autism can become overwhelmed by the number of people moving around an airport terminal. The noise may also cause them discomfort making them want to wear a headset to reduce the noise level or to listen to some music to help stay relaxed.

2. Be your child’s advocate

A child’s senses may become heightened when on a plane which can escalate behaviors. You may need to “advocate” for your own child if this occurs. If people on the plane stare at you or ask, “What is wrong with him?” be prepared to appropriately explain that your child has autism and you are working at calming him/her. Seating may be tight which may mean your child is seated in a row with a stranger which could add to the challenge.

3. Create social stories to ease anxiety

Work with your child`s teacher to develop an appropriate social story dealing with flying. This type of social story can be reviewed at home and at school daily. It will assist your child in understanding the expectations that occur when people fly. It may also reduce some anxiety and fears the child may have with flying. A well-written social story will include that his/her ears may “pop” during the flight, that he/she will have to remain in the seat while in flight, as well as remind him/her that flying is a safe and quick way to travel to see family members or attend special events.

4.Visit the local airport first

Some airports offer a “sensory day” which gives children with autism an opportunity to visit the airport as well as board a plane. It allows children to sit in actual seats, visit the bathroom, learn how to use the seat belt, adjust the air or lighting above the seat, and see where the luggage is stored. It also allows for a wonderful opportunity for children with autism to voice their questions to the crew members who are present. Many children with autism do not transition well to new environments. Taking some time to even visit an airport may assist with making this transition smoother.

5. Explain the role of airport security

The concept of airport security will need to be explained to your child with autism, prior to arriving at the airport. All of these explanations could be incorporated into a social story. Many children can be confused when they are asked to take off their shoes in order to go through the security check. Remind them that everyone has to do it. They may become concerned that someone will take their shoes or they won`t be able to get them tied again. Simply remind them that you’ll ensure that no takes their shoes. Also, assure them if they need assistance with tying their shoes again that you are there to help.

Sometimes, individuals with autism are selected for a “pat-down.” You’ll need to advocate for your child by explaining to airport security that your child has autism and may not like being touched. Ensure the child that you will stay with him/her, and it’s okay because you are there to supervise the touching. Explain that if the child becomes upset that the security check may take longer then usual for your own child.

If your child is carrying a backpack, check the backpack before going through airport security.  There are certain items that no one is allowed to carry on a plane. The biggest items that seem to cause concern for children with autism seems to be bottled water or juice. Upon inspection, airport security will remove these items and throw them in the trash. Some children with autism go into an immediate state of panic. They cannot understand why someone is taking their juice or water to simply throw it away. The best way to deal with this issue is to avoid it altogether. Inform your child that once you get through airport security that you will purchase a bottle of water or juice that they will be able to board the plane with.

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6. Create pre-boarding and exiting plans

Many times individuals with disabilities or those traveling with small children are able to pre-board the plane. It is a good idea for children to pre-board their flight. Hopefully, this prevents your child from standing in the aisle for an extended period of time while people are selecting seats or storing their luggage. Have a conversation with your child with prior to boarding as to whether or not he/she will sit by the window, in the middle seat or an aisle seat.

Some children with autism may find the beginning of the flight frightening. Having a weighted blanket or vest with the child may give him/her the compression needed to meet sensory needs and reduce anxiety. Some kids may not like the feel of their ears “popping” during the flight. Chewing gum may help with the air pressure build up in their ears and with some sensory issues.

When exiting, you may need additional time with your child. Many families flying with children with autism will attempt to board the plane last. Some children may not want to depart the plane or it may take them longer to process the transition. By departing the plane last, you will not be in a situation where you are restricting the movement of other passengers who may be in a hurry to depart to catch another flight.

7. Set up a comfortable seating plan ahead of time

Establish where your child will sit prior to boarding the plane. That way, you`ll know if he/she wants a window or aisle seat. Some children will want a window seat and actually enjoy the experience of the plane taking off. Others may be frightened by the thought of sitting by the window seat and want to avoid it. Other considerations are the window blinds. Many children want the blinds/shade on the window pulled completely down to avoid blaring sunlight. Other students with Autism may also be bothered by the air venting that is directly above their head. They may not like having the air blowing on them directly.

8. Bring items your child likes

Some children are highly reinforced by technology. Be certain to check to see if your child plans to bring his/her laptop or game system during the flight. Some children may be entertained with games that are uploaded to your cell phone. The same is true of food items. Often a plane trip will involve receiving a soda, water, a bag of peanuts or a cookie. If these are items that your child will not like, you may want to remember to bring your own snacks or additional snacks with you. This is especially true if your child with autism is on a special diet.

9. Inform crew members

It is always a good idea to inform the personnel aboard the plane that you are flying with a child with autism. This may assist them with situations that may occur during the flight. Also, keep in mind that some individuals with autism may not be able to be seated in an exit seat. If they are not able to comprehend the instructions for operating an emergency exit or follow the oral directions given by a crew member, they will be asked to sit in a different seat. Asking them to transfer to a new seat may be bothersome to them and can cause a negative reaction. Simply avoiding the exit seats altogether may assist with a successful flight for your child.

10. Develop a safety plan

Many kids with autism do not enjoy going to the baggage claim area after the flight. The noise and the crowded conditions may be overwhelming or upsetting. Children with should never be left unattended in the baggage claim area. They will require constant supervision, so they do not become separated.

It is a wise idea to pre-plan for an emergency situation. You can develop a safety plan in the event that you and your child separated in the airport. Rehearse with your child what he/she should do if this happens. Children with high functioning autism can be taught how to use their cell phone to make contact with a parent. Other children with special needs will need to be taught how to approach an individual in authority and explain that they are lost. Those who are non-verbal can be taught to carry a premade card with the names of their parents, and phone number.

This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism

Ron Malcolm

    Ron Malcolm

    Ron Malcolm, EdD, is an assistant director of special education for a public school district. He is also an associate faculty member at the University of Phoenix and a special graduate faculty member at the University of Kansas. He has been serving the educational needs of children with autism for the past 34 years. His educational background includes a bachelor of arts in English and a bachelor of education degree in special education from Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada; master of education degree in special education from the l`universite de Moncton in Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada; master of arts degree in counseling and guidance from Gallaudet University, Washington, DC; master of science degree in school administration from Fort Hays State University, Hays, Kansas; doctorate degree in educational leadership from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona; post-doctorate work in positive behavior supports from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona; and post-doctorate work in autism spectrum disorders from Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff, Arizona