The unpredictability of air travel can be a challenge for anyone, but it can be extra stressful for a child on the autism spectrum. Fortunately, with proper planning, you can minimize the discomfort for your child and the possibility of conflict and embarrassment if things don't go exactly as planned.
Rehearse Before Your Trip
If your child hasn't flown before, there are going to be a lot of new experiences involved in the process. Going over these experiences and the social interactions that accompany them can help your child feel comfortable in the airport on the day of your flight. Ideally, you could start this several weeks before the day of travel.
Tour the Airport
Many airports, such as the Minneapolis St. Paul International Airport, allow families with autism to take an airport tour to familiarize themselves with the process of flying. Whether you call your airport for a formal tour or simply stop by and walk around, this is a great way to get your child ready for the hustle and bustle. Take a look at the process of checking in, security, riding escalators, and more.
Check Our Wings for Autism
The Arc, an organization devoted to helping people with developmental disabilities, has a program called Wings for Autism that helps kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) address the challenges of flying. They do airport rehearsals and have videos you can watch to help get ready.
Write a Social Story Together
Sit down with your child and discuss the entire process of flying, from arriving at the busy airport to checking bags and getting to your gate on time. Cover unexpected events like delayed flights. Then, make a social story together that covers each situation and the way you would like your child to respond. For example, you might say, "Sometimes, the plane does not take off when it says it will. This is okay. You might feel frustrated and uncomfortable, but that's okay too. You can play your iPad, have a snack, or listen to music while you wait. You will wait quietly and stay in your seat." Rehearse the social story many times before your trip.
Before Your Flight
As you prepare your child with rehearsals, you'll also need to make other plans to help the day go smoothly. Working with the airline and giving some careful thought to your packing will help ensure a happy vacation.
Choose Your Seats Carefully
When you are booking your trip, call the airline and explain your situation. Tell them you'd like bulkhead seats by the window if possible. This will minimize your worry about your child kicking the seat in front of you or disturbing other passengers. It will also help give your child a space buffer that will keep sensory distractions to a minimum.
Request Priority Boarding
While you're talking to the airline, go ahead and request priority boarding. If you get on the plane before the other passengers, your child will have time to get settled and comfortable before the plane fills with noise and people.
Pack for the Flight Itself
In addition to your normal packing for a vacation, pack a special bag for your airport and plane experience. You'll want to include anything that will help make things easier for you and your child. Consider the following:
- Familiar favorites - Travel involves a lot of change and transitions, and familiar items like loveys can be reassuring in this situation.
- Noise-cancelling headphones - It's easy for your child to get overwhelmed by the noise of other passengers talking, the plane taking off, announcements by the pilot or flight attendant, and more. Noise-cancelling headphones can help.
- Entertainment - Bring twice as much entertainment as you think you might need, including tablets, books, art supplies, puzzle toys, and other favorites.
- Rewards - Don't forget rewards like treats or little prizes that can help incentivize the behavior you want.
- Extra clothes - You never know when there might be a spill during turbulence, and wet clothes can be distressing.
On the Day of Travel
When the day of travel arrives, there are a few things you can do to help reduce the stress for your child and for yourself too. Being prepared for the worst-case scenario will help you feel more relaxed and prepared for the journey. Tips to keep in mind include:
Bring Extra Identification and Documentation
Bring extra identification for your child, such as a medical alert bracelet or a card with information about his or her diagnosis and your contact information. This can be helpful to have in case your child wanders at the airport or gets separated from you. It's also handy to have documentation of your child's diagnosis in case you are challenged by airline personnel, security, or anyone else.
Prepare Your Responses
If there's a meltdown on the plane or in security, you may get some questions or comments from other passengers or personnel. Having some responses prepared can help. Remember, people don't have all the information about this situation until you give it to them. How much you choose to share is up to you. Options to consider include:
- "Thank you for your patience. He has autism, and this is his first flight."
- "I'm sorry we're disturbing you. We're doing our best."
- "Please excuse our disruption. Flying with autism can be challenging."
Find a Calming Strategy for Yourself Too
If there's a meltdown and you find yourself feeling embarrassed or stressed, take a few moments to focus on yourself. It may seem crazy to do that when you have a child you need to help calm. However, it's much harder to calm someone else down when you are upset too. Try taking deep breaths, closing your eyes for a second, counting to ten, or whatever works for you.
Have a Great Flight
You can have a great family vacation, even if that involves flying. By taking some time to prepare practically and emotionally, your flight can be lower stress and much more fun for the whole family.