Come Fly With Me: Travel Tips for Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
by Eliana Wool, M.A., Psychological Services Pre-Doctoral Intern
Air travel can be an exciting, yet anxiety provoking experience. This may be particularly true for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) because of factors connected to flying, including a change in routine, navigating unfamiliar environments and considerable sensory stimulation.
The following recommendations have been found beneficial to families planning air travel. It is important to remember that children diagnosed with ASD vary in terms of abilities and preferences, and not all recommendations may suit every child with ASD.
BEFORE THE FLIGHT
Create a social story. In the weeks leading up to your trip, create a picture and/or word social story with your child that overviews the air-travel process. Include pictures and/or descriptions of security, the terminal, the airplane, the baggage claim, and so on. Include sensory experiences the child might encounter such as “ear-popping” at takeoff and landing. Review this “travel book” as often as possible prior to departure. This will help to increase predictability for your child in an otherwise unfamiliar process.
Mark it on a calendar. A few weeks prior to travel, hang a calendar with the departure date clearly marked and have your child check off each day until departure. Utilizing a calendar presents the concept of time in a concrete and visual way, and may help your child to prepare for when a change in their routine will occur.
If possible, do not wash any comfort items before travel. Traveling on an airplane can be overwhelming to the senses to any traveler, let alone to a child with ASD. Having a favorite item that smells like home, such as a blanket or a plush toy, can be soothing in such an environment.
Pre-pack meals and snacks. There may be a limited assortment of foods offered in the terminal or on the airplane. This can prove troublesome if your child has any dietary restrictions or if your child is a picky eater. In light of this, it may be helpful to pack a variety of snacks and mini meals for your child. Also, remember to pack chewy foods, like fruit gummies or a bagel, for a child who seeks sensory stimulation orally.
Exercise prior to departure. Traveling on an airplane involves long periods of being quiet and sitting still. Encouraging high motor activity prior to leaving for the airport will help your child to relieve any bottled up energy before getting to the airport. High gross-motor activities, like running or jumping on a trampoline, for approximately 20 minutes are examples of ideal activates.
Have your child explain the process to you. Once you have taken the time to prepare your child for travel, encourage him or her to explain the process to you, or to his or her toys. This technique can demonstrate how much of the traveling process the child has grasped, and will expose areas where the child is not secure, or still has questions. This approach should be tailored to meet your child’s developmental level. For example, for a child with strong verbal skills, ask the child to explain verbally or through drawings what the travel day will look like. For a child who uses a “speaker box,” program the device to have pictures of the different steps of the day (e.g., getting in the taxi, checking in at the front desk). It may be helpful to prompt your child if they forget to cover a topic (e.g., “Tell me about boarding the plane”).
Accommodations. To accommodate travelers with disabilities, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has established a protocol that allows for special accommodations.
Do a practice run. Contact your local airport to see if TSA will allow you and your child to do a practice walk-through of airport security. This may help the child become familiar with the airport security process prior to the day of travel.
Twice a year, American Airlines partners with Clearbrook, an organization that serves more than 8,000 people with disabilities, to host their Airport Experience and Mock Flight, a popular volunteer-led, semi-annual event at O’Hare International Airport that provides a full airport experience to children with autism and their families. The next Airport Experience and Mock Flight event is scheduled for May 5. Seating is limited to the first 25 families that apply for this event.
Role-playing alternative to a practice run. If your airport does not allow for an actual practice run in the facility, or for you to take photographs or videos, role-playing at home is an adequate alternative. At home, you can take turns pretending that you or your child is the TSA officer, and the other is the person walking through security. It will be most beneficial to your child if you are as detailed as possible (e.g., ask your child to take his or her shoes off when appropriate).
ON THE AIRPLANE
Boarding. Notify the gate attendant that you are traveling with a child with an ASD and you will be allowed to board early or board last depending on your preference. Advantages of boarding early include not needing to wait in line at the gate or on the airplane while other passengers take their seats. Advantages of boarding last include not needing to wait in line at the gate, not needing to wait in your seat while other passengers board the plane, and being on the airplane for a shorter period of time.
Ear-popping. To prevent discomfort in the ears during takeoff and landing, preemptively encourage your child to suck on a piece of candy or chew a piece of gum. If your child is unable to safely suck on candy or chew gum, a chewing toy can also be effective towards reducing ear-popping.
Watching the time. Placing a digital clock or a count-down timer in front of your child may help your child to know how much longer he or she can expect to be in-flight for.
In-flight entertainment. Allow your child access to items in their travel bag (See “Before the flight”). Allow your child to have access to DVDs, iPods, books, coloring books, toys, etc. If your child enjoys tactile stimulation, they may benefit from playing with play dough or putty while on the airplane.
Jewish Child & Family Services offers services for individuals diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder including individual, family and group counseling; speech and occupational therapy, and unique summer camp opportunities. To learn more about our comprehensive programs and services for children, adults and families in Chicago and its suburbs, call 855.275.5237 or visit us online at jcfs.org.
- For additional information regarding air travel with individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder, please visit the Transportation and Security Administration or Autism Speaks.
- Learn about the specific accommodations available at Chicago O’Hare or Midway International Airports or visit the website or contact the customer service department of your local airport.
- Conde Nast Traveler publishes a list of recommended Best Vacations for Special Needs Families.
- Check out these additional tips from our IPI therapists for ways to make the trip easier and fun for the entire family!
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