Surviving A Flight with An Autistic Child

Traveling can be stressful at the best of times, but traveling with children adds another layer of stress and potential frustration. However, traveling with a child on the autism spectrum is even more of a challenge. It can be so overwhelming that many parents opt to not travel at all. But, that is not a solution to the problems that you may encounter. While taking a flight with an autistic child may seem impossible, the benefits far outweigh the obstacles.

Boy running in airport

For families with children on the spectrum, the thought of going on a trip can feel like a truly daunting prospect. Many children with autism thrive on routine, familiarity and structure, so a trip that has the potential to throw all of that up in the air can feel like a leap into the unknown. 

Finding Help with Autism Travel For Your Child

There are so many benefits of travel for children. In fact, there are families who educate their children on the road and exclusively through traveling. Hands-on learning is a great way to teach children on the autism spectrum.

Obviously, not only do the parents of the children need to help them overcome a myriad of new experiences – experiences that can feel intimidating simply because they are unfamiliar. But they must also provide the reassurance that is needed to allow their children to get through the airport, a place where life moves so quickly, and strangers are everywhere. Flights with all children can be stressful, but a flight with an autistic child is even more so.

So where do you begin? How do you prepare for an experience like the airport and ensure it doesn’t throw off your carefully laid out vacation plans? Well, we have drawn up a few tips that should help give you the best chance of surviving the airport experience and then a long flight with an autistic child. We hope they help. Bon Voyage!

Watching planes take off


Watch Videos Online of Airplane Procedures Before Your Flight

One of my favorite pieces of advice to give to parents is to watch YouTube videos with your child. Watching flight videos of another autistic child may help prepare your child. Many videos give detailed explanations. Watching the boarding and flight take-off and landings, help your child know what to expect. Many children on the autism spectrum are very visual learners and watching videos is an excellent way to prepare them for this experience.

Request a trial run of the airport terminal

Many airports now have an autism access program that allows families to make the unfamiliar more familiar for their child. These airports offer trial runs of the terminal building. In the US, airports such as Atlanta Hartfield Jackson offer parents who have children with autism the chance to experience airport security, traveling on moving walkways and even the experience of boarding a plane, as a test run.

That way, if there are problem areas in the airport, the family can work through them with their child and prepare for when they come upon them on the day of the flight. Almost every major airport in the United Kingdom has a program in place for travelers with autism, so do make sure you call your airport well in advance of your trip to see what is feasible. These measures ensure that flights with an autistic child are less stressful overall.

Additionally, airports such as Pittsburgh International Airport have added sensory rooms inside the airport terminal to help autism travelers decompress before or after flying. While the room is quiet and features bubble towers and soundproof rooms, it also has a mock airplane cabin.

Get all your flight paperwork in order before you depart 

It is unlikely that parents of children with autism would neglect to get their paperwork in order before they depart, but it is worth re-emphasizing just how important it is. Travel insurance is a great starting point, of course. No policy is the same, so do double-check what you are covered for and always disclose any medical conditions which you’re taking medication or receiving treatment for when you book. The likelihood is that you won’t need it, but it is great to have the reassurance of knowing you are covered if you do. 

Planes landing

Contact the airline before your flight with your autistic child

It is always worth contacting the airline well in advance of you flying. Not only does notifying them help you, but it also helps them. Request seats with more room. Generally, the bulkhead rows are usually less restrictive. Your child will feel less penned in for the duration of the flight. In general, if you get those seats it will also minimize the likelihood of your child kicking the seat of those in front of them, and that is likely to make your life less stressful too.

Additionally, ensure that your seating assignments will not be modified. Many airlines have taken to separating children and parents when they assign seats (even if you have selected your seats beforehand). This is something that needs to be double-checked and triple-checked!

Consider which meals, snacks and even drinks you need to take with you

It is worth giving the food and drinks your child may require onboard some thought. Do you need to request a special on-board meal? Do you need to bring your own snacks, which could provide some familiarity during the flight? And what about drinks? Clearly the limit on liquids will stop you bringing much through security, but can you buy something your child enjoys once you are through? Give it some thought. Make sure to check with the airline/airport before your flight to see what accommodations can be made when traveling with an autistic child.

Airport boarding a plane


Request priority boarding from your airline

Boarding first will give you the chance to get into your seats. In fact, getting settled before the crowds of passengers begin to scramble into the aisles of your plane will help keep everyone calmer. Give your airline a call and they are likely to help you on this one. 

Sitting on a plane

Keep essentials nearby during the flight with your autistic child

First make sure to bring plenty of distractions for your child such as toys and games. Next, bring essentials such as noise-canceling headphones. Finally, add in the everyday items such as tablets, games, toys, and include medical paperwork. All these things could be the difference between a relatively incident-free flight and an altogether more difficult time. Keep the things you know you will need in your carry-on luggage. This ensures you will be able to grab them quickly when you need them most.

Furthermore, enlist your child’s help with packing their essentials. A favorite stuffed animal or blanket may help your child more than even you realize. Above everything else, utilize techniques to help you stay calm yourself. If you are stressed during the flight, your autistic child will pick up on that and it may end up provoking a meltdown.

Additionally, pack more distractions than you think you are going to need. New toys and games are always a hit. Another thing to consider is wrapping them before you leave. Unwrapping these surprise gifts will add to the time it takes for your child to get bored. Certainly, new sensory toys may be just the ticket to keeping your child entertained for the entire flight.

And don’t forget to pack the chewing gum. In fact, this will help with ear pressure on takeoff and landing.

Organize the next leg of your trip

Don’t isolate the flight with your autistic child from the other legs of the trip. Make sure you connect everything together and explain it to your child in advice.

For instance, if you are traveling by train after your plane journey, let them know. During a trip to New York, explain how flight connections from JFK work and why you might use the luggage storage Manhattan has to offer as you make your way around the city. Don’t just assume they will understand everything in advance. Explain it first. 

I hope these tips have given you the confidence you need to book that flight and proceed with traveling with your child! Where will your first destination be?


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How to survive a flight with a child on the autism spectrum

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