Air Travel with Children on the Autism Spectrum: 25 Tips for Parents

Flying may be the fastest way to reach your destination, but it isn’t always the least stressful if you have an Aspergers or high-functioning autistic (HFA) youngster.

Though flying with kids on the spectrum adds a layer of complexity to your trip, you can avoid potential problems by thoroughly planning and preparing for the trip before you arrive at the airport.

Air Travel with Aspergers and HFA Children: 25 Tips for Parents—

1. All major airlines offer complimentary in-flight magazines providing detailed layouts that map the air terminals of major travel hubs. During the flight, “assign” your youngster to look up this information and share it with you.

2. Arrive at the airport early. Sprints down an endless terminal are difficult enough, but they are nearly impossible when holding your child’s hand.

3. As a diversion, your youngster may feel tempted to press the flight attendant call button more often than what is considered appropriate. Even though he may believe he has legitimate needs (or is perhaps just being a typical rascally kid), discuss this nuance of air travel with your youngster in advance of your travel arrangements, and set reasonable limits as you would for any youngster.

4. As with the any initial steps in vacation planning, your youngster can be helpful in locating and pricing air travel to and from your destination, including connecting flights and layovers.

5. Ask your youngster to develop a list of questions about flying for you to answer. If you are unable to respond to all the questions, find out who can (even if it must wait until you arrive at the airport). Your youngster may be able to address his questions by directing them to a ticket agent, security personnel, or flight-crew member.

6. Aspergers and HFA kids young enough to require car seats may be more comfortable using these seats while on the plane. A car seat or harness restraint is the safest place for kids during an emergency or turbulence. Parents using a car seat or harness must book a seat for the youngster. The number of car seats that can be used per row may be limited, depending on the type of the aircraft.

7. Consider making shorter trips (e.g., instead of flying to the Cancun, maybe a trip to Florida would provide as much “beach-fun” without all the extra travel time and customs issues).

8. Don't forget that being up so high in the air may be a very novel experience for your youngster. Make use of this unusual perspective to talk about what you both see when looking out the windows (e.g., cloud formations, the tiny appearance of cars and people on the ground, the winding course of rivers and streams, the checkered patterns of farmers' fields, etc.).

9. Don't forget to talk with your youngster about the trip, explaining each stage of the boarding process and the flight. Make sure he realizes that the bumpiness and engine noises are normal and not a signal of an impending crash. You may even want to visit the airport ahead of time.

10. Dress for comfort. Put the good-for-grandma clothes in a carry-on and let your child change into these after your arrival. On board, let your child wear comfortable play clothes, and don't forget to pack an extra set of clothes in your carry-on, especially when traveling with little ones. Since airplanes tend to be cold, make sure your child has an extra sweater or jacket at his seat. Don't forget to grab blankets and pillows as you board; there won't be any left later on when your child wants them.

11. During the flight, your youngster may become bored, impatient, or stressed. Ensure that he has plenty to keep him occupied (e.g., favorite books, drawing paper, interactive games, conversations that you've reserved for the trip, etc.).

12. Having headphones or ear-buds along to listen to pleasing music will greatly help to block out external noise that can consume your youngster and heighten his nervousness.

13. If traveling abroad, you can use flight-time to discuss and review the language and culture differences of the area to be visited.

14. If your youngster has never flown before, he will take his cues from you. If you make it sound exciting, adventurous, and interesting, your youngster will likely reflect your attitude. If you have a fear of flying but acquiesce out of cost efficiency or convenience, your youngster will quickly tap into your anxieties and internalize them as his own.

15. Know that the air pressure changes during takeoff and landing can cause ear pain in children who are sensitive to sound. Swallowing will help ears adjust to air pressure changes. Sucking on lollipops, chewing gum, or eating crackers can encourage your child to swallow.

16. Large airports can be overwhelming with their bombardment of sensory stimuli. Your youngster may enjoy taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells, or he may be unable to tolerate the combined convergence of the environment with its crowds of rushing people, perpetual PA system announcements, and other disorienting noises and visuals. Wearing an iPod or MP3 player may be necessary during this time, or asking your youngster to check the monitors to confirm arrival or departure information could prove helpful for him.

17. Prepare your child for security protocol. All children must undergo security screening. Younger kids must be removed from strollers or infant carriers before passing through the walk-through metal detector at the security checkpoint. Folded strollers and other equipment small enough to pass through the X-ray machine must be placed on the belt. Kids who are old enough to walk should walk through the metal detector, rather than be carried.

18. Some airlines offer passengers the option of either paying a fee to book a seat at the time the flight is booked or waiting until check-in to select seats. Consider reserving seats in advance to ensure that the entire family can sit together. Though waiting to select seats at check-in might be a good cost-cutting idea for grown-ups traveling alone, it can be a risky strategy for parents traveling with kids on the autism spectrum.

19. Take advantage of shortcuts to waiting in line at ticket counters, including curbside checking of luggage and free-standing e-ticket kiosks that automatically issue boarding passes with proper photo ID.

20. To build on the excitement of the journey, create a countdown calendar and put it on the refrigerator.

21. Waiting in line is an exercise in patience for most individuals, including kids on the spectrum. Recent trends in heightened airport security have made such lengthy delays standard. Request that your youngster learn about airport safety procedures in order to feel prepared in advance of flying.

22. When the call for boarding is made, it may be a good idea to take advantage of pre-boarding opportunities that usually include moms and dads traveling with kids or those needing extra time or assistance. This will give your youngster the chance to take a few minutes to acclimate to the look, feel, and sound of the aircraft before it fills with people.

23. When traveling to another country, are there guessing games to be played in which you and your youngster quiz one another about customs, geography, foods, or words indigenous to the country to which you are traveling?

24. Whenever possible, book a nonstop flight. This streamlines your trip and prevents change-of-flight problems. Traveling at non-peak times (e.g., late at night, midday and Mondays to Wednesdays) gives you a good chance of getting on less-crowded flights. On these take-offs you're more likely to find room for your child to stretch out and sleep.

25. While waiting to depart at your gate, suggest that your youngster engage in a favored activity, or you can play a word or memory game based upon the surroundings. As with all children, this may also be a good time to get a snack.

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