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  • Writer's pictureElle James

Flying with an Autistic Child: 10 Essential Tips for a Smooth Journey


Flying with an Autistic Child

I'm thrilled to announce that our family embarked on an exciting adventure to Oahu, Hawaii! This marked our very first trip to this stunning destination as a family of five, and we were all buzzing with anticipation.


As we eagerly prepared for this journey, we faced a unique challenge head-on – flying with an autistic child.


Our family consists of my husband, our three wonderful kiddos (a 7-year-old and 4-year-old twins), and me. While we were all excited to explore new horizons with our little ones, we recognized that the airport and airplane experience could be overwhelming, especially for children with sensory sensitivities and communication challenges.


However, with meticulous planning, patience, and a deep understanding of our child's needs, we found that flying with an autistic child could not only be manageable but also a deeply enriching experience for our entire family.


Keep reading as we share 10 invaluable tips to ensure a seamless journey and offer a bonus section detailing 20 engaging activities to keep kids entertained during the flight. So, join us on this adventure, and let's make unforgettable memories together!



In this post:


Flying with an Autistic Child

10 Tips for Flying with an Autistic Child


1. Plan and Prepare in Advance


Look into the airlines that offer the most accommodating services for passengers with autism. Some airlines have autism-friendly programs, which might include staff training in autism awareness, sensory-friendly in-flight entertainment, and priority boarding for families with autistic children.


Check the airport websites for detailed layouts and amenities. Knowing the airport layout can help you plan your route and locate quiet spaces or sensory rooms that some airports provide for individuals with sensory sensitivities.


Once you've chosen your airline, contact them well in advance of your travel date. Explain your child's specific needs, such as sensory sensitivities or dietary requirements, and inquire about their policies and services. Airlines typically require at least 48-72 hours notice for special accommodations, so early communication is essential.


Some airlines may request documentation, such as a doctor's note, to support your request for accommodations. Make sure you have any necessary paperwork prepared and ready to provide if requested.


When booking your flight, consider seat selection carefully. If your child has sensory sensitivities, they might be more comfortable in a window seat, away from the aisle where there's more foot traffic. Communicate your seat preferences to the airline during your early contact with them.



TSA Cares


TSA Cares offers valuable assistance to families traveling with autistic children, ensuring a smoother airport experience. Families can contact TSA Cares (when traveling in the US) at least 72 hours before their flight to request support.


TSA officers receive specialized training to provide understanding and assistance, including guidance through security procedures. For autistic children, this can mean a quieter, less stressful screening process, with options like a dedicated screening lane or a private room if needed.


Additionally, TSA Cares can arrange for a Passenger Support Specialist to meet the family at the airport, offering personalized assistance from check-in to boarding. This service not only ensures the safety and comfort of the child but also provides peace of mind for the entire family, making air travel more accessible and enjoyable.



2. Use Visual Supports


Create a personalized social story or visual schedule that caters to your child's unique needs and preferences. Include images of your specific airport, the airline you'll be using, and the airplane model if possible. Break down the story into simple, sequential steps with clear visuals.


In the days leading up to the trip, engage your child in daily discussions about the upcoming journey. Review the social story or visual schedule together, encouraging questions and conversations about what to expect.


Use a large wall calendar or a digital scheduling app to visually mark the days leading up to the trip. Incorporate pictures or symbols representing the airport, the airplane, and the destination to build excitement and anticipation.


Consider simulating aspects of the airport experience at home. Pretend to go through security checks or pack a "suitcase" together. This hands-on approach can reinforce the information from the social story.



3. Choose the Right Time to Travel


Evaluate your child's daily routine and schedule. If they have specific times for meals, medications, or sensory breaks, try to plan your flights around these schedules.


Overnight or early morning flights (often referred to as "red-eye" flights) can be a good option if your child tends to be calmer or sleepier at these times. Red-eye flights often have fewer passengers, reducing the sensory stimulation.


When booking connecting flights, consider longer layovers. This allows for more flexibility in case of delays or disruptions and provides extra time for your child to relax between flights.


If your child tends to be more sensitive to certain stimuli, like noise or motion, choose seats accordingly. Seats near the front of the plane tend to be quieter, while those over the wings experience less motion.



4. Bring Comfort Items


Encourage your child to select a few of their favorite toys or a beloved blanket to bring on the flight. These familiar items can provide a sense of security and comfort in an otherwise unfamiliar environment. Pack a sensory kit with items that can help soothe and engage your child during the flight. Fidget toys, stress balls, chewable jewelry, or weighted blankets can be beneficial.


Ensure your child has a small backpack or carry-on bag where they can keep these comfort items easily accessible. This allows them to take control of their own belongings, which can be empowering and comforting.


Discuss with your child what to do if they misplace or forget any of their comfort items. Have a backup plan in place, such as a comfort item you keep in your bag, to prevent potential meltdowns or distress.



5. Noise-Canceling Headphones


Invest in high-quality noise-canceling headphones designed for children. Look for headphones that are comfortable to wear for extended periods and are adjustable to fit your child's head comfortably.


Noise on an airplane, such as engine sounds or cabin announcements, can be distressing for autistic individuals with sensory sensitivities. Noise-canceling headphones can significantly reduce these auditory triggers, creating a more peaceful and calming environment.


Introduce the headphones to your child well before the trip. Let them wear the headphones during daily activities or when watching familiar videos, so they become accustomed to the sensation and can associate them with comfort.


On the flight, encourage your child to wear the noise-canceling headphones during periods of increased noise, such as take-off, landing, or meal service. This can help them stay more relaxed and less overwhelmed during these potentially stressful times.



6. Dress Comfortably


Choose clothing made from soft, non-restrictive materials. Avoid scratchy tags or seams that might cause discomfort or irritation. Cotton clothing is often a good choice, as it is breathable and tends to be comfortable against the skin.


Depending on the temperature of the airplane cabin, it can sometimes get chilly. Dress your child in layers, so you can easily adjust their clothing to keep them comfortable throughout the flight. This way, you can add or remove layers as needed without causing disruption.


Take into account any sensory sensitivities your child may have. If your child is particularly sensitive to certain textures or prefers snug clothing, select garments that align with their sensory preferences.


Ensure your child's comfort items are easily accessible in their carry-on bag. If their favorite stuffed animal or blanket provides comfort, they should be able to reach it without difficulty.



8. Be Mindful of Security Checks


When you arrive at the security checkpoint, approach the nearest officer and calmly inform them about your child's condition. Explain any potential sensitivities your child may have to certain touch or visual stimuli, such as the metal detectors or body scans. Communication helps security personnel understand your child's needs and adapt their approach accordingly.


Use visual supports like a laminated card that explains your child's condition and sensitivities. This card can be presented discreetly to security personnel, aiding in understanding and empathy during the screening process.



8. Snacks and Drinks


Include a wide selection of your child's favorite snacks in your carry-on bag. Familiar snacks provide a sense of comfort and assurance in an unfamiliar environment. It also ensures that your child has access to food they enjoy, as airline meals might not always align with their preferences or dietary restrictions.


Some children with autism find comfort in sensory friendly snacks, such as crunchy or chewy items like carrot sticks, apple slices, or chewable tubes. Including these in your snack selection can be beneficial.


If your child has dietary restrictions or specific nutritional needs, plan accordingly. Some airlines offer special meals (e.g., gluten-free, dairy-free) if requested in advance, but it's always a good idea to have backup snacks just in case.



9. Practice Self-Compassion


Understand that despite meticulous planning, not everything will go as planned during your journey. Flights can be delayed, schedules may change, or unexpected challenges might arise. Accept that these disruptions are part of traveling and try to stay flexible.


Develop strategies to manage stress, both for yourself and your child. Breathing exercises, sensory breaks, or engaging in calming activities can help both of you stay composed during moments of tension.


Give yourself and your child permission to take breaks when needed. If the airport becomes overwhelming, find a quiet corner or designated sensory room to decompress. Sometimes, a short break can make a world of difference.



10. Advocate for Your Child


If you encounter any issues or challenges during the journey, don't hesitate to assertively communicate your child's needs to airline staff, flight attendants, or airport personnel. Explain your child's condition calmly and clearly, and request any necessary accommodations.


Familiarize yourself with the airline's policies regarding passengers with special needs. Familiarity with your rights can empower you to advocate effectively for your child and ensure their comfort and well-being throughout the journey.


Stay informed about your flight's status, especially during layovers or if there are any delays. Being proactive and aware of any changes in your travel plans can help you anticipate and address potential challenges in advance.





20 Best Activities to Keep Kids Entertained on a Plane


[This post may contain affiliate links and I could earn a small commission at no cost to you. However, I will never recommend anything that I do not believe in or use myself.]



An Amazon Fire Tablet loaded with kid-friendly apps and movies is a fantastic choice for long flights. It provides hours of entertainment, keeping kids engaged and happy while also allowing parents some well-deserved peace and quiet.


Amazon Fire Tablet



Headphone ensure kids can enjoy their favorite content on their tablet or inflight entertainment without disturbing other passengers, making it a win-win for everyone onboard.


Headphone


Fidget toys are a fantastic addition to any long flight with kids. These small, tactile gadgets help keep little hands busy and provide sensory stimulation, reducing restlessness and anxiety during travel.


Fidget toys





Color Wonderful Coloring books are a classic and excellent activity for kids during flights. Not only do they unleash their creativity and imagination, but coloring also helps children relax and focus, making the flight experience more enjoyable and less restless. Best part, the colors appear only on special Color Wonder paper, not on skin, clothing, walls or carpets.


Color Wonderful Coloring books


Drawing toys like or magnetic sketch boards are perfect for long flights. Kids can draw, erase, and draw again to their heart's content, providing a screen-free and mess-free outlet for creativity and fun.


doodle pads


The Plus Plus Tube is a compact and portable construction toy that promotes fine motor skills and imaginative play. Its small pieces allow kids to create endless shapes and designs, providing hours of engaging entertainment and mental stimulation during the flight.


Plus Plus Tube


WikkiStix are bendable, reusable, and mess-free, making them an ideal travel companion for young kids. They encourage sensory exploration and imaginative play, helping children stay entertained without any sticky mess, perfect for keeping them occupied on a plane journey.


WikkiStix



An activity book is a fantastic companion during a long flight. It offers a wide range of engaging puzzles, games, and coloring activities that keep children entertained for hours, making the flight feel shorter.


activity book


Spot It! Classic Mini Card Game is a fast-paced card game perfect for family fun during flights. Its compact size and easy-to-understand rules make it a go-to choice for entertainment onboard, fostering friendly competition and quick thinking among kids and adults alike.


Spot It!


Scratch art is a fantastic activity for kids during long flights as it combines creativity and surprise. Kids can use a wooden stylus to scratch away the black coating, revealing vibrant colors underneath, creating beautiful artwork. It's mess-free and captivating, providing an engaging and enjoyable way to pass the time.


Scratch art


Spiral art sets offer endless design possibilities, allowing kids to create mesmerizing patterns and shapes. This activity promotes fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination, making it an entertaining and educational option for keeping kids engaged during the flight.


Spiral art


Search and find books are perfect for keeping kids entertained during long flights. These books are filled with vibrant illustrations and challenging hidden objects, encouraging observation and concentration skills. They provide hours of interactive fun, making the flight feel shorter and more enjoyable for young travelers.


Search and find book


Metal Blox Go! is a travel-friendly magnetic building set that sparks creativity and problem-solving skills. Its magnetic pieces stick together easily, allowing kids to construct various shapes and structures during the flight, keeping their minds engaged and hands busy in a mess-free way.


Metal Blox Go!


The Melissa and Doug magnetic jigsaw puzzle features fun and colorful scenes that magnetically snap together, providing a unique and captivating puzzle-solving experience for kids. It's perfect for on-the-go entertainment and keeps children engrossed while encouraging spatial awareness and concentration during the flight.


Melissa and Doug magnetic jigsaw puzzle


Maze ball is a toy used to inspire and relieve stress. These 3D maze ball toys need to observe the travel route and think about how to get the mini steel ball to the end. It's an educational toy that keeps kids entertained while developing spatial awareness and logical thinking, improving their mind and patience, relieving stress, and promoting inspiration.


Maze ball mind puzzle


The Bendon reusable sticker book offers a variety of colorful stickers that can be used multiple times, ensuring hours of imaginative play during the flight. Kids can create their own scenes and stories, and the reusable aspect makes it convenient and mess-free for traveling.


Reusable sticker book


Dot sticker art is a simple yet engaging activity for kids during flights. With just a sheet of paper and dot stickers, kids can create beautiful pictures and patterns, promoting fine motor skills and creativity. It's an easy-to-pack activity that guarantees a lot of entertainment while on the plane.


Dot sticker art


This search and find game is not only entertaining but also educational, making it an excellent choice for kids during flights. It challenges their observation skills and enhances cognitive abilities, all while having fun with colorful illustrations and engaging gameplay.

Search and find game



Crayola's Activity Pads come with a special marker that wipes off easily, providing a reusable activity for kids during the flight. The cards often feature puzzles, mazes, and games, making them an interactive and entertaining choice to keep young minds busy and entertained onboard.

Crayola's Activity Pads


20. Your Kid’s Favorite Toys


Letting your kid have a few of their favorite toys during a long flight can be incredibly beneficial since familiar toys provide a sense of comfort and security in an unfamiliar environment, helping to reduce anxiety and keep them at ease during the journey.


Additionally, these toys can act as a form of emotional support, serving as a distraction and helping kids cope with any potential travel-related challenges, making the overall flying experience more enjoyable for both kids and parents.



Final Thoughts


Flying with an autistic child requires thoughtful preparation, but it can also be a wonderful opportunity for your child to experience new places and create lasting memories.


By implementing these tips and being proactive in accommodating your child's unique needs, you can turn air travel into an enjoyable adventure for the entire family. Safe travels!



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