Spectrummy Mummy

Asperger's, Allergies, and Adventures Abroad

Flying with Young Children on the Autism Spectrum

with 16 comments

We just flew for the first time since Pudding was diagnosed with an ASD almost two years ago.  However, it is definitely NOT the first time we have flown with a child with autism.  Before we returned to the US, we were real jet-setters, and Pudding racked up more flights in the first two years than most people do in a lifetime.  We have experience, but as with everything autism, we are still learning.

On Thursday we flew to Florida to spend a few days with family.  I looked at it as a trial run for our upcoming move, and with that in mind, the trip went perfectly.  On the flight out, Pudding was (mainly) a model child, on the return…let’s just say it was quite the opposite.  Between the two extremes, I’m armed with a better idea of what does and doesn’t work for her.  If you plan on flying with young children on the spectrum, this might just help you get off the ground too.

Preparation

Do: Read books about flying and airports.  Play at packing backpacks and luggage.  Practice going through security.  Find out what the facilities are like in the departing airport and at the destination.  Some airlines will even list their meals and snacks as well as in-flight entertainment.  Use all this information to get them excited about the experience.  We read a book about airports for a few weeks, then on the day at the airport I kept pointing out to the kids what part we were at, and what was coming next.  Shame the book ends as the flight begins though.  We need a social story to see us through the rest of the flight.

Don’t: Leave it until the last minute.  You’ll not have enough time to do it well, and get stressed out.

Security

Do: Find out if your airport has a separate screening area for people with disabilities.  If so, use it.  The agents there will be more understanding if your child has a meltdown, and nothing causes sensory overload like going through airport security.  Warn the staff about potential difficulties such as taking off shoes, walking through the metal detectors and putting toys through scanners.  Make sure these are in the social story!  Do arrive with extra time.  Nobody needs to be rushed at a stressful time.

Don’t: Use diagnoses or words that don’t have meaning to those unfamiliar, like “high-functioning,” “PDD-NOS,” or “Asperger’s.”  Your child has “autism” or “special needs” and that is all the security agent needs to know.  Don’t get stressed!  Your child will too.

Cubby riding the trunki. He loved it until he fell off.

At the Airport

Do: Use the time to get exercise/sensory input.  Carrying a backpack, or pulling a trunki will provide some proprioceptive input to calm and organize.  Walking around will burn off some energy for fidgety little ones.  If you have enough time, get something to eat before the flight, even if meals are provided.  You don’t want to have a hungry child, or a picky eater who refuses the in-flight options.

Don’t: Expect your child to sit and wait patiently before the flight and then do the same during the flight.  It won’t happen.

Toys

Do: Let your child pick a couple of favourite toys to have with them on the flight.  Also, find some travel games, books, crayons, colouring and stickers books that they’ll enjoy.  Here is my tip: if your little one likes getting presents, wrap them up.  Every once in a while let her pick out a new toy.  They don’t have to be expensive, they just have to keep their interest.

Don’t: Let them have the bag, they’ll likely open them all immediately.  Don’t take loud electronic toys that will annoy fellow passengers.  You’ll feel conspicuous enough without attracting more attention.  Unless you don’t care about the pieces getting lost, don’t take things with small parts.

Sensory

Do: If you provide a sensory diet at home, think of the flight as a sensory banquet.  You’re going to need all your tricks to keep your kid regulated.  Weighted vests, lap pads and blankets can work wonders.  Never underestimate the noise of the engines, both ear protectors and regular headphones are useful.  Pudding normally resists her “chew toy” but chewed on it for most of the outbound flight.  For the next flight I’ll take her chewelry as well.  Anything that works, and a few things you haven’t tried yet.

Don’t: Imagine you can possibly pack light.  I took a few fidgets that Pudding never had any interest in, but another time they might have saved the day, and my sanity.  Instead she was happy to play with a few inexpensive lacing and beading toys which distracted her on taking off and landing, and worked her fine motor skills at the same time.

iPod Touch or iPad

Do: Beg, borrow, or buy one if at all possible.  Then load it up with books, apps, TV shows, podcasts…anything and everything to entertain your child.  It needs to be fun, not just educational.  I handed Pudding my iPod Touch on our 10 hour flight back to the US, and she may have been the only toddler ever to do a transatlantic flight without tears.  I was concerned about her having too much screen time, but she mixed it up with other things I’d brought.  This time she had her own iPad.

Don’t: Forget to charge it.

Books

Do: Bring a couple of familiar favourites and one or two new books.  During take-off and landing you need to switch off electronics.  Books are also good for transitions if you want your child to go to sleep during the flight.

Don’t: Take heavy hardbacks.  If you haven’t already worked it out, you’re going to be carrying a lot of stuff!

Snacks

She overlooked the fact that it was her brother’s special interest when she found it was full of tasty treats.

Do: Carry on the party theme and use party gift bags to package your treats and snacks.  I filled a little bag with healthy snacks and a couple of treats and let Pudding have the bag during our last flight.  She liked having control, and I was certain everything she ate was allergy-safe.  The party bag just made a few pretzels, raisins and sweets a bit more special.

Don’t: Assume your child will be okay with the food or snacks provided by the airline.  Sometimes a taste of the familiar can offset a new experience.  Don’t take treats with you unless you’re prepared to let your child have them all.  If they see goodies but you deny them, you’re going to hit turbulence.

Special Interests

Do: Make good use of special interests of favourite characters.  Toothbrushes, clothing, backpacks and luggage are much more appealing with a superhero or princess.  Try incorporating them into a social story about appropriate behaviour while on the plane or at the airport.

Don’t: Try to introduce more “age-appropriate” interests.  So what if they are too old for Elmo?  The goal is to keep the kid happy and calm.

All that matters is their comfort.  That is my mantra when flying.  When they’re comfortable, so are we.  In fact, we’re ready to soar.

Happy Flying!

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Written by Spectrummy Mummy

July 7, 2011 at 7:28 am

16 Responses

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  1. We’re flying from the US to Portugal next week for vacation. I keep saying that I’m going to pack light – I think this just changed my whole game plan!! My carry on may have just doubled!! Thanks for the advice, couldn’t have come at a better time!!!

    joeysmommy

    July 7, 2011 at 7:52 am

    • Yes, the downside to my strategy is the amount of carry-on needed. One day they’ll carry their own baggage! Safe travels to Portugal…let me know how it goes. 🙂

      Spectrummy Mummy

      July 7, 2011 at 3:34 pm

  2. WOW! Great post. I’m so impressed with all your ideas.

  3. I love this post!!!

    We just came back from flying and it went better than I thought. I let the time limit on the I-pad and all other TV/electronic material slide and he did well. He actually had fun since he was able to be plugged in as much as he was!! Who knew?!?

    Lizbeth

    July 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    • With Pudding when I don’t set limits she is ready to move on anyway. Even if not, I let lots of rules slide for traveling. I want it to be enjoyable…for everybody!

      Spectrummy Mummy

      July 7, 2011 at 4:52 pm

  4. This is just so awesome and perfectly timed for our trip in September 🙂
    You have some fabulous ideas that I will be definitely using….thank you, thank you, thank you 😉 x

    • I have a 2 and a half year old with autism and this will be his second ever flight. The first time was a nightmare as it was the whole family but this time. it’s just him and I. What are your thoughts on flying in a carseat as opposed to the seat on the plane that he hated last time? Also, do you have any last minute tips for the flight with him being such a young age

      Shady

      August 21, 2012 at 3:12 pm

      • I really depends on the child, but if he hated the seat last time, I would try to take your own with you- I know that is tricky when flying alone though. When they are little, they really need the comforts from home, so any blankets or toys that are familiar to him. Having said that, when Pudding was slightly younger than 2 and a half, I let her have my iPod Touch for the first time, loaded with apps- we didn’t hear a peep out of her for ten hours! One flight when she was younger it was all about ripping magazines. ANother time is was books. These days she’d be pretty content with paper and pens. And the wrapping things up trick always works for us too. Good luck! 🙂

        Spectrummy Mummy

        August 21, 2012 at 7:31 pm

        • Thank you so much! I will continue to read your blog and all my best to you and your family 🙂

          Shady

          August 22, 2012 at 10:35 am

  5. I’m a mom to a 2 1/2 year old that was JUST diagnosed.. we are going on a trip at the end of next week. I have been at nearly a panic attack level of anxiety over the idea of taking him on a plane. I booked us in 1st class so he has the extra room (mostly because I didnt want him kicking the seat in front of him). I’ve notified the airline (Delta) about his diagnosis so if there ARE any problems, they understand.
    He’s very into certain tv shows so I’ve loaded up the ipad..
    The main concerns I have are getting through security. One, the waiting aspect and two, having to take his shoes off and such. He’s not great at waiting and can not stand being touched by strangers. Both of these will send him into a meltdown.
    My second concern is the wait time before the plane takes off. We have priority boarding so we will be on the plane for some time before it takes off.
    Do you have any suggestions?
    Thanks!

    Julie

    December 4, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    • I’d start by contacting the airport to see if they have a separate security area for travelers with disabilities. THe last time we flew from the states, there was an entirely separate security section with NO queues! Try and take off his shoes while seated before going to security- even if that means carrying him. Maybe some cool new socks with his favourite character on will help persuade him to take off the shoes. Explain to the security officers that he is disabled and dislikes being touched. It doesn’t guarantee that they won’t, but most have been very understanding when I’ve explained to them. Sometimes they let the parent carry them through the scanners at arms length- see if that is an option.

      Priority boarding isn’t always the best thing- especially for kids who can’t wait. Just treat that time as the rest of the flight- he can use his iPad until they tell you to turn it off, he can eat snacks (remember the party bag!) and open presents. He isn’t too young for picture social stories either- you can use them to talk him through what is happening. Weighted vests and toys can help, along with some fidget toys. Pudding even like to draw at that age too- just bring all the desktop activities he will do at home! Don’t forget to play airplanes at home if he is able to do that too.

      Good luck!

      Spectrummy Mummy

      December 5, 2012 at 7:58 am

  6. Also try this app for giving them a taste of what the travel experience will include: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/id611247027?mt=8

    Eran Davidov

    March 14, 2013 at 7:20 pm

  7. Hello,
    I am a mum from the Uk and have been stories to help children cope with new
    situations.
    Whilst they are based on our own experiences with our son who has Aspergers,
    they appeal to all children and families.
    I have four titles published to date:-
    Suzie’s Toilet Time
    Suzie Goes On An Aeroplane
    Suzie Goes To a funeral
    Suzie’s Dressing Up day.
    Have a look at my website, http://www.suziebooks.co.uk and here you will see the
    above title and also get a taster page.
    I am trying to reach families, carers and their children to help in using my
    work.
    Thank you for taking the time to read this email.
    I look forward to hearing from you.
    Best wishes.
    Charlotte.

    Charlotte Olson

    February 13, 2014 at 12:35 pm

  8. Hello everyone 🙂 I know this post is a little old now, but I have a question for you, if you would oblige me. I am an adult on the spectrum who will be flying in December. I want to bring my weighted lap pad with me (full of plastic polyfil beads) but I’m concerned about what TSA will say when it goes through the x-rays. Have any of you had a problem bringing your weighted objects through security? Thanks!

    Emily

    October 13, 2015 at 9:30 am

    • Hi Emily, we have travelled in the past with a weighted vest and blanket without any problems, but it is definitely worth checking directly with TSA at the link below to check directly. We just put the items through the belt and had no problems, but these things seem to change every few months. Safe travels! https://www.tsa.gov/travel/passenger-support

      Spectrummy Mummy

      October 13, 2015 at 9:44 pm


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