Flying with Young Children on the Autism Spectrum
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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