Mommy Frog's Note: With a little help from my niece, who has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, we frogs have been learning more and more about the logistics of traveling with someone who has a disability. We are very hoppy to announce we'll be doing more coverage of traveling with disabilities in the coming weeks and months, so that we can pass along what we've learned. And hopefully learn from your experiences too! We will be tackling the sensory challenges while highlighting the positives of having a child with a high IQ and deep interests. Plus we will look at how travel can help fulfill those needs.
Your dream destination awaits, but it's often one or more flights away! For any parent, traveling with kids is challenging. When you add a family member with autism to the mix, the idea of flying can be overwhelming. Fortunately, there are steps you can take ahead of time to make the process not only less daunting but a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Boosting familiarity, making your needs known and creating a travel kit can help your ASD kid embrace air travel and create a frogtastic trip for your entire family. This post will walk you through some of our trusted tips for flying with a child who has autism.
Tips for Traveling to Orlando International Airport (MCO)
For families traveling to Walt Disney World Resort or to Universal Orlando Resort in Florida, note that your return trip will likely be through Orlando International Airport (MCO), one of the busiest airports in the nation. Screening wait times can be significant, and the queue is packed with people at all hours. Even if you did not take advantage of airport accommodations from your home city, it may be worth doing so in Orlando. The team at MCO is very accommodating and will cheerfully assist you, if you let them know you need help.
One of the primary reasons that flight is challenging for those on the spectrum is that it is not a usual part of everyday life. Most of us only fly occasionally, making air travel a disruptive event for kids who embrace regular schedules and rely on routine. For kids and adults on the spectrum, air travel creates an interruption of a predictable, expected day. The addition of new experiences and sensory challenges at the airport can rapidly become overwhelming and frustrating. While taking a flight every day is not possible, becoming familiar with the airport, planes and travel ahead of time can often make your actual flight day something to look forward to instead of something to dread.
Tips for Flying with a Child Who Has Autism
Get Familiar with Flight
Your own community is an ideal starting place to become more familiar with flight and flying; airports across the country regularly host special needs familiarity programs for kids with a wide range of disabilities. Wings for Autism/Wings for All operates special events at airports in different cities each month. These events are designed to help ASD kids learn about flight and to become familiar with their local airport. Other airports host self-run events on a regular basis for the same reason.
Depending on the program, your child will have a chance to visit the airport, see the TSA screening area, and actually board a plane in a safe, accepting environment. When a child with autism can fly successfully, everyone in the process benefits, from the airline to the other passengers.
Practice, Practice, Practice
When a trip is on the horizon, planning a visit to your departing airport can help your child with autism get familiar with the site before the big day. Your local airport may have a program in place for this process. If not, setting aside some time for a visit can help you both prepare.
If you are not familiar with your departure airport, you can drop in solo in advance and spot any areas that might be concerning. You know your child best, so you will likely spot potentially problematic places or issues and create strategies for coping before you even arrive for a test run.
An actual outing to the airport with your child can help you both become familiar with the process and uncover any potential areas of concern before the big day. Park the car, head into the airport and go through the process of departing without boarding a plane. You won’t be able to go through the TSA checkpoint, but you will be able to navigate the airport, see the level of activity and get familiar with where you are heading. If the airport is close, then a trial run can help identify any potential areas of concern. You’ll know what to pack and prepare for and what parts of the trip might be the most stressful for your ASD child.
Use Social Stories for a ~Toadally ~ Amazing Flight
Making your own storyboard or games, or working with a set specifically designed for boosting familiarity with air travel and help boost confidence before the trip. Toys, games, books and activities that feature air travel and airports can help your child with autism gain confidence and familiarity. Documentaries and shows that feature aviation and flight may also help; watching a television episode can promote familiarity and build positive anticipation about a trip.
Communicate your Needs
While preparing your own child or family member with autism, or a sensory disability, will help them make the trip successfully, you can take other steps to pave the way for a great flight. When you make your reservation, note you are traveling with a family member with special needs.
Contact TSA before your trip to advise them you are taking a trip with someone with special needs. TSA offers special assistance with screening, a process that can be overwhelming for anyone with special needs. TSA CARES is a great starting point for assistance that will make this part of the process more accessible to your family. You can also download a card with details for special needs travel from this authority.
Consider asking for a Passenger Support Specialist (PSS), who can help you every step of the way. Depending on how your preparations and trial runs go, you may need extra assistance. A PSS is there to help craft a plan that will help your family travel with ease. You can ask for a PSS at any TSA checkpoint to help you with the process, or you can ask for one in advance by contacting TSA.
You can also let your airline know that you will be traveling with someone that may require extra time to board and get acclimated. When the flight team knows that you may require extra time or attention, they are better equipped to assist you. Families vary, but for those who feel comfortable sharing, wearing clothing that identifies your group as an autism family can help others around you understand the challenges you may be facing. Simple awareness can turn a critical seat mate or voice into an ally. Autism impacts families of all types, and most people know one or more kids on the spectrum.
While each family varies, some accommodations that you can request or that may be offered include:
- A quiet area for waiting and screening
- More time for the screening process as needed for comfort
- A ride through the airport or a wheelchair for getting around comfortably
- Pre-boarding or a tour of the plane prior to boarding
- Additional carry-on allowances for medically needed items and comfort
- One on one assistance via a Passenger Support Specialist if needed
Don’t be afraid to ask about or accept accommodations, even if your child with autism does not normally need them. The airport is a unique location, and anything you can do to make it easier for your child will make the trip better for everyone.
Create a Travel Kit for Flying with a Child Who Has Autism
Ideally, you have some idea about the parts of air travel that pose the greatest challenges for your child with Autism and your entire group. Use the time before your trip to create a travel kit designed to help your child cope. The actual items you use will vary, but consider the following components:
Noise blocking headphones: Even if your child is not usually sound sensitive, the airport can be incredibly noisy and overwhelming. A pair of these can become “airport ears” and dampen the effect. If you are heading to Walt Disney World Resort or another theme park destination, headphones can help muffle sounds in crowds during your trips as well.
Electronic device with entertainment: Both preferred and new items and shows can be loaded onto a tablet. Download favorite shows or games so a wireless connection is not needed, and the device can be used at any time during your flight. Pack a power bank or charger in case of delays so you have a backup in place.
Preferred items: Any preferred or favorite toys should come along for the ride in a carryon – do not check these precious items, the risk of loss is just too high! Plush animals, action figures and other comfort pieces can provide support during the flight, as long as they are accessible in a carry-on bag.
Pack snacks: Any treats that fit your child’s diet can be included; chewing gum or even gummies can help alleviate any ear discomfort during the flight. Having a familiar food item can also eliminate any worries about finding something to eat at the airport. Any beverages should fit TSA requirements. If your child needs a specialty cup, pack it empty so it can be filled once you pass the checkpoint. A filled cup may require more scrutiny, and this can be stressful for your child.
Identification: It may not make the flight easier for your child, but knowing your loved one has proper identification can give you peace of mind. Bring any state ID your child has (which will vary based on where you live and his age) and make sure he has your contact information in an accessible place. If you become separated, even a non-verbal child will have the details needed to reunite you both.
Clothing and accessories for screening: Choose clothing without a lot of fussy zippers or ties; slip on shoes and uncomplicated garments can help your child fly through the screening process.
Have a ~Frogtastic ~ Journey
When you take the time to prepare in advance, let the airline and crew know you may require assistance and familiarize your child with flight, you are far more likely to have a successful experience. Treat the flight as part of your travel adventure and plan for it just like you plan your trip through a theme park and you’ll be able to create a positive experience that will benefit you both for years to come. Once your child with autism has successfully made a trip, you’ll simply need to brush up on the details and pack a bag for future endeavors, since the experience will be a welcome and familiar one the next time around.
Have a question about flying with a child who has autism or another disability? Have tips that have worked for you or your family? We'd love to hear them!