air travel tips for kids with autism

Air travel with an autistic child

Going on a plane, flying to far away destinations can be an exciting, yet anxiety provoking experience for people of all ages.

Air travel for the autistic child is very challenging because most factors connected to flying and air travel are all issues that most children on the autism spectrum struggle with.

Factors such as noise, a change in routine, people/crowds, small spaces, different foods, time challenges, sleep challenges, bathroom routine to name only a few are all elements you as the parent to an autistic child will need to consider when embarking on an air travel holiday.

Here are our top 15 tips for air travel with an autistic child:

  1. Book a departure time that falls in line with your child normal sleeping pattern.  If you have an early riser, then book an early morning departure.  Your child will be rested and ready for the day.
  2. Create a social story about your trip.  The social story will be implement in the weeks leading up to your trip.  Make it visual and add detail about the holiday and the trip.
  3. In my experience all children cope better when they know what to expect.  So the implementation of a calendar countdown is recommended.  “First and then” PECS visuals can also be very helpful.
  4. During the weeks leading up to your vacation, you can watch short YouTube videos about “going on a plane” and “air travel” or about “being at the airport.
  5. Dress your child is comfortable clothes.  Avoid tight fitting clothes and uncomfortable shoes.  Dress in layers and be ready for changing temperatures when flying with your autistic child.
  6. Make sure you have your child’s “comfort items” handy.  I will even go as far as saying pack some new ‘surprise” items for your child.  A wrapped new plaything (affinity based) can be used as a form of distraction when anxiety kicks in.
  7. Pack early and be prepared.  If a parent is disorganised on the day of the trip – the child will feed off the parent’s anxiety and will only make matters worse.
  8. Notify the airport of your child’s condition and ask if you can be seated in a quieter area of the plane.  Depending on your child’s age it may be advisable to be close to a bathroom.
  9. Pack essentials in a carry-on bag – these would include:
    • favourite snacks for the duration of the flight. Planes are renowned to serve food for adults and zero food that would interest a child – let alone a child on the autism spectrum;
    • also make sure you pack your child tablet (fully charged) or smartphone if they are drawn to technology;
    • A battery backup for technology items is essential.
    • Some art of craft supplies to help keep your child busy on a long flight;
    • Water or juice;
    • Sanitisers, wipes, spare set of clothes and nappies or pull-ups;
    • If your child has a favourite cup or plate take that onto the plane. The idea is for you to keep the flight as “normal” as possible for your child.
  10. Be prepared mom and dad.  Make sure you have all your travel documents ready and that you are ready for the security checks.
  11. Being prepared also means downloading shows onto your child’s devises as internet coverage will change along the journey.
  12. In these times we will also need to prepare our children for Covid screening and Covid tests. Make sure you know what the screening protocols are so you can add them into your social stories and planning.
  13. Should your child be noise sensitive it may be worth investing into a good pair of noise cancelling headphones.  This is an item that you would need to get your child used to prior to the trip BUT it could honestly be a life-saver.
  14. Prepare for “pressure” changes in the cabin on departure and when landing. For very young children sucking from a bottle can help and for the older child chewing on gum may give some relief.  Drinking water is also recommended as the swallowing can help with the pressure build up in the ear.
  15. Do a practice run!  Contact your local airport and ask them if it would be at all possible to bring your autistic child for a walk-through the premises in preparation for your journey!

Most of the above will depend on your individual child.  Not all children on the autism spectrum struggle with these challenges.  Some autistic children are verbal and they can ask for help, talk about their fears and challenges and others are non-verbal and more sensory sensitive.

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Ilse Kilian-Ross

Ilse Kilian-Ross is the owner of Amazing K, a registered ECD and Partial Care Facility in Johannesburg. Amazing K is a private adhd school, autism school and therapy centre for children from age 2 - 6 years where learners receive the best of both the schooling and therapy world. The autism school offers Individualized Education Programs, Speech- and Augmentive Alternative Communication (AAC) therapy as well as a full and adapted Academic Curriculum.