Flying with Autism

Air travel can be tricky, for anyone. It’s particularly difficult for children with autism, as the experience is completely out of their control, flights are delayed or worse canceled, and add in the noise and waiting, and you have a recipe for stress. That’s why I’m always a bit nervous when we fly. Not so much that I’m not willing to take big trips, but enough to where I have developed some travel routines when I fly:

  • I always check with my airlines about bulkhead seating 2 days before departure. This is the time when the airlines are assigning these seats. Bulkhead seats are typically, but not always, reserved for passengers with special needs.
  • I bring presents on board that are small, but fun, that will keep my children occupied, I give these out every 15 minutes for long flights. I have traveled with 20 presents before.
  • I introduce myself and my special needs child to the attendant when we board, so that possibly, they will know who we are if I need to request something.
  • I bring tons of headphones, videos, books, art materials, snacks, stuffed animals, and basically try to keep my children engaged the entire trip.
  • I have a story written with pictures that describes what we are going to do every step of the trip. (Google Carol Gray Social Stories for more information)
  • I hope for the best and plan for the worst. I have a first aid kit with me for minor health complaints. I don’t want my son crying in mid-flight because I didn’t have a band-aid on me.

We have been flying for years now, and except for one loud yell on a flight about 3 years ago that I think was related to a stomach ache, we’ve made it through hours of flights with no incidence.

Much of this is attributed to our work to prepare for the flights, but also, much of the experience is in the hands of the airline and the other passengers. If they’re helpful, we stay calm, if they’re rigid, we get nervous.

Our most recent flight was with American Airlines and they were absolutely great. We’ve also had good luck with Delta. I always call the airlines ADA number before the trip and list our son as disabled so that when we check in, they’re aware and allow us to pre-board.

I hope all of this information helps you on your next flight. What are some ways that you travel with your children with autism? I’m always looking for new ideas.

2 thoughts on “Flying with Autism

  1. Any recomendations for transatlantic flights. Trying to work out how we can all (4) go to a family wedding in Toronto from UK with a 17 yr old autistic son. He’s not flown since aged 6/7 and all we can see are the obstacles. Going to make some airline enquiries.

  2. Martin,
    I have not had the need nor really the courage to try a long flight. I do have a friend here who travels with her autistic son very regularly between Texas and South Africa, but she takes him almost every year or so because they have relatives there. Customs seems to be the thing that is the most difficult, that wait will require another adult to wander around with your son while someone else waits in line. I would definitely call the airlines, special needs, ADA line, listed on US airline websites, and I assume British carriers as well. As I’m not familiar with other countries disabilities laws and requirements, I cannot tell what the airlines would be expected to provide you. I do know that we get early boarding, bulkhead seating (unless there is a visually impaired traveler on the flight with a service dog, and if so, they get priority), and I always have fully loaded iPads, gifts, etc. ready for the waits, with prizes at the completion of each stage (but this assumes your child understands the concept of “if/when” which helps in negotiating). I would enlist a therapist to help with the prep, prepping both your son and you all on how to make it. However, as this is all just guess work, I can really only wish you the best of travel luck between one special needs parent to another. Please let me know how it goes…

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