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Tips for Families Flying and Travelling With Autistic Child

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Last Updated on July 10, 2023 by Ariana Svenson

This is our story of travelling with an autistic child. As people with autism – or parents of neurodivergent children know – the autism spectrum is really varied. What works with one person doesn’t work with another. So that’s why I am sharing our story and what we are doing, so that someone might go “hey that’s going to work for me and my family”. Within this post we will cover flying with autism, autism travel tips and travelling with autistic child. It goes without saying that with the new places, loud noises and long lines associated with air travel there is going to be sensory overload for your special needs person, and this means you need to do some extra planning!

As you well know, the autism spectrum is just that, a spectrum of different characteristics. You will know what works for your child – and what does not. I share what is in our autism travel kit, knowing that what works for us, might not work for you. In general though, my number one tip is – ask for special assistance!

This post may contain affiliate links, from which we would earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you. More info in my disclaimer.​

Tips for Families Flying and Travelling With Autistic Child

Our Story Travelling With Autistic Child


The first time I went “wow this is different” was when my son was four months old and steadfastly refused to eat any solid foods. His food aversions have continued to this day (more about travel with ARFID below). Sure, my son was different and was prone to tantrums, but he was awesome too and that all that mattered to me. There were other little red flags here and there as he grew. Mostly that he was unable to be understood verbally by everyone except me until he was 5.

I said we were going to keep travelling. I mean, a kid’s tantrums and unique challenges was not a reason I wanted to let my lifelong passion go. I believed that they were all part of the family travel experiences.

Later as some of his diagnoses emerged, I wondered whether I had done him extra damage by our travels. Finally, after a couple of years where we were all deep in trauma of my partner’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis, treatment and then death, my son was diagnosed as ADHD, Autism Level 2 with a PDA profile – plus severe anxiety and PTSD. It’s a complex diagnosis no doubt affected by his dad’s death and how I coped during that time (or didn’t cope). However, I have always said to every doctor “my son’s personality was well and truly like he is before his dad got sick”.

What is PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance or Pervasive Drive for Autonomy)​


A profile in the autism spectrum, PDA is thought to be relatively uncommon. A PDA has distinct needs within the spectrum. In short, they have high levels of anxiety and are driven to avoid everyday demands and expectations.

The need for sameness and routine that is associated with autism is not prevalent with my son, which actually makes travel easier. But, his anxiety is very high!!!

family travel tips, family at airport, traveling with autism, autism and travel

Why Travel with My Autistic Child?


Firstly, for the first 8 years of my son’s life we did travel – a lot. I learned a pile of coping mechanisms and strategies that actually formed the foundation of my blog posts. In short, incredible levels of planning and thought meant that I was better able to cope with my autistic son’s differences on the road. I understood that he had special requirements and adapted our family’s travel around them.

Now he has a plethora of diagnoses, it doesn’t change who he is – and what he likes and doesn’t like. So, after deep thought and consideration we planned our first multi-week holiday “post diagnosis” in January 2023. It was 3 weeks in Queensland, Australia with a 5 hour flight time either way, but with the familiarity of being in the same country while being in a completely different place. It was the testing ground for a much bigger trip in June 2023 which had been planned for 2020 (i.e. the pandemic). This was primarily to take Norman’s ashes back to Nicaragua for internment. It wasn’t just a holiday – it was a trip that had to happen for closure for a lot of us.

I wanted to give context to our story. We didn’t plan to travel with an autistic child for the sake of a holiday, but hoped that this big trip would give me an understanding of whether we could holiday overseas with him in the future.

While every child is unique, that is certainly the case for neurodivergent individuals. This is our story, and what is working for our son. This post is intended to give you some ideas on how to tackle travelling with a child with autism spectrum disorder. His content is general information and is not specific medical advice.

tips for flying with a baby, Tips for Families Flying and Travelling With Autistic Child

General – Tips and Hints for Travelling with Autistic Child​

Acceptance​


If you have an autistic person in your life, you are likely well versed in acceptance. At some point in their life, you have realized and accepted that they are wired differently than yourself and that’s what makes them so wonderful!

However, on holidays we are all challenged more than at home. Maybe by different sights, sounds or even smells. It’s likely that your autistic family member will have bigger or stronger reactions – and quite possibly in public. Acceptance and going with the flow are vital.

Allowing for Downtime​


We plan a lot of downtime in our home lives, so travel is no different. In short, we usually plan for half days and plenty of time sitting in the hotel room or pool. And on that note, we try to plan for 3 plus days in any hotel or resort so that everyone can get settled in and relax a bit. In an ideal world we would actually plan to stay 5 -7 nights in every hotel to allow for routines to develop.

Allowing for Space​


Our neurodivergent person needs his own space. This means that small hotel rooms where there are lots of kids, people and not much floor space can freak him out. While it is expensive, we try to look for options where he can get a bit of alone time. It helps him not having to be deal with other members of the family close by. This one is tough as we are travelling on a budget. It is not always possible to splurge on large rooms, and Airbnb’s these days can be very expensive.

Plan Extra Time – ALWAYS​


My son definitely picks up on stress and “bad energy”. So, if I don’t allow enough time to get from the hotel to the airport (or wherever you are going), then I will get worried, snappy and tense. This invariably sends his anxiety through the roof, creating meltdowns and problems. The last thing you want when you are running late.

Therefore, I plan extra time and make sure I am feeling calm and organized. I have to make sure I keep a good eye on my own energy. Sometimes our travel plans have to change completely if we are not functioning well – and thats OK!

Plan for Best Scenario Flight Times​


When booking flights we carefully consider how long we will be in the air, the time of departure and arrival, and if we having connecting flights how long there will be in the airport. Ultimately, flying with an autistic child can be difficult! Long flights are challenging, so not every timetable will be ideal. However, in general, we will pay a bit more in order to have better flying times. This helps keep the stress levels down

Planning for Public Meltdowns​


It’s likely that sometime during your travels your autistic child will have a very loud, very public meltdown. I mean they have them at home and around familiar places, so its logical they will have them while travelling.

  1. Make them safe and feel loved, knowing that you love them no matter what.
  2. If you have another adult or responsible child, try to move them away from the situation. Sometimes their embarrassment or looks can be counterproductive. Eg, if you are being loving and they look upset, its not going to be helpful.
  3. Listen and be empathetic. This is not a time to teach or talk.
  4. Definitely do not punish or threaten the child. This is only going to exacerbate their anxiety and distress.
  5. Give your love and attention to your child. Don’t worry about bystanders.
  6. Once the child is calmer look at getting out your sensory toolkit (or doing some heavy work).



family travel tips, family at airport, traveling with autism, autism and travel


Planning the Overall Itinerary

Take Your Child’s Interests into Account


My children’s likes and dislikes are absolutely foremost in planning the itinerary. I have a pretty good idea what each likes (unfortunately all three are quite different). If something will be a massive stressor for the autistic child, we tend to give it a miss. However, at other times I will try to push through his boundaries and do it because I suspect he will like it more than he thinks.

Overall, our itineraries are strongly child led and influenced. Do I miss out on a lot of things that I would like to do personally – YES absolutely. However, on the other hand I know that if I push my own interests and desires too much there will be complete collapse from various members of the family. I count myself lucky that I can travel with my kids and recognize that with all things parenting, there are sacrifices.

Always Anticipate Triggers


Have snacks on hand, breaks planned or sensory breaks in mind! Be flexible and creative.

I believe that our children teach us lessons that we need to learn. In my case my children have taught me to slow down, be more flexible, and to get creative. So, what if I’d made the perfect plan? Sometimes you have to adapt and change it (though I do hate abandoning it). Try to be sufficiently mindful to see when you need to slow down, have a break, or be a bit creative or funny.

I did a course that talked about using humour and particularly gutter humour to reach PDA children. It’s definitely not the style of parenting that I would have liked to have; but gutter humour really breaks the ice and relaxes my child. You do what you have to do to make the day a success.

Tell Them in Advance


This depends largely on your child; and how long the trip is. With my son I tend to tell him the day before the trip, or maybe the morning of. His anxiety is through the roof and he will have multiple panic attacks if told too far in advance. Interestingly, he never seems to notice packing of suitcases going on around him.

Other children will cope better if given a few days to prepare – say 3 to 4 days. The main advice is to be conscientious and thoughtful about when to tell you special needs child.

Share Photos and Pictures of Places


Again, this is a tricky “middle path” situation and will depend on your child. My son likes to see some pictures of where we are going, and to have choice about what we are doing. On the other hand, too much information can be anxiety provoking.



Autism Lanyard, Sunflower Lanyard, At the Airport - Flying With Autism Tips

At the Airport – Flying With Autism Tips

Social Story or Explaining What Will Happen​


You know your child best! Do they like visual social stories or do they like a careful explanation of what will happen? You can use the following social story, “Taking an Airplane: A Guide for People with Autism” prepared by Autism Speaks, JetBlue, or you can create your own!

My son is not a fan of the social story but does like a step-by-step discussion of what we will do.

  1. We will find a carpark.
  2. We will carry our bags into the airport.
  3. We may wait in a line at check in.

Usually at that point we will discuss contingencies so the child knows who will be in charge. “Ok if there is a big line, you take ND child to shops, and I will wait in the line.” As a solo mother I also ask a lot of my oldest daughter, as I’ll ask her to take care of him when we are waiting in lines. This usually means she suggests they go and check out the shops nearby.

What is a Family Watch System?


A family watch system means designating one person at a time provide one-to-one supervision for your child. Rotating that responsibility throughout the trip will help keep your child safe. It also gives you some space to do things like check in and finding the right gate.

We love it when our teamwork pays off and everyone is less stressed. As a solo mother, I recognize that having another adult to provide extra help makes the new experiences of travel so much more enjoyable for the whole family. Remember stress grows stress. So, actively finding ways we can work as a team and stay calm is so vital.

At Check – In Traveling with Autistic Child​


At Check in, mention to the airline staff that you are travelling with autistic child. Say that you would like to board early or late (see comments about this later). At some airports (like Los Angeles International) they will give you airport specific stickers, tips or hints.

After check-in we usually try to have a run around the airport. Maybe brisk walk, maybe up and down on the escalators, or jumping around outside. This physical activity can reset my son’s nervous system and calm him down. Allowing 20 minutes to do this kind of “heavy work” or jumping is critical to the plan.

Use an Autism Lanyard for Flying


In Australia Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard increasingly operates in major airports, public transport, museums, art galleries and zoos in Australia. Wearing the sunflower lanyard alerts trained staff that the person has a hidden disability and may require some additional time, support, or understanding.

In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has established a protocol that allows for special accommodations for travelers with hidden disabilities. You should apply to the TSA Cares Program specifying what your requirements are. Download TSA Cares Form here.

Some US airports are also utilizing the Sunflower Lanyard System, but not many. Others, like Los Angeles International have created their own program.

In short – you need to research each airport that you are flying through to find out what is the best way to support your child, and the accommodations they need. For example, off the LAX website I found some information that I have screenshotted in preparation for asking to fast track through immigration lines after 19 hours of flying.

For example, I have copied the pages with information regarding a ‘reasonable modification’. I hope there will be no issues, but in case I need the information its there and I am fully informed.

What Is A Reasonable Modification?

Reasonable modifications must be related to the individual’s specific limitation caused by the disability. When requesting a reasonable modification to an airport program or service, an individual with a disability is not required to provide a medical documentation or diagnosis to justify their request, but they must be able to explain how their disability is related to the requested modification.

Going Through Airport Security


Most parents of children will find the airport security a bit of a challenge with bags being checked and then each family member walking through a metal detector. It is very understandable that for autistic people wth sensory issues this will be an area that provides unique challenges. TSA officers should be aware of the challenges an autistic passenger might face. However, it is best if you have completed the TSA cares information above.

If you live close to the airport you might like to approach the airports to do a “practice run” and visit the airport ahead of time. This allows the autistic individuals in your life to experience the airport security area before the day of travel.

Find a Quiet Place​


Any new place can be challenging for an autistic child. And, a busy airport is a lot worse. Do your research and find out if the airports you are visiting have quiet areas, a sensory room, quiet rooms and family-friendly bathrooms. Before you head off on a long flight, with any luck you should be able to get your child into their comfort zone.

If they don’t, and if you can afford it, book an airport lounge. They are quiet, with free food and drink, Wi-Fi, comfy chairs, and close-by bathrooms. This can be well worth the calm that it can create for your child before heading off on a long, anxiety inducing flight.

Tips for Families Flying and Travelling With Autistic Child

Board the Plane First or Last​


Speak to the staff when you check in at the airport terminal, or the staff at the gate where you board. Explain that your child would prefer to board the plane first or last. We have found airport staff to be amazingly helpful.

By boarding early, you can settle your child on an empty plane before crowds of people pack into the aisles. In addition, you don’t need to wait in line at the gate or on the airplane while other passengers take their seats.

Some people prefer to board last, which also comes with the benefit of not needing to wait in line at the gate, not needing to wait in your seat while other passengers board the plane and being on the airplane for a shorter period of time.

autism travel tips, plane travel with kids, flying with autism

On the Plane Autism Travel Tips

Ear-Popping


My son can get quite distressed with the pain in his ears during the take-off (but particularly the landing). He likes Chupa Chup lollypops but have plenty of gum or sweets on hand.

These are the ones we bought.

Another option would be a chew toy. He has this one for when he is agitated in general.

Don’t Hesitate to Ask for Help


The cabin crew will be aware of the additional needs of neurodivergent people, including those with fear of flying. They might have useful suggestions that we have not thought of. I will be definitely asking them for help during our upcoming travels.

Medications


This one might be a bit controversial. Please talk to your doctor or medical professionals regarding this one. I talked with my child’s medical health professionals, and we agreed that looking into sedatives suited to him was going to be vital to making our flights a success. Please do not take this suggestion lightly. We had a special checkup, and trial runs of the medication prior to travel. So, if you think you need sedation for autistic child on a flight, be organized and speak to your doctor well in advance.

Also, if you child is taking restricted medications for ADHD or autism, make sure you have packed enough for the whole time you are away. Also take with you letters from your doctor explaining their uses.

fidget toys for kids, plane travel with kids, autism travel kit


Packing Their Backpack/ Our Autism Travel Kit


I let all my kids pack their backpacks prior to travel. Even neurotypical kids will feel a good deal of anxiety with a big trip, and all like to have control over their lives. This also goes for my autistic child who is quite specific about what needs to go in his backpack. This is also part of our ongoing work for him to use his own ‘tool kit’ to calm himself during anxious moments.

Pack Your Own Food​


Many people with sensory needs find new foods a huge challenge. Travelling with autistic child it is an important thing to consider.

In the early years my son had huge sensory meltdowns over the food that we had when we were travelling. Later, he was able to explain that he gets worried he is going to get very hungry, so it is comforting for him to have his own packaged foods in his backpack.

Mum’s Magic Bag​


I have a load of advice for what to pack on flights. Check out Brilliant Toddler Plane Activities and 21 Awesome Airplane Activities For Kids and Tweens.

In some ways, my planning for the autistic child is more akin to what I would do for a toddler. Like keeping lots of sensory and special items packed away. Or toys wrapped in gift paper from the dollar shop/ op shop and things they have never seen before.

  • Comfort items or toys for travelling with autistic child (eq squishy toys).
  • An activity kit filled with comfort items, especially their favorite toy.
  • My child loves his iPad! This is not a time to be worrying about his screen usage. Also, with my child’s unique autism profile of PDA, I have let him go free range for a long time anyways. What we did discover was it really stressed him out when there was no internet. So we make sure we download a good amount of things before heading off to cover all contingencies.
  • Don’t forget your noise-cancelling headphones so that their child can listen to a song on repeat without annoying siblings, or block out a noisy environment.
  • Fidget spinners.
  • Sensory Pack
  • Spiky Rings
  • Building Blocks

fidget toys for kids, plane travel with kids, flying with autism

Other Ideas


If your child is non verbal, make sure you pack Sensory Break Cards so that you remember to give your child regular breaks to avoid meltdowns.

Compression vests or clothing; my son doesn’t like these. However, f you know that they work with your child, they are a great idea.

Weighted blankets. I don’t know about this suggestion as they weigh a ton, and I wouldn’t like to be carrying one.

My son does like weighted lap toys. But, given they weigh a bit, I have avoided using them for travel.

My son loves his wobble cushion and I am really torn about whether we should pack it or not!

You can also try bouncy bands. Travelling with autistic child can be tricky. These bands can help.

End of the Trip Autism and Travel


Depending on how long your holiday is, it is also important to talk about the end of the trip. Especially when your family is travelling home. It may help your child know that the trip is not forever.

Once home, don’t forget to reflect on what went well, and what you could improve.

autism travel tips, plane travel with kids, flying with autism

The Verdict – Travelling with Autistic Child


We hope that this guide has given you some useful information about adapting to an autistic child’s needs when traveling. We have shared some tips to improve the airport experience, as well thoughts of how to address the airplane travel. We hope that your entire family has a good time on your holiday, and definitely drop us some tips in the comments if you have any suggestions that will help us out. We are always learning, just like you!

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Tips for Families Flying and Travelling With Autistic Child



The post Tips for Families Flying and Travelling With Autistic Child appeared first on A World of Travels with Kids.
 
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