How I prepare my autistic child to fly

Walking through the airport can be overwhelming for any child.  The intercoms with an unfamiliar voice “Now boarding ” The lights, the shuffle of people, the clicking of luggage, strangers, foreign languages, screens with listed information, getting through TSA, all present extra challenges for an autistic child who process so much at once. Logan has been flying since he was 2 years old. He has flown several times and we have successfully managed these new environments without a meltdown. The key is preparing him beforehand and knowing the expectations.

Logan is very visual and is more successful in understanding with a little extra visual support. Books, social stories, and movies have been imperative for our prep for take-off. We prepare as a family at home, we prepare the airlines and airport for our upcoming trip

There are great social stories on YouTube. I use these to help get Logan familiar with the airport process. These social stories walk through the airport, getting on the plane, take off,  and landing. Simply exposing him to these social stories gives Logan a refresh regarding air travel and the expectations.

Other ways we prepare for flying is talking about our upcoming destination. We talk about how amazing the place  we are going visit is. I reiterate to both my children how we have to visit the airport, experience new noises, people, get on a plane, climb into the air and land in our magical place.

We also incorporate movies and shows that feature where we are traveling to. Our current upcoming trip to Mexico City we watched Disney’s CoCo and have been talking about the Mexican culture. I also have been allowing both my kids to watch their favorite shows in Spanish. This exposed them to the  Spanish language and are not taken off guard when they hear it primarily in  Mexico.  It also teaches them some basic greetings and phrases. This extra visual help get both kids interested in traveling because it focuses on their interests.

We countdown. Logan is always ready for a trip to the big city.  However, he needs a countdown in order to know that he still has to go to school and won’t be going to be the city until the countdown is over. This helps reiterate the upcoming travel and give us a chance to talk about the upcoming flight. During the countdown period, we work on packing our carry on bag. I allow both children to pick smalls toys and items that are of interest to them.  This carry on bag can be on the most important part of our traveling. This bag is used during the flight, in case of a delay, and if we need a distraction in order to prevent a meltdown. Check out blog post  here regarding what I put in our carry on bag for my kids.

Preparing for the airport I notify our airlines beforehand that I will be traveling with a child with autism to see what policies they have regarding passengers with disabilities.  Sometimes this is done during the booking of a reservation, a phone call prior, or at the ticket counter. I have found that generally, people are very helpful and kind regarding our travels. When speaking with the airline they will instruct you regarding the best options for your flight and for your child. Some airlines will assist with boarding by allowing pre-boarding or extra time getting situated on the plane before other passengers board the plane. 
Our biggest struggle comes with TSA. Logan’s first experience was not the best. Logan had a hard time trying to understand why his bag had to be inspected and placed inside a machine. This caused Logan a lot of frustration and was extra stressful for all of us traveling. Logan repeatedly yelled ” That’s my bag” and ” Give me back my bag”.  

The TSA now has a program available for passengers with disabilities. TSA Cares has Passenger Support Specialists that will walk you and your child through the TSA procedure in addition help accommodate a passenger that needs assistance.

Check out our blog post on how TSA Cares worked for our latest trip here.

Additionally, there is also an amazing program taking off by the ARC called “Wings for Autism”.  This program is in several airports and allows autistic children to have a dress rehearsal before their upcoming trip.
Since Logan has been flying often we do not utilize this program however, this is an amazing opportunity to test run an autistic child through the airport, getting on the plane, and getting off the plane.  I really encourage families to check it out if it is available at a local airport near you.   (I recently volunteered at an event in Virginia. You can check out my experience here.)

I try to have both kids burn energy,  I start this as we get out of the car. I give each kid a rolling suitcase and have them roll it through the airport. This helps burn some energy, gives them and job, and makes them feel valued. Once we get through the gate, I let them the play. If there is a kids area near the gate, we will head there if not, my kids love to race. So we find an area with less traffic and race a couple times. Lighting McQueen vs Cruz Ramirez. Thirty minutes prior to boarding we do our final bathroom break and diaper change.

I also let the attendant know at the gate that I am traveling with two small children; and one that has autism.  Some attendants have been gracious and let us board in priority boarding, which allows us in the first boarding group. This gives us more time to get situated and comfortable.

Airports and Autism are both unpredictable from meltdowns to delays. Being prepared can help ease the stress and tension regarding travel. Utilizing the resources that are available and getting a little extra assistance can make the world of a difference.



Leave a Comment