Flying with an Autistic Child
Flying anywhere with kids can be a huge hassle – most parents need a vacation after taking the vacation with their kids. Compound that stress and anxiety by a factor of ten and that is how parents of autistic children feel when taking planes to any destination.
Our son, Giovanni, is a non-verbal 11-year-old who has autism, seizures, and difficulty balancing and walking. We have taken him on many trips across the country in order to see family. The autism spectrum is so large that some of my tips won’t work for everyone, but I hope many of the following ideas from my experiences can be adapted for your own child.
Preparing Your Autistic Child for Travel
Usually, we start talking to him about a trip a few weeks prior to flying. While Gio doesn’t speak, he can understand things that we tell him. He also understands pictures as he sometimes uses PECS (the Picture Exchange Communication System) to communicate with us.
We show him photos of family we will visit, show him photos of planes, and tell him we are flying soon. A few days before we travel, we pack his bag and leave it in his room. We think he understands what is happening as he starts to take his bag downstairs almost every day to the garage door. The preparation for travel allows him to realize a change is going to occur.
If this is your child’s first time flying, you may want to consider calling your local airport about airport rehearsal programs or find a Wings for Autism event near you.
Getting Through the Airport
This can be more difficult than the actual time spent on the plane. For Gio, waiting in a line is challenging as he doesn’t understand what it means to wait. Because of his difficulty with walking and balancing, we have a collapsible wheelchair that we use when traveling. Gio feels very secure and relaxed in the chair.
If you do not own a wheelchair, I suggest asking for wheelchair assistance when you book your flight or renting one for your trip. Wheelchairs can help calm some children in these high stress situations. It might mean getting extra pat-downs at security, but it’s worth trying if it might help your child.
Getting On the Plane
I once traveled alone with a young Gio and his even younger brother, Benicio. I was petrified. At the time, Gio was having around 80 seizures a day and wearing a helmet to protect his head when he would seize and fall to the ground.
I could instantly feel the stares as I walked onto the plane carrying a screaming child and holding the hand of another child in a seizure helmet. I made sure to tell the people in front of me, behind me, and to the side of me Gio’s situation and apologize beforehand for any issues. I know a lot of parents of special needs children might frown about this. It’s not that we NEED to, it’s more to let the people around you know that you feel THEIR anxiety.
I have learned from that experience that people are instantly willing to help when they know the situation. On that specific trip, another passenger held my crying one-year-old as I tried to help Gio through a seizure at 30,000 feet over the Rockies. Another person kept our food and drink on their table to avoid any mishaps. In general, I have found more people willing to help if you acknowledge their fears about traveling with children nearby—especially children with disabilities.
We are lucky that Gio has had nearly 11 years of therapy, part of which has been learning to use an iPad and play with toys that light up or make noises. He is also a HUGE fan of Disney movies. While he won’t usually keep headphones on his ears because of the way they feel to him, we can leave him with the iPad and movies loaded onto it to get him through the flight. I HIGHLY recommend this for ANY parent. It is worth the purchase to keep your child entertained. I also recommend splitting up flights that are more than 4 hours. The little break in an airport is a good way to keep our son calm.
Another tip: BRING FAMILIAR SNACKS! Some airlines don’t even have snacks or charge for them. Bring your own bag of pretzels or Goldfish… and let them eat as much as they want! We are also very lucky that Gio likes movement and artificial background noise. If your child doesn’t like background noise and will tolerate headphones, you may want to consider a pair of noise-canceling headphones for the flight.
It’s Not Always a Struggle
I know many parents of children with special needs will not fly because they fear their children will have difficulty flying and cause problems. I always try to expect the worst and keep the bar low. That way, when little to nothing happens, it’s a great experience.
Patience is key, as it always is when traveling, regardless of whether or not you have a child with special needs. But, our children deserve a vacation as well, right? You’ll never know how it might go unless you try!