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Challenges of Flying With Autism

challenges of flying
Posted by on April 4, 2017

Five Ways to Meet the Challenges of Flying:

challenges of flying

It’s April, which is Autism Awareness Month. More than 3.5 million Americans live with an autism spectrum disorder, so chances are you know someone, or even many people, with an autism diagnosis. These five ways to meet the challenges of flying with autism can help children without autism too. My nine year old daughter, Ella, does not have an autism diagnosis, but she does have ADHD and Sensory Processing Disorder, which are common diagnoses for many (not all) with Autism. For her age, she has lots of great insight and wisdom about these types of diagnoses. On  World Autism Awareness Day I asked Ella what she would like to share with people about what she knows of Autism. This was her reply:

“Not everyone with autism has the same symptoms. [People with autism] probably aren’t good at listening to boring things.

[If they are upset/melting down] just try to leave them alone so they can calm down.” –Ella, age 9

*This post contains affiliate links. If you make a purchase through these links, I may receive a small commission, which will go toward the operation costs of this site. Thank you for your support! -Beth H.

1) Chart Your Day

Some people with autism have difficulty breaking from routine. Facing unexpected events in the day put them in defensive mode and can add to stress and anxiety which could result in a meltdown. It can help to discuss what to expect in the travel day, to make a list or chart, and to include potential interruptions (such as delays, turbulence, etc.) so that they can be mentally prepared. Of course you know your child best. If discussing things before hand actually adds to the anxiety, don’t do it.

Flight attendant mom, Kim C., mother of two, one who loves to fly and has an autism diagnosis, wrote this in her post about Flying with Autism:

“I know with my son any outing goes more smoothly if he has an idea of what to expect.

This is especially true if your child has never been to an airport!” –Kim C.

2) Incorporate “Heavy Work”

One of the best ways to help your child manage their travel day is by incorporating “heavy work” (also known as proprioceptive input). Here are some easy ways to add “heavy work” to your travel day. Again, these ideas are useful for any child, with or without a diagnosis (as long as they are not the type to become overwhelmed by this—you know your child).

3) Provide a Retreat

challenges of flying

It is easy for anyone to get overwhelmed by the busyness, crowds, and noise in airports. Often people with autism have a more difficult time regulating their senses. It can help to have a way to get away from the distracting sensory input. That’s not easy on a crowded airplane at 35,000 feet. But there are a few things that can offer a sense of retreat:

  • Wear a floppy hat. (Read about how that helps in this post.)
  • Wear noise canceling headphones.
  • Use a blanket as a privacy shield.

In the terminal you may be able to find a family restroom or a quiet corner away from the gates where your child can take a few minutes to be away from some of the noise and crowd. For younger children, an umbrella stroller with a canopy may be helpful.

4) Provide Favorite Snack

If your child has difficulty in regulating emotions, the last thing you need is added irritability due to hunger. Don’t depend on the airline to provide something your child will like. Even if food is scheduled to be served, it may not be to your child’s liking, there may be a problem with catering,  or delays or turbulence may prevent the food from being served. I always pack a small cooler of many snacks that are tried and true. Here are a few posts that tell about our favorite travel food items:  Fun Travel Food Ideas & Tools.

5) Make Agents and Crew Aware

If your child is prone to meltdowns in stressful or uncommon situations, it may help your overall travel experience to let the agents and flight crew know about this potential in advance.   Before a meltdown occurs is the best time to share with crew of your child’s challenges and to let them know how they can help if a meltdown occurs. I asked flight attendant friends if they would want to be notified if a child with autism or sensory challenges was boarding the aircraft, the answer was overwhelmingly yes. Here are some of the reasons why this self-identification can be useful (and read what other flight attendants had to say here):

“It’s absolutely better to know in advance. I feel like they are more attention-seeking if they wait until a situation flares up and it gets out of hand.” –Sean P.

“…it would be nice to know in advance to diffuse anything and help the parents out any way possible. Many of our passengers may not be very educated with different sensory issues and they might assume something [threatening] is happening [when] that is not the situation.” –Matthew P.

“…Please tell me so if there is a meltdown I know how to handle it…If we know [then] we can [also] help the family for their privacy. So they won’t be judged [by other passengers].” –Sofia H.

The challenges of flying with autism can be tough, but these tips are designed to help you be prepared and hopefully avoid preventable meltdowns. Do you have a child with autism? What other ideas can you add to help our readers? Comment below or on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram page.

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