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Ways to Help Your Child Be Calm on a Plane

Posted by on July 22, 2015

 

Airports are crowded, busy, and noisy. This constant bombarding of the senses can make your child anxious. Even if they are not visibly stressed, all of the stimulation does challenge their senses and can be tiring. If you have a child with autism or Sensory Processing Disorder, this is even more true. Here are some ideas for ways to incorporate proprioceptive input, aka “heavy work”, in your travel day.

Children with sensory processing disorder have difficulty managing sensory input. When traveling through an airport, their senses are bombarded by lights, noises, crowds, scents….the list goes on and on. It is likely that your child with Autism or SPD will be on high defense when traveling through the airport and on the airplane. Proprioceptive activities (also called “heavy work”) help “increase attention, decrease defensiveness, and modulate arousal.” (As described at SensoryProcessingDisorder.com., one of my favorite resources for SPD information.) I have found that even for children without Sensory Processing Disorder, adding some of these activities helps keep them calm on the plane.

My daughter, Ella (age 7), is a “sensory seeker”. So she craves extra sensory input and really enjoys the flying experience. Still, her senses are constantly triggered as she notices and takes in every detail of what she sees, hears, smells, etc., and it is easy for her to get overwhelmed. When that happens, a meltdown follows. These are some of the activities and tools we incorporate in our travel day to help her remain balanced and calm.

Activities-Waiting In Line

  • Have your child wear a rash guard, slightly tight, to give him/her that feeling of pressure on the skin. (Test this in advance to see if it’s something that your child likes or not.)
  • Have a (controlled) “arm wrestle” by just pushing against each other with clasped hands.
  • Thumb War. I am not positive that this helps a lot, but it seems to for my daughter, Ella. When one thumb is pinned, keep it pressed down for 5-10 seconds for deep pressure. Even if it’s your thumb that’s pinned, the pressure they are giving can help.
  • Give your child’s forehead pressure by putting one hand on their forehead and one behind their head. Push slightly for gentle pressure.
  • Jump up and down in place.
  • Squeeze each other’s hands or give hand massage.

Activities-In the Airport

Autism Sensory tools

  • Let your child use a ride-on suitcase. See our review of the SkootCase Rider here.
  • Have your child wear a backpack if he/she will. This is a classic way to provide “heavy work”. Keep this in mind for the school year as well.
  • If you are using a stroller or a rolling suitcase, let your child push or pull it.
  • Take a break from walking and do wall push-ups
  • Seek out children’s play areas so your child can climb, jump, and spin.

Heavy-Work-Backpack

Activities-On the Plane

  • Hand or Arm massage
  • Forehead pressure (as listed above under “waiting in line”)
  • After takeoff place the child’s backpack in their lap for weight.
  • Have your child squeeze their knees together while sitting in an upright posture. This will also help relax the muscles in the lower back.
  • Have your child push his/her own hands together in a “praying hands” position. Activities for the “Busy Bag”

Activites for the “Busy Bag”/Toys On the Plane

(For your convenience, I have created an Amazon store with the items I list below. You can find it at the bottom of this post. If you shop in my Amazon store I may receive a small percentage of the sell, which will help offset the cost of running this website. The cost of the product is the same to you. I appreciate your support!)

  • Scratch and Sketch Art Activity Book
  • PlayDoh (Don’t forget this needs to be under 3.4 ounces and in a Quart-sized Ziploc bag to get through security). Rolling pins and PlayDoh scissors add extra input.
  • Stress Ball
  • Mini Etch-A-Sketch
  • Erasers (The action of erasing with a rubber eraser gives deep pressure. Bonus if you get an eraser that can double as a fidget toy.)
  • Fidgets
  • Small dolls with comb or brush (I’m not positive that this counts as proprioceptive input, but it is definitely calming for Ella.)
  • Bubbles (I like to always have a mini bottle of bubbles in my Quart-Sized Ziploc bag of TSA-approved liquids. It comes in handy for extra-stressful moments like during a delay or when your child or another has just had enough. As a flight attendant I have stopped in the terminal to blow bubbles for a crying toddler.)
  • Sticker Mosaic (These tiny stickers require great focus and are a great chance to work on fine motor skills. You’ll have to keep an eye out for dropped stickers, but this is a nice activity, usually for ages 5-9, depending on ability.)

Foods-Anytime

Chewy foods and resistive sucking give proprioceptive input also.

  • Gum (Some kids love sour for extra sensory input. Stride Sour Patch Kids Orange is Ella’s favorite.)
  • Granola bars
  • Raisins
  • Gummy Candy (we love the kind from Trader Joe’s, which is naturally colored and real sugar instead of corn syrup)
  • Fruit leather
  • Sports Bars (Ella loves the original Power Bar)

Resistive sucking is also useful:

10 Responses to Ways to Help Your Child Be Calm on a Plane

  1. Francesca (@WorkMomTravels)

    Took my 2-year-old son on an airplane for the first time last month. The outbound flight was almost a disaster; he did not want to sit still! He really didn’t want anything to do with the “busy bag”, either. On the way home, I let him push the stroller around the airport before we boarded, and he ended up falling asleep during the flight. Whew! I’ll keep these tips handy for next time 🙂

    • Beth Henry

      Two is such a tough age for flying! I think even if you flew every week with him, each flight would be different. I’m glad to hear that pushing the stroller seemed to help him relax more on the flight! I know that kind of “heavy work” really helps both of my kids.

  2. Kirsten Maxwell (@kidsareatrip)

    Great tips that will be useful for many families!

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