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My Child has Autism (or SPD): Should I tell the Flight Attendant?

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Posted by on July 15, 2015

I’m part of a group for parents of kids with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). In that group the parents often ask for tips for flying with their child. Although my daughter Ella was only recently diagnosed with SPD, I always knew she needed a little extra assistance coping when her senses were overwhelmed (or under stimulated, as she actually needs MORE sensory input in many cases). Many, if not most people with autism have sensory processing disorder, but it can also exist without the autism diagnosis, as it does for Ella.

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photography by Sugar Maple Portraits, used with permission

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder, in a nutshell, is when a person doesn’t process information from their senses the same as a typical person. They often feel imbalanced and have difficulty coping with additional sensory input, not only in our commonly-known five senses (sight, sound, taste, hearing, touch), but also sensing movement (proprioceptive) and where you are in your surroundings (vestibular) . A person with SPD can have an aversion to different types of sensory input, like when clothing tags or shoes are intolerable, or they can have a craving for sensory input, like needing to spin or constantly humming. Sometimes a person with SPD becomes so overwhelmed they are simply unable to cope with the surroundings and they may act out. Meltdowns, sometimes including screaming and possibly flailing or punching, crawling under the seats, or running might be the result.

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Parents want to know every tool they can use to make the flight go well. For parents of children with SPD, the added stress of wondering if your child will have a meltdown in flight makes parents more worried. It doesn’t help that there have been several incidents recently where families were kicked off the plane, allegedly because of an “out of control” child. (You can read about that in this response from Autistic Globetrotting, a great resource for traveling with Autism.) I usually tell people to let the flight crew know about their child’s sensory issues at the beginning of the flight,  but I wanted to hear from other flight attendants to see if they agreed on that advice.

I put this question to a group of flight attendants to see what they thought:

If a family came on board with a child who had autism or “sensory issues”, would you, as flight crew, prefer they let you know in advance about the child’s issues, or would it seem to you like they were looking for attention or special treatment? If the child was prone to meltdowns, would it help you to know there was a neurological reason behind it?

The answer overwhelmingly came back: I would want to know.

Here are a few of the responses I got:

“Always good to be informed…It’s nothing to be ashamed of or worried about hiding and [it] only leads to further understanding.” –Melian S.

“Travel is stressful enough, I’d like to offer any help I can to the parents.” –Megan B.

“Being aware can prevent many safety related issues from happening. It’s never wrong to be over informed.” –Ben-Lee F.

“[Let us know] ahead of time so that the crew could assist and overlook any behavioral issues they may have. Some people, [even] Flight Attendants can be cruel without thinking.” –Christine G.

“I’d rather know than not know and then do or say the wrong thing if the child acted out.” –Heather P.

“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.

This one summarizes all of the above sentiments:

Flight Attendant Emily Y. said, “As a mother of a son with Asperger Syndrome and one with “run-of-the-mill” autism, I’d let someone know mainly so that when the flight attendants addressed them they would know why they might have to ask their question twice or allow an extra beat for an answer. As a flight attendant I would want to know for the same reason I’d want to know if someone were prone to seizures or other predisposed medical issues…so I can ask the questions, “Will you need my help? If so, what can I do?”

Conclusion:

So yes, if your child has unique needs and might have an outburst in flight, it is best to let the flight attendants know at the beginning of the flight. When is the best time for this? During boarding is best so that they will be informed before anything might occur. Yes, this is one of the most busy times for a flight attendant, but we don’t mind you giving us important information during this time. If you try to talk to a flight attendant and they are too busy and push you aside, try again in a few minutes or when the next flight attendant walks by.

Another way you could identify yourself is by letting the gate agent know and asking him/her to pass the information along to the flight attendants. This way the flight attendants can come to you as they have time during boarding to ask how they can best assist you if your child has a meltdown.

Many airports now have programs for those with autism. There are at least 16  U.S. airports that now participate in this program. They include “practice flights” and self-identification methods so the airport employees can understand and respond appropriately if your child is having difficulty. You can read about the latest program implemented at LAX airport here.

You might also be interested in this post: Flying With Autism.

Do you have questions about flying with autism or sensory processing disorder? Ask in the comments below.

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6 Responses to My Child has Autism (or SPD): Should I tell the Flight Attendant?

  1. Danielle (Bubs on the Move)

    I could write a whole post in response to this post Beth! My own theory is that sensory kids are over represented amongst family travel bloggers. I know it was my own son’s sensory issues (specifically needing CONSTANT stimulation) that let to me being out exploring so much with him from a very, very early age. As for sensory issues when traveling – it was actually on a plane that I first noticed how my son differed from other kids. He was 7 months old and we were on a 3 hour flight. There were lots of babies on the flight and we had all been seated near each other. My son did not sit at all for the entire flight – he bounced up and down on his little legs constantly. Looking round at other babies I couldn’t believe they would actually sit! Let see though, there are heaps more, stripping nude in airport toilets, taking noise reducing headphones to Disneyland. His sensory issues are much better now but just two weeks ago we were staying in a resort that had a kids disco on in the evening. He was so excited – talked all day about the disco. As soon as we arrived at the disco he took one look at the flashing disco lights, and heard the loud music then turned around and we headed back to the cabin. It was all just too much sensory overload.

  2. Shobha George

    Really useful! My son seems to have gotten over the worst of it now or is learning to cope but we still have issues with loud noises and certain clothes. Interestingly he wants to be s pilot when he grows up so flying has never been a problem.

  3. Elizabeth

    Fantastic post! Our son has ADHD/SPD and flying is stressful. We just returned from a Hawaii trip and made friends with our flight attendant which helped tremendously. I’ve always pondered the idea if letting the crew know.

    • Beth Henry

      That is great to hear that the flight attendant was helpful. Your son and my daughter, Ella, have the same diagnosis. She was diagnosed at age 5, and before that I thought I was just a more attentive parent than most. I didn’t realize that it was because she required it! I personally don’t usually notify the crew in advance, because people don’t really understand SPD. I feel like it’s easier for them to understand when the child also has the autism diagnosis. But if Ella is already having a bad day when we are boarding, I definitely give the crew a heads up.

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