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Travel Tips for Flying with a Child with Autism

June 22, 2022

By Jennifer K. Carlson, PhD

Preparing for air travel can be stressful for parents of young children, especially children with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). As a parent, you may be wondering if flying is a worthwhile possibility? The following tips may help your family determine if taking a flight to your paradise is right for you. 

What to Consider Before Buying Tickets

The US Dept of Transportation offers guidelines in accessible formats on how a variety of accommodations can be made when traveling based on the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA), which outlines legal protections against discrimination of travelers based on their disabilities.

Airlines typically share information on their website how they support individuals with disabilities. Some examples include: O'Hare Airport, Chicago Midway Airport. Be sure to search your destination’s airport for similar information. As for your family's schedule and preferences, consider these details before buying your tickets:

  • Takeoff time: Cross reference how flight times stack up against your family’s daily routines to plan for the least disruptive timing.
  • Length of flight: Research the various time lengths of each flight and/or stops in other cities to choose the best one for your family.
  • Seating arrangement: Would your child enjoy looking out the window or prefer an aisle seat? What about the front of the plane or back with quick access to the bathroom?

Plan for the Flight

With the right preparation, you can help prevent any unnecessary stress. Here are some things to consider before your flight:

  • Consider visiting the airport before the big day. The Arc’s Wings for Autism Program provides families of individuals with autism and other disabilities the opportunity for an airport “rehearsal” so they can get comfortable with the process and all the sights and sounds. These events are held periodically all over the country!
  • Seek out resources. Some airlines are recognizing the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities and working to build comfort with visiting the airport and spending time on airplanes. For example, It's Cool to Fly American is a collaboration between American Airlines and Clearbrook at O’Hare Airport to provide trip simulations. Note: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic may presently affect the availability of these programs.
  • Contact TSA. TSA Cares offers a helpline to obtain advice and assistance with navigating the screening process with your child. TSA Cares can be reached by calling 855.787.2227 or emailing TSA-ContactCenter@dhs.gov
  • Create a safety plan. In the event your child wanders away, make a handout with identification, contact information, and need-to-know information about how to best communicate with your child. This can be a handy tool to give others in an emergency moment.

Tips for Navigating the Big Travel Day

Whether you’re in the airport or on the flight, here are a couple tips to make the big travel day more manageable:

  • Create Social Stories. These are a visual way to walk your child through what to expect and how to navigate the airport and plane successfully. Feel free to create your own! Tips for Creating a Social Story. Be sure to talk about times when favorite electronic devices might have to be put away and when they will be allowed again.
  • Create a list of clear rules for your child. Focus on what TO DO rather than what the child should not do. During travel time, focus your attention on whenever your child is utilizing positive coping strategies and is following the rules. 
  • Pack with intention. If your child has sensory sensitivities, bring comfort items to help address them. For example, noise-cancelling headphones can help with noise and commotion and candy or gum can help with ear pressure during take-offs or landings.
  • Plan to take frequent breaks. Whether it’s bathroom trips, meal or snack times or just breathers, be sure to make time to just press pause. Pay close attention to early signs that your child is losing steam and take advantage of these moments to avoid meltdowns.
  • Utilize the plane’s entertainment. Visuals can be highly effective at supporting anxiety. Many flights offer screens or website access that allows passengers to view flight progress on the flight and time left of the flight.
  • Download helpful technology. The app Fly For All, a partnership between Alaska Airlines and Infiniteach, provides tips, visual schedules, social stories, alternative augmentative communication (AAC) for common airport needs, and matching games to play.

For trips to Chicago and other cities, Infiniteach has partnered with many local tourism sites to develop autism friendly support apps

Dr. Carlson is a pediatric psychologist in the Division of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics and the Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, and an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. 

Learn About Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics at Lurie Children's

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