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Travel Tips for Children With Autism: How to Prepare for Air Travel

July 13, 2021

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 Should I Consider When 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.  
  • Consider how flight times stack up against typical nap times. 
  • Consider seating arrangements when booking tickets: 
    • Would your child enjoy looking out the window? 
    • Would your child do better in the front row of the plane, or bulkhead area, with a little extra space? 
    • Would your child do best in an aisle seat for quick access to bathroom?

How Can I Plan Ahead Before the Big Travel Day?

  • Consider visiting the airport before the big day to get used to the sights and sounds. 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. These events are held periodically all over the country!
  • 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.
  • 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
  • Social Stories are a visual way to walk your child through what to expect and how to navigate the airport and plane successfully.
  • Create a safety plan for peace of mind in the event your child wanders away. Making a handout with identification, contact information, and need-to-know information about how to best communicate with your child can be a handy tool to give others in an emergency moment.  

Tips for Navigating the Big Travel Day 

  • Create a list of clear rules for your child to follow. Focus on what TO DO rather than what the child should not do. 
  • During the big travel, focus your attention on whenever your child is utilizing positive coping strategies and is following the rules. 
  • Plan to take frequent breaks, bathroom trips, meal or snack times. Pay close attention to early signs that your child is losing steam and take advantage of these moments to avoid meltdowns. 
  • Pack with intention - consider what comfort items are helpful already for your child and bring them! Consider your child’s sensory sensitivities and make a plan to address them. 
    • For example:
      • There are usually lots of noises and commotion in the airport. Noise cancelling headphones can be a great supportive idea. 
      • Find out ahead of time when airports are most quiet or where quiet areas can be found. 
      • Take-offs and landings can be verry irritating to ear drums. Consider candy, gum, chewable sensory item to chew on, or sips of a drink during air pressure changes.
      • Gather your child's favorite toys or books. 
        • To avoid boredom, save some of your options for mid-flight or later in case initial options lose their luster.
  • 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.  
  • 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. 

Tips for the Rest of the Trip

Great! We made it to paradise. What can I do to keep this positivity going on our trip? 

  • Enjoy your family time together!
  • Plan to limit activities to a manageable number per day.
  • Keep morning and bedtime routines as consistent as possible to how they usually work when at home.
  • Consider keeping consistent opportunities for downtime and regrouping. 
  • Keep your child’s special interests on the agenda periodically during the visit.
  • 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