So you’ve finally got around to planning your family vacation. It’s going to be your child’s first time on a plane, and you’re worried. They’re on the autism spectrum and you’re not sure how they’ll cope.
Traveling with children, neurodivergent or otherwise, can always be stressful. Children on the autism spectrum have unique needs and preferences that can make traveling with them a bit harder, but it can still be manageable!
We’re here to help you out. Read on to learn all about a few quick tips that can help you and your child have a painless flight.
Pre-Pack Safe Meals and Snacks
This is one of the most important things you can do if you have a child who struggles with food avoidance.
Many people think that children with ASD are picky eaters, but this isn’t the case. They don’t like surprises and they often struggle with textures due to their unique sensory issues, and that means that their food options are limited. You can read about ASD-related sensory issues in Autism Parenting Magazine, and you may be able to find some easy snacks that your child can tolerate. They’ll help you on your flight.
At an airport, you may not find any foods that your child likes to eat. It’s even worse on the flight itself because there are only a few foods available.
Pack your own snacks ahead of time and let your child help. Pick snacks your child loves so they have something to be excited about. It may help you turn an otherwise stressful flight or wait in an airport into a treat for your child.
Mark Your Flight on a Calendar
Children who are on the autism spectrum really need structure. That’s why they benefit so much from written schedules. They like knowing what’s coming next, and when they’re thrown off of their routine, they may (reasonably) get upset. New things are scary and difficult to process!
On your child’s calendar or written schedule, mark down the date of the flight. Keep reminding your child that the flight is coming up. Have them remind you as well. For example, you can ask them “What are we doing on the 15th?” and let them tell you.
This should prevent any unhappy surprises on the day of the flight. Your child will have prepared far ahead of time!
Verbally Walk Your Child Through the Process
Walk your child step-by-step through the process of getting to the airport, going through security, waiting for the flight, and actually flying. If this is your child’s first time flying, it may be scary for them. Even neurotypical children struggle with their first flights because everything is new. By walking your child through it, you’ll help them understand.
Think about anything your child may find scary. Go into as much detail as possible. Explain why each step in the process has to happen and be sure to answer any questions your child has to the best of your ability.
Use Books, Shows, and Games to Explain
Look for books and shows that feature a flight. Sometimes seeing a character go through something unfamiliar can make your child feel better about it.
Look for as many options as possible and go over them with your child. Make sure to show them that even if the character is scared at first, the flights go well!
You can also play games with your child to explain. You can do a mock run-through of the process to show them what it will be like. You can also act it out with dolls and stuffed animals if that would make your child feel more comfortable.
Play and Exercise Before the Flight
Waiting in the airport is boring and flights can be long. It’s hard for anyone to sit still for that long, and a child on the autism spectrum may have an even harder time.
Before you get to the airport, try to find time to let your child get some energy out. Play outside if you can. Jump on a trampoline, have them go for a bike ride, do anything you can to get them feeling tired.
If you have a long wait in the airport, this can be tricky. Walk around with them, preferably in places with stairs. Let them burn off all of that extra energy so the long flight is more tolerable.
Pack Sensory Items
Sensory items will be your child’s best friend during the flight and while they’re in the airport.
Make sure you bring noise-canceling headphones if your child is sensitive to noises and easily overstimulated. Sunglasses can also be helpful. Airports can trigger sensory overload even in neurotypical people, so these things can make a huge difference.
Bring something for your child to fidget with. Note that if your child’s favorite thing to play with is slime, it needs to be within TSA’s liquid guidelines. Otherwise, it may be confiscated (which could trigger a meltdown).
It’s also a good idea to bring gum or hard candy. This will help your child during takeoff and it may prevent their ears from popping.
Bring Plenty of Entertainment Items
We recommend bringing your own in-flight entertainment. Some flights have screens with plenty of child-friendly shows, but if your flight is short, that may not be the case. They may also not have one of your child’s favorite shows.
Bring an iPad, computer, or phone with your child’s favorite shows on it. If your child has a handheld game, bring that as well. A flight is not the appropriate place to limit screen time if it will keep your child calm.
Enjoy Your Flight
Flying with a child for the first time can be scary, regardless of whether or not they have ASD. Keep these tips in mind and you can make the flight a smooth and (almost) painless experience for your whole family.
If you’re a frequent traveler who loves keeping up with all of the latest tips and tricks, don’t forget to check out the rest of the site.