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Five Tips for Traveling by Airplane with Kids with Autism

As September begins and we settle into our lives, it’s clear that the summer has come to an end. We are getting our kids back to school and starting to plan holiday travel based on school schedules while our Summer vacations fade into distant memory. This past summer, I traveled to Spain for a family vacation. For those who have not been, I highly recommend taking tapas tours with locals and touring the Prado Museum! When we got back home, I was thinking about our vacation and how stressful it is to travel when your family is in tow. There are many logistical considerations to ensure a smooth ride (e.g., did you bring the right chargers, do you have enough snacks for potential flight delays, did you leave enough time to clear security, etc). Airports can be chaotic and overwhelming even for neurotypical adults and kids. Additionally, the changes in routine, unpredictability, crowds, noises (e.g., overhead announcements) and visual stimulation from all sides can all make the experience difficult for people on the spectrum. As a result, many families who have children with autism choose to give up flying or avoid unfamiliar vacation opportunities altogether.

Braden Josephson, PhD, BCBA-D

Braden Josephson, PhD, BCBA-D

Here are 5 tested tips that we promote in our clinical practice at Autism Care Partners that families with kids on the spectrum have found very helpful when vacationing. In the end, with the right planning and consideration, travel can enable families to come together and create memorable experiences and can serve as a source of sensory experience expansion for children on the spectrum.

 1. Use Social Stories

We worked with a family a year ago that was going to visit their relatives in South America. The family was unsure if they could make the trip because their 12-year-old son was refusing to go. They had previously planned to fly from NY to Florida when he was 8 and their son’s refusal behaviors were so intense that they rented a car and drove instead of attempting to fly. For the trip to South America, one of our BCBA supervisors constructed a social story for him that she personalized for this trip. Social stories teach appropriate behaviors to children with special needs using written and visual cues in a story-based format that help children anticipate and prepare for unfamiliar and stressful social situations. This particular child loved to draw, so she helped him illustrate all of the steps that would occur throughout their trip (e.g., packing bags, the car ride to the airport, going through security and taking off his shoes, boarding the airplane at the gate, and getting on the airplane, etc.). His parents and therapists read the story to him multiple times before they left, and he carried the book with him on the plane. His parents referenced various pictures as they happened, for example: “The wheels are coming down, we are landing.” This story was very comforting to him and helped to lower his anxiety throughout the trip.

2. Take Your Time to Pack Smart and Keep Items Within Reach

You want to make sure that you have plenty of reinforcing items and activities to use to comfort, distract and entertain your child. These will be helpful to use as antecedent strategies to prevent disruptive behaviors along the way. Bring the items that make your child most comfortable at home and at school. Consider packing a favorite blanket or stuffed animal and favorite games. Noise cancelling headphones are a great item to include when packing for your trip and are particularly helpful for noisy airports and during take-off and landing. Additionally, many of the families with whom we work will take several highly reinforcing items “out of circulation” for a few weeks before the trip (e.g., a particular video game or toy), to prevent satiation and to have them ready to motivate their child to successfully navigate the trip. Familiar snacks are another way to ensure comfort for your child in the event that he or she gets hungry. Make sure to download reinforcing videos to your iPad and cellphones ahead of your trip. And make sure your devices are fully charged. Ensure that key items you will need during the flight, like snacks, water, video screens are in your backpack or carry-on bag that you can fit under the seat in front of you for easy access. Do not put your essential flight items in an overhead bin because you may not be able to get to them quickly. I recently flew and saw a frantic parent arguing with a flight attendant because she needed something from the overhead bin and the fasten seat belt light was on due to turbulence.

3. Visit the Airport

As autism awareness has increased, airports across the country have developed rehearsal programs like Wings for Autism/Wings for All (https://www.tsa.gov/news/top-stories/2016/10/25/tsa-supports-wings-autism) where individuals with special needs and their families can come to practice air travel. These programs are specially designed for individuals with autism spectrum disorders and individuals with other special needs. The rehearsals seek to minimize the stress that families who have a child with autism or intellectual/developmental disabilities experience when flying. Some of the realistic activities include entering the airport, obtaining boarding passes, walking through security and boarding a plane. The Wings for Autism/Wings for All also gives the opportunity for airport, airline, TSA professionals, and other personnel the opportunity to observe, interact, and deliver their services in a structured learning environment so that they develop increased fluency and competency when it comes to accommodating all passengers. Lastly, some families with whom we’ve worked have shared that booking a short and easy flight can help prepare their child for longer, more challenging trips as they get exposed to the various stimuli and enable their children to experience success with a shorter flight.

4. Take Advantage of Pre-Existing Supports and Resources               

Many airports and airlines have supports in place to provide additional resources for families who may need extra support. You can request some additional resources when you book your flight online (e.g., wheelchair or other accessibility options, food or dietary requests when flights offer meals, etc.) It’s a good idea to print boarding passes at home and have the mobile version downloaded to your phone to cut down on time spent standing in line once you arrive at the airport. Also allow yourself additional time to give yourself a time cushion to cut down on your stress. It can be helpful to research ahead of time to see if there is special parking or drop off closer to the terminal. Request the full body scanner for your child so he or she doesn’t need to be patted down or scanned with a detection device. Avoid wearing belts with metal buckles, and make sure to wear shoes without laces that are easy to slide on and off for a less stressful screening experience. When possible, one parent should go through the security check point first, while having the other parent waiting with your child. That way you can be comfortable with the process as he or she is covered in both directions.

 5. Have fun!

Airports can be exciting and fun places to visit. Recently, at JFK in New York, TWA opened a new “re-opened” terminal with a hotel, restaurants, a rooftop infinity pool and observation deck with runway views. Many airports have a variety of retail shopping options and they keep up with favorite food trends; there are now Shake Shacks at several local airports. Many flight staff are being trained to work with and accommodate special needs individuals and are happy to explain fun facts about air travel. You might even get a free pair of wings or model airplane from one of the airline staff. While traveling by plane may present some obstacles and challenges, it can also be very rewarding as flying can reunite families and friends who live far apart. Hopefully, these tips will let you enjoy the experience as planning ahead helps to ensure you anticipate as many challenges as possible. Just remember to bring that phone charger!

Dr. Braden Josephson is a clinical psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA-D) and is founder and chief executive officer of NeurativeMind Psychological Services, a private evaluation and ABA program based in New York City that is part of Autism Care Partners. For more information, visit http://cityprogroup.com/, contact the author at bjosephson@cityprogroup.com or call (718) 769-2698, ext. 261.

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