Airplanes & autism: Our experience and travel tips to keep in mind when traveling with your special needs child.
The first time we flew (in 2011 when Norrin was 5) I was frantic. Joseph and I hadn’t been on a plane in more than five years. And Norrin had never even been to the airport, let alone on a plane. I packed books, LEGO bricks and gum. Joseph made sure the iPad was fully charged. I explained (several times) to Norrin that we were taking a plane to Florida.
I was expecting the worst. I expected melt downs and kicking and screaming and crying. I was expecting dirty looks from other passengers, I was thinking of snarky one liners for anyone who said something about Norrin.
All we needed was gum and the iPad. Norrin was amazing! He took all the waiting, lines, security checks and even the teeny airplane bathroom all in stride. Norrin really surprised me and I was so proud.
The last two times (in 2014) were different. Norrin was still fine with waiting. But he was a little nervous, told us he was scared and that he wanted the plane to “go slower.” We worked through it.
And our last trip…flying down to Orlando, things didn’t go so well. He was much better on the way back.
Traveling with special needs children requires careful planning and consideration. If your child has never been on a plane and you’re thinking of planning a vacation that requires air travel, you will need to do everything you can to set yourself and your child up for success.
5 Travel Tips to Help Your Special Needs Child
Prepare, Prepare & Prepare. Even if you don’t have any immediate plans for a trip, start talking about planes and pointing them out to your kids. Talk about the kind of places or family/friends you can visit by taking a plane. Many kids with autism and other special needs, require social stories to help them through new experiences or teach everyday skills. Carol Gray has written two books that may help: My Social Stories Book and The New Social Story Book.
There’s also a really cool app by Avril Webster called Off We Go: Going on a Plane. The app prepares special needs children and also includes “some of the typical sounds that they would hear during their journey.” The Going on a Plane app is $3.99 and compatible with iPad, iPhone or iPod touch.
You want to keep your kid occupied for a significant amount of time so a bag of goodies is a must! Load up the iPad or tablet with new apps or buy a new toy or activity book for the ride. Bring candy or a special treat for your child to enjoy. And don’t forget to pack any other special items like noise-cancelling headphones or favorite comfort item, pillow or blankie. It could be the thing that prevents a meltdown.
Do Your Homework. Think about the airlines and airports you’ve traveled with in the past – which ones gave you the best experience? If you have friends that have traveled with their special needs children – ask for suggestions. Call airlines and see what accommodations can be made for your special needs child before making your final decision. Personally, I really appreciate Jet Blue. They have done amazing work in the autism/special needs community with their Wings for Autism Program.