Interior view of an airport ticketing area

Airport Travel Tips For An Autistic Child

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Traveling with an autistic child can be very exciting and challenging. Many families will experience stress during a trip, but for families with a neurodiverse child, those challenges may be heightened due to so many unknowns. Luckily, there are many things families can do to prepare children for the airport and to make the experience smoother for everyone.

Our daughter Elizabeth was diagnosed with autism at age 2 and ADHD at age 5, and we have been traveling with her at a very young age. We have family scattered throughout the country, so we have flown many times and taken many road trips. As we planned a summer trip, I realized we were really out of practice traveling by air since the pandemic. I reviewed our past trips for lessons we learned along the way and what we need to modify now that she is a little older.

Elizabeth’s First Flight!

Planning Ahead Is Key!

Preparing for anything with your autistic child is key to most things in life, but when traveling, it is absolutely essential. It is important to familiarize your child with the concept of an airport and the airport in general. Providing travel books, social stories, and even YouTube point of view (POV) videos are all great resources. When children on the autism spectrum know what to expect, their anxiety levels are drastically reduced, and that fight or flight response diminishes (no pun intended).

One particularly helpful method is to call ahead to your airline or local airport to see if they have any programs for autistic children. Some airports now have programs where children can practice traveling before the actual flight. This is a great opportunity if you could take the time to do this in advance. It has been our experience that doing anything a few times makes the actual event significantly less stressful.

Federal Government Programs For Reducing Time In Lines

I highly recommend enrolling in the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) PreCheck program to expedite the security screening process. This program allows you to skip the regular security lines, which can be long, especially at peak travel times.

The other program to explore is the TSA Cares program. This program assists travelers with disabilities and medical conditions. It is important to contact them before your travel date to ensure any accommodation you may need is provided. The TSA also has some great tips for traveling with kids and what items may be best packed in a checked bag vs. your carry-on luggage.

Hidden Disabilities Sunflower For Airports

Did you know about the hidden disability sunflower? I only learned about this program a few years ago, but it has been used worldwide for years. The hidden disability sunflower logo is usually displayed on a lanyard the disabled person wears when traveling. This sunflower is now more commonly used in the United States, and airport workers are trained to recognize that these individuals may need more assistance when traveling.

Sound and Noise Sensitivities

This may be an obvious tip, but the importance of wearing noise-canceling headphones is worth mentioning. I don’t know anyone who isn’t triggered by all the noise at an airport, whether it is talking, intercoms, beeping carts, music, TVs, crying babies, and more. This is overwhelming for someone who has autism. Providing noise-cancelling headphones can make all the difference!

We do not travel anywhere without our noise-cancelling headphones. They have been life-altering for our child. She needs them for nearly every outing, so I can’t imagine traveling without them, and I am considering getting a backup pair just in case the battery dies if there is a delay at the airport.

Pack Comfort Items and Safe Foods

Bringing comfort items to the airport is so important to managing stressful situations. When we travel, I always bring a fleece throw blanket with us, as I have noticed my daughter gets frustrated when temperatures change quickly. She can verbally communicate some of her needs, but some are still challenging. I noticed she gets very agitated when we are in an air-conditioned space with cold air blowing on her. I would bring a blanket for the airport and the airplane, as both spaces can be very cold.

Also, bring a few favorite toys, their favorite tablet or device, fidgets, and sensory chew necklaces. One of our most important items recently has been sensory chew necklaces. We have noticed that Elizabeth’s anxiety levels are reduced if she has something to chew, preventing other unknown objects from entering her mouth.

Remember to bring some of your child’s favorite foods and snacks. The TSA website lists detailed food and drink restrictions, but most prepackaged snack items are acceptable. The food will need to be screened along with your luggage. Since so many delays are possible at the airport, having your child’s favorite foods accessible is important to keep everyone happy.

On our way to a cruise!

Picking The Best Flight

Another great option for families with autistic children is to travel at off-peak times. I suggest taking a very early flight, even though it may alter your daily schedule. Traveling in the early morning typically means fewer airport travelers, faster lines, and less chance for flight delays.

I would also suggest flying with an airline with non-stop flight options. Our daughter would likely do much better if we didn’t have to transition to another flight to get to our destination unless the flight was over 3 hours. Then, I believe we may want to take a break. Picking your seats is another great option for making a smoother flight. We are a family of three, so most people would assume we would sit in the same row. A better option for us is to sit in rows with only 2 seats per row, and my husband sits in front of my daughter. When overwhelmed, she may kick the seat in front of her, so we don’t want to bother other people. If she occasionally kicks one of us, it is okay.

Elizabeth enjoying comfort items!

You’ve Got This!

Traveling with an autistic child requires careful planning in all aspects of life, especially when navigating the airport. Using some of these tips will help set up your family’s success with your planned trip and make memories!

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