Air Travel with Autism – Flying High
June 28, 2017

Air Travel with Autism

Air Travel with Autism can be difficult. Airline travel isn’t something we do daily or weekly, so establishing a routine with it is problematic. Airports can be overwhelming for the senses. Airplanes are noisy. Seems like there are rules and regulations left and right. Furthermore, the days of short lines and fast screenings are gone.  Riddled with difficulties, airline travel seems out of the question for families affected by autism. But what if you have relatives in other parts of the country, or Amtrak doesn’t make sense? How about if you want to take a vacation, and there’s an ocean between you and your destination? Should you give up on the dream of traveling?

Well, you can give the journey a try. Pay an enormous amount for plane tickets, pack everything but the kitchen sink, and cross your fingers. You have no idea if your child will enjoy the sights and sounds of an airport; no clue if the airplane will delight or disgust him/her. Doesn’t it seem like we often hear stories of kids with ASD and their parents getting escorted off flights by airport police? Who wants to take such chances? The odds of smooth air travel with autism seem stacked against you.

Air Travel with Autism

Dress Rehearsals for Flying?

Before you donate your Samsonite and settle for a staycation, consider dress rehearsals. Maybe you don’t have to fork over hundreds of dollars to find out how your child will do with airport protocol. In cities across the country, airports are creating programs that allow families affected by autism to practice the airport/airplane experience. Participants can experience checking bags, going through security, and boarding the plane. Also, some programs even offer actual take off and landing experience! Two such programs are Wings for Autism/Wings for All and Blue Horizons. The former is run by The Arc, an advocacy organization serving people with developmental disabilities, and is sponsored in part by The Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism, Inc. The latter is a combined effort between Autism Speaks and JetBlue Airways.

The program walks families through a complete airport experience. The Bob Hope Airport in Burbank has hosted Blue Horizons events. Oakland is on the verge of planning one. In addition, SFO and The Arc San Francisco sponsor Ready, Set, Fly! workshops. Having a mock airport experience that is structured and predictable can familiarize kids with autism with the noises, sensations, and expectations of airports, so air travel with autism can go smoothly.

Air Travel with Autism Autism Speaks Blue Horizons

Autism in the Air

Perhaps in addition to a dress rehearsal, or in place of it, families can watch videos about airline travel. Especially relevant videos geared toward the person with autism are the Autism in the Air series. These videos are free and available on YouTube. Since each one focuses on a different aspect of airline travel in brief segments, you can pick and choose what to watch. Each is filmed from the perspective of the child, and they use actual footage and clear, simple language.

Does your child or teen do well with Social stories™? When we began traveling with our son (a toddler at the time), we made our own storybook from actual pictures we took every step of the way so we could visually depict each transition. It was the key to smooth(er) flights. If there is anxiety about traveling, make Social stories™ your friend.

Air Travel with Autism

Visit the Airport

How about books? Try reading one or more picture books about airports and airplanes well in advance of real travel. The Noisy Airplane Ride by Mike Downs is a great one. Better yet, take an activity book about airplanes and go have lunch at an airport. (You won’t be able to go past security, but many terminals have cafés or coffee shops near baggage carousels.). Visiting an airport as a fun outing may reduce stress about it on the day of your real flight.

Air Travel with Autism Jet Blue

Preflight Suggestions:

  • Decide first and foremost if you want a nonstop or a flight with layovers. Nonstops will go from departure city to arrival city; layovers are short stops between cities.
  • Consider time of day: when will your child be best able to handle the situation and face possible delays? Is bright and early the most feasible, or would an overnight flight do the trick?
  • With seat selection in our own hands at the touch of the keyboard, plan ahead for where to sit. The bulkhead seats provide the most legroom. Do you want to be near the lavatory? Over the wing? Airlines charge extra for what they deem “preferred” seating; be prepared to pay more for prime seats.
  • Are you traveling with prescription medication? Know that you will need to have meds in original pharmacy bottles. Therefore, don’t use pill organizers.
  • Got medical equipment or devices? Check the TSA website for regulations and/or call the airport ahead of time for information on how to pack such items. TSA Cares: 1-855-787-2227
  • Worried about medical care on your trip? Ask your doctor for a referral for temporary care, or check out zocdoc.com.
  • American Airlines offers Disability Assistance Requests on their website. You can specify that you are traveling with a person with autism and explain what assistance you might need. Air travel with autism is more common than one might think.

Air Travel with Autism Jet Blue

Additional Tips on Air Travel with Autism

  • Consider getting a letter from your physician summarizing some basic information about your child. You do not need to state a diagnosis. Having something in writing may help others (TSA agents, flight attendants) understand communication and sensory limitations.  Also, a person with autism can be screened by TSA without being separated from parents or companions. Prearrange checkpoint support by calling TSA Cares 855-787-2227.
  • Download and print a TSA Notification Card.
  • Know your rights as an airline consumer. The Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA) prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in air travel and requires air carriers to accommodate the needs of passengers with disabilities. One fact to know is that “the carrier may refuse transportation if an individual with a disability would endanger the health or safety of other passengers, or transporting the person would be a violation of FAA safety rules.”  It may feel unfair, but that is how it works.
  • Finally, take it from experience:  plan to bring wipes, plastic bags, and a change of clothes (just in case).

Air travel with Autism can be a smooth and fun experience, with advance preparation and familiarization. For more resources, visit our special needs category.


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About Keri Horon

Keri is a special needs parent and a veteran high school English and journalism teacher turned writer. She enjoys writing, reading, painting, hiking, gardening, cooking, wine tasting, and practicing yoga. She a passion for creating awareness for and acceptance of differently-abled individuals. Visit her blog at www.kerimehome.com.

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