Flying With An Autistic Child- a Comprehensive Guide

They say that when you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met…..one autistic person. Like the rest of the population, autism and how it manifests is unique for every person. I would know, as a mum of 2 autistic children and with ASD myself. The needs and behaviours vary, there is no blanket list of “dos and don’ts” when it comes to those with autism.

Flying with kids can be challenging, flying with children with autism just magnifies the potential complications at each step through the airports and on the plane. However, travel is so rewarding, and with ample preparation, I would encourage all parents to consider flying with their autistic child.

However, across the autistic spectrum, there are at least some shared and more common trigger points which, once identified, can help make travelling easier. This can be especially useful if you want to travel with an autistic child.

Why Would You Travel With An Autistic Child?

Some might say it seem cruel to put a child with ASD through what is really non-essential travel “just” for a holiday.

Travel broadens one’s perspectives and is often credited with being one of the only things we spend money and it truly enriches our lives. Travel gives us new experiences and exposes us to different people and different environments, it pushes us out of our comfort zone. Travel brings the world together. These are wonderful things and yet it is these same factors that make travelling with autism more complicated.

I recall one particularly stressful holiday which almost put us off travelling as a family all together: We’d chosen to go to the Isle of Wight to avoid the airport (because that was a step too far for us at the time) and because our youngest, autistic son had expressed an interest in travelling by ferry.

He did, in fact, love the short journey from Portsmouth to Ryde and had endured the car rides with the assistance of his beloved iPad. Back then we had not quite got to grips with how overstimulation and a lack of preparation could lead to an overloaded child who can no longer cope.

One of the most spectacular meltdowns he has ever had came during this trip because I really wanted to visit the famous garlic farm. I had not accounted for my son’s acute sense of smell and before we’d even got out of the car he was uncomfortable.

We knew there were some wonderful activities at the farm for children so we pushed through and before long he was in full, loud meltdown.

I don’t share these anecdotes to embarrass him, but to illustrate why it might seem mean to subject a child to stressful situations for the sake of a holiday.

Families want their family holidays to include all members of the family, they want to travel, expand their horizons, enjoy different cuisines, different climates.

My best advice: Do travel! Don’t let autism hold you and your family back.
Just be more prepared
Identify trigger points and
plan ahead, as much as you can,
to keep the whole experience as stress-free as possible.

Nowadays, we are much more adept at planning ahead and are even confident enough to take flights as a family. I’m in no doubt that although autistic children can experience stress because of a trip, especially when it comes to airports and flying, they can also very much enjoy new experiences and environments.

They will often surprise you with their willingness to try new things when away from home. My autistic children can be quite rigid in their diet at home but have sometimes been really quite adventurous faced with a holiday restaurant menu or different products on supermarket shelves.

Going on holiday gives everyone the opportunity to widen their horizons in a variety of ways.

Tips for Before You Book Your Flights

If your autistic child is verbal and has a good level of understanding, find a calm time to talk to them about the idea of a holiday. Collect some brochures or find pictures online of the sort of holiday you are considering.

Accommodation

Consider whether a rental property like an apartment or villa might be more suitable, enabling you to create more of a home from home experience.

Hotels and resorts come in a variety of sizes so it might be you can opt for that type of holiday, but choose a smaller, quieter destination. Contact the accommodation you are considering and ask if they can allocate you a room in a quiet area.

Self catering might work better for autistic children with food issues, especially if you can source (or pack) familiar brands to prepare for them as you would at home.

Buffets, though great for families in general, can be challenging for children with autism. The room is often large and noisy, there’s usually a queue and some autistic children have difficulty making choices quickly. This could lead to a very fraught situation especially if you are aware of a queue building up behind you while your child tries to choose.

Look for familiarity

Destinations popular with your countrymen may be a good choice, as you can often find familiar brands in the supermarkets and even familiar restaurant brands in the resorts. I’m sure I am not alone in visiting McDonald’s at least a couple of times during a holiday with my autistic children.

Safety

When planning your holiday take into consideration the kind of activities your family enjoys at home and can be incorporated into the agenda.

Swimming is obviously an easy one which most children enjoy but if you have a child who escapes or runs, make sure any property or hotel you are considering has ample safety measures so your child can’t end up in the pool by accident. Also, consider buying a wearable sensor which detects if a child is in water.

Avoid holidays with activities you know they are unlikely to enjoy. (Learn from our traumatic visit to the garlic farm!)

Before you set your heart on a particular destination, research the airports at both ends of the flight.

Choosing your departure and arrival airport

Will your child cope with a very large, busy airport? Or is the inconvenience of the size offset by better services for autistic travellers?

Larger airports have more comprehensive facilities and, often, better understanding of the needs of those travelling with ASD.

One good example is Gatwick Airport, which is huge, but the airport’s services on offer for travellers with ASD include:

  • the option of collecting free sunflower lanyards for use during transit indicating wearers have a hidden disability,
  • an autism-friendly visual guide and
  • they have just opened a sensory room, which could prove to be very helpful for autistic passengers.

Smaller airports, on the other hand, may provide a calmer environment. You will probably get through the airport quicker, but may not have the resources to provide a tailored service for autistic travellers.

It’s definitely worth checking out each airport’s website, searching for “special assistance services” no matter how big or small it is.

UK airport guidance for hidden disabilities- CAP1411

The UK Civil Aviation Authority – CAA- has created guidance for airports on providing assistance to people with hidden disabilities. This document details how UK airports may comply with obligations under Regulation EC1107/2006 (concerning the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility) in relation to providing assistance to people with hidden disabilities. Hidden disabilities include, but are not limited to, dementia, autism, learning disabilities, anxiety issues, mental health impairments and hearing loss. Read the CAA CAP1411 document.

Southampton airport, which is relatively small, is one of a handful of UK airports which has fulfilled all of the CAP1411 key requirements and recommendations from the CAA . Other UK airports rated very good by the CAA are: Aberdeen, Belfast City, City of Derry, Cornwall Newquay, Doncaster Sheffield, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Glasgow Prestwick, Humberside, Kirkwall, Norwich and Sumburgh.

Meanwhile, many airports will only reference special assistance for those with reduced mobility. That’s not to say they aren’t prepared to assist autistic travellers but in my opinions it isn’t very reassuring if you are trying to plan ahead.

If in doubt, and you have your heart set on a certain route via certain airports, you could contact the airport via email or telephone and ask what support they can offer you. I, personally, would recommend emailing so you have a copy of what they have offered available to you in writing, in case you have any issues on the day of travel.

Preparation and mental walk-through both for you and your child with autism

You may not be able to predict what aspects of the journey and holiday your child on the spectrum might be concerned about. If they are not able to verbalise their concerns, mentally walk through the entire trip from door to door, and think very carefully about the full journey and any potential triggers.

Does your child have sensory issues? You will need to think about textures, smells and sound.

Right. So you’ve decided where to go. It’s time to book!

Booking your flights

Very often families book flight purely on price. However, it is useful to understand what airlines can offer specifically for families and families with children with visible or invisible disabilities. Make sure you check out the airline’s website before you complete your booking. (You can find the links to the most common airlines in our airlines’ family services list)

Book special assistance

Most bookings will include the option to book special assistance. Many people don’t realise they can pre-book special assistance for autistic travellers, even children.

In principle, the free assistance available is invaluable, although in practice assistance and recognition of each passenger’s needs seem to vary from airport to airport, even in the UK.

It is important to pre-book special assistance before your flight through your flight or holiday provider. You can turn up on the day, but you are more likely to get assistance if you book at least 48-72 hours before your flight.

An added benefit is that if you have booked special assistance at least one adult carer in your party should automatically be seated next to the person who the assistance was booked for, even on budget airlines!

I would always recommend reconfirming special assistance booked both with the airline and your departures and arrivals airport. Do it in writing!

What is Code DPNA and why is it important for an autistic traveller?

Children with autism, who have no mobility issues, special assistance usually comes under code DPNA.

DPNA stands for “disabled passenger with an intellectual or developmental disability needing assistance.

The DPNA code is the international code airlines and airports use to offer what they describe as “targeted help for self-reliant passengers of any age with an intellectual disability who can understand & respond to safety instructions, who requires assistance (departure & arrival) through the airport to the boarding gate (departure & arrival).

Immediately After Booking your Flight

Take a breather and enjoy the excitement of having a trip to look forward to. Don’t start to worry about how your autistic child might react to the actual journey. There’s lots you can do to make the experience less frightening for them, to prepare them.

The sooner you start to prepare your child for the flight, the more likely it is that they will cope with it.

Steps for preparing your autistic child

1. Order a sunflower lanyard or pin

The sunflower is a rapidly growing symbol that the wearer has an invisible disability. A lanyard is available from the Hidden Disabilities website. Alternatively, pick one up for free from Sainsburys or Argos in the UK.

Some people feel they don’t want autism to be identified with any kind of marker. There is a school of thought that asks why should autism be highlighted as a difference -it doesn’t seem very inclusive to ask people to display their difference. However, if you just consider it as a method of helping staff to help you it might be more palatable.

2. Create a Social Story

Help your child understand what is involved in each step of the journey.

Make one for the airport, one for the flight, one for the transfer etc. Check the National Autistic Society’s guide to creating social stories. There are a number of apps that you could even use on the go if an unexpected situation looms. Try this one from Touch Autism which allows you to create visual or audible social stories on iOS devices or this one offering a social story creator, ready made stories and a visual scheduler and available on android and iOS platforms.

3. Explore airport websites with your child

Several airports have resources specially designed for autistic passengers. Edinburgh Airport is a great example of best practice, offering pre-visits, printed resources for children, identifying lanyards and pins for those who want them. They have a ready-made social story.

4. Watch YouTube videos

YouTube videos may be a good way to prepare your child for going through the airport and for the flight. On our Family Flight Advisor YouTube channel we have videos and playlists which you may find useful.

Parents share how they prepare their autistic child for flying

Remember each child is different and you know your own children the best. You know and can anticipate their triggers.

Some children with autism might be excited about the prospect of seeing or riding an aeroplane but many will feel increased anxiety about the specifics, or will not anticipate aspects of the trip – the noise and vibration caused by take-off for example.

Ella, who writes about autism and disability at Purple Ella says:

“I am an autistic mother of three children, two of whom are also autistic. We flew to Cyprus to visit family. When booking the flight I asked for special assistance, which meant that we boarded the plane first and didn’t have to cope with the crowds and noise at the gate.

I also made sure to prepare my autistic daughter ahead of the flight by using the Charlotte Olson Suzie book ‘Suzie goes on an aeroplane’. These books are designed to prepare autistic children ahead of new events, and my daughter read the book many times before the flight.

On the plane, I made sure we had our ear defenders, and something to suck on to avoid ear pain when taking off and landing. I preloaded the kids’ iPads with their favourite shows, and packed plenty of familiar snacks and drinks. Our preparations meant that we all coped well with the flight and went onto have a wonderful holiday. “

Personally, I have spent time with my son researching how exactly an aeroplane flies, which helped alleviate some of his fears about how they get into and stay in the sky.

During takeoff I talked through what was happening and made a game of listening for the “clunk” of when the wheels retracted into the body of the plane.

Some children may have a problem with airline toilets which can be cramped, smelly and noisy. Talk about how they work which might appeal to those with an interest in engineering. Believe it or not there are YouTube videos online with explanations and demos of how they work.

My best tips are to create social stories and a visual timetable and talk through it regularly in the run-up to the trip. This will desensitise them to some of the stimuli and introduce some sense of familiarity.

Don’t forget to anticipate and prepare for change: As any tourist knows flights are subject to delays and cancellations so ensure you tell your child that this is a possibility.

Autistic children usually find change, especially unexpected change worrying and this can lead to meltdowns, challenging behaviour and high anxiety. Delays and cancellations might involve longer time at the airport or even a transfer to a temporary hotel or a different airport. Ensure your autistic child knows this could be a possibility, without creating more anxiety.

Reassure them that even if things change, you will be right with them to comfort and support them.

Almost Time to Fly- Packing

Putting some thought into packing hand luggage can make all the difference when it comes to making the flight bearable or even enjoyable for all of you:

  • Dress for comfort: Choose an outfit for them which will be comfortable as well as suitable for both ends of your journey.
  • Use technology as a familiar distraction: Ensure you are carrying chargers in hand luggage for favourite screens and consider also carrying charged power banks in case of delays. Have the screen on night mode (with reduced blue to ensure fewer stimuli to the brain)
  • Movies: We always download a movie or two onto each tablet which is great for when there is no wifi and don’t forget the headphones! (Read about choosing safe headphones for kids)
  • Prepare for no WiFi: Bear in mind, even if your airline advertises onboard wifi, in my experience the service is often weak, patchy, even non-existent. If it’s working while the bandwidth might be OK to check and send emails, play a few games of Candy Crush or maybe upload that flat-lay of your airline lunch to Instagram, it won’t be up to streaming movies or serious game playing.
  • Involve your child: Ask them to help you to pack their own bag for the aeroplane which could carry games, books, gadgets like a tablet computer or small games console. We also include snacks, a small blanket, ear defenders and their favourite comfort item. My youngest son takes one of his softest cuddly toys which doubles as a travel pillow.
  • Think about making a packed lunch (remember no liquids) especially if you are going on a long flight and you know your child is unlikely to eat the meal provided. However, check not only regulations on what can go through security – even jars of chocolate spread and jam count as liquids- but also what foods can be taken into the country you are travelling to.
    You don’t want your child’s leftover cheese triangle landing you with a hefty fine if you accidentally import it into a country which doesn’t allow dairy products over the border. (The US, New Zealand and Australia have particularly stringent food import policies.)
  • In your own hand luggage include a new toy or cuddly, a small packet of their favourite sweets or a similar treat. It doesn’t have to be large or expensive, just something you are confident would be a positive distraction if your child starts to become anxious or distressed.
    I always buy a Pokemon comic which usually has a small toy attached as well as stickers, puzzles, colouring and stories in it. Discount stores are great for toy cars, trains, figures and other novelties.

At the airport with your autistic child

Leave yourself plenty of time to get to the airport.

When you get to the airport, present yourself to the special assistance desk. They normally require you to touch base with them at least 2 hours before your flight.

They will direct you to any special services- this may include special security lanes, special check-in, immigration and gate procedures.

Take your time and don’t be rushed through in the queues.

It’s worth noting that some airports, despite your preparation, may feel different on the day.

You should also get to the boarding gate at least 30 minutes before boarding.

Onboard, During The Flight

Board first: If you can board first, either through your booking choices or because you booked special assistance, make the most of the short time you have before the rest of the passengers board settling your child in.

Have a grab bag: We condense everything, which might be needed during the flight, into a small bag within hand luggage so we can just whip it out before stowing the larger bag in the overhead lockers.

Equalise the ears: Take off and landing can create sensations in ears, and occasionally even pain. If your child is old enough to safely eat hard-boiled sweets or a lollipop offer them one to suck. Younger children or children who don’t like hard sweets could have a bottle or drinking cup to sip to help their ears depressurize. Yawning too helps your ears “pop” so you could encourage them to try that, making a fun game of it.

This fantastic trick which really seems to help was passed on to me by an airline steward. If you forget to pack any, ask staff on board who may well have some stashed away: In case of ear pain, pack a small ziplock bag containing a cotton ball or two soaked in Olbas Oil which can be held under the nose.
My youngest son is very sensitive to smell and was reluctant to try it as he could smell it the moment I opened the bag. Once I pointed out it could stop the pain (and it did) he did allow me to hold it under his nose.

Comfort zone: If your autistic child likes to “nest” you could create a cosy zone right in their seat. Use a travel pillow and a small blanket and a cuddly toy or two and having the familiar items around them in a mini-nest may soothe any anxiety.
You could bring along a small, weighted lap pad or blanket. Many autistics find weighted blankets calming. They come in a variety of sizes but obviously a large one will eat up quite a bit, if not all, of your weight allowance.
Weighted blankets for children should be no heavier than 10% of a child’s body weight plus 1 lb. So if a two-year-old weighs 20 lbs, a 3lb blanket would be appropriate.

Meals on board: If you’ve brought a packed lunch decide whether your child will prefer to eat at the same time as you or if the smell of airline food might put them off their own meal.

Autism Card: Some parents of autistic children have cards explaining the situation which they can hand out asking people for understanding or assistance rather than stares. This can be useful to hand out if your child becomes restless, loud or distressed. It allows you to focus on your child and not having to explain the situation.
My son has his own card, which he chooses to use as he wants to. It states ” I am autistic. Please be patient.” This is particularly useful when he doesn’t feel able to speak. (You can get badges and wristbands on eBay with the same or similar wording if you think this might help.)
The wording is entirely up to you, but I would advocate it being friendly rather than passively or outwardly aggressive. This may sound like obvious advice, but I have seen some badges and cards bearing quite nasty wording. Which I find, a little harsh as most people react the way they do out of misunderstanding and being misinformed instead of malice.

Have a meltdown management strategy: You may prefer to have a little chat with your nearby passengers and if any incident does arrive tell them clearly and politely what they could do to help, whether that is practical help or to just ask them not to stare.
Sometimes, well-meaning help can make matters worse, so it’s best to be open and upfront if you’d prefer people ignore you while you deal with the situation.

Above all, stay calm: All children, not just autistic children, will pick up on your mood and attitude. If you look and sound stressed they are likely to become anxious too. As well as making plans to keep your child calm and happy, don’t forget to take time to prepare yourself for the trip.

Hopefully, with a little forward planning, you will reach your destination calm and collected and looking forward to some family fun. I always think it’s better to be over-prepared than get caught out. Only you know your child’s triggers and anxieties so some of this advice may be unsuitable.

However, hopefully it will give you some ideas to adapt for your own family- feel free to share your own tips for travel in our comment section.

Arrivals and how to prepare for this

 Yay, you have arrived, survive the flight!

However, now comes the third and final leg of your journey: Arrivals.  

Whether arriving home or to a foreign country, this is not a stage of your journey can often be overlooked in terms of preparation.

By this stage, everyone is a little bit more tired, a little bit more cranky, even if you were lucky enough to sleep on the plane. You are all probably slightly dehydrated, adding to the tiredness and crankiness.  Extra patience is needed now. There actually might be quite a bit of queueing and lots of waiting around.

Tiredness will test everyone’s nerves!

Also remember, as you progress through the arrivals process you will gradually feel the different climate and the difference scents of your destination. Pay attention to your child, because these could be extra triggers.

Disembarking off the plane

Firstly, get off the plane as one of the last passengers. This will save you a lot of angst of people queuing up behind you and wanting to make their way to the terminal. Take your time to disembark, as long as you have special assistance or the plane is connected to the terminal with a walkway.

If you booked special assistance you will be picked up from the plane. You will be one of the last ones off the plane, aside from the crew and the crew should keep you informed of what to expect.

If you have to disembark using stairs, there will often be a bus picking passengers up to take them to the terminal. This does put a bit of time pressure on you, as the buses will, generally, wait for all passengers to disembark before heading to the terminal. These buses are usually quite crapped and often airless. Those few short minutes in the bus are a hassle for any seasoned traveller, let alone someone with ASD.

At the terminal

Keep in mind, that there might be a long walk to the terminal.  Be prepared for this. (This is where your research about your destination airport  will be useful.) Some airports separate the arrivals passengers, some airports route them through the departures terminal, so you intermingle with passengers still waiting for their flights.
This will often depend on whether you still need to go through passport control.

It’s a really good idea to pop into the toilets once you’ve disembarked from the flight, on the way to the arrivals area.  You can do a quick splash on your face, get a quick refresh and recollect yourselves. It’s a good place to fill up your water bottles, if you are in a country where it’s safe to drink from the tap-  which most European countries are.  

Make sure you will start to rehydrate as soon as possible!

Immigration

Your next hurdle is immigration:  Sadly, all families have to go through a manual immigration process, even in terminals which have automated immigration gates.  This might involve an extended wait, especially if there are a couple of large aeroplanes that arrived at the same time. 

Have your paperwork– passport, landing cards and other documentation you may need- at hand and ready to give to the officer when called.

Luggage collection

Once you go through immigration,  you go to luggage collection. If you have checked-in luggage then this is where the conveyor belt will bring around your luggage and any wheelchairs, pushchairs and other items you have checked in to the hold of the aeroplane.

It’s a good idea to have just one person upfront, picking up the luggage and children kept back, at a safe distance.  There is usually quite a tussle by the conveyor belt and people often sling their heavy bags off the conveyor belt without really looking around who’s behind them.  

Customs and excise

Now that you’ve collected all your bags, it’s time to go through the Customs and Excise corridors.   It’s really important to keep in mind any food and snacks you may still have in your bags: throw them out before you get to this point, keeping in mind the country’s requirements for imports of any foods and agricultural Product.  

The fines, if you, mistakenly, want to take in an apple, for example, can be quite hefty.

Arrivals hall

My least favourite part of any airport is the arrivals hall.  People are often standing right across the entrance, there are lots of people standing around with boards.  It’s hectic, it’s noisy, it’s chaotic.

My best tip is to do as much prep in advance, so you know exactly where you going, what you are doing at this point – i.e. taking public transport, picking up a rental car, looking for the person who’s come to pick you up?

Once you are on your transport out of the airport you have truly arrived and you can congratulate yourselves!

Here’s some inspiration for those who are still a little nervous:

2 thoughts on “Flying With An Autistic Child- a Comprehensive Guide

  1. Pingback: Nervous About Flying With a Toddler? Our Guide to Conquering the Fear and Enjoying the Flight. – Family Flight Advisor
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