Air travel with children has become increasingly difficult as flight crews and other passengers have become less tolerant of any poor behavior on an airplane, even if the offender is a small child. Stories of toddlers and their parents removed from flights because the toddler was screaming or refusing to buckle his seat belt might scare you off flying if you have an autistic child whose behavior in strange situations can be unpredictable. Flying with your autistic child will go easier if you plan and prep him ahead of time.
Even non-verbal autistic children assimilate much of the information you give them, so talk to your child ahead of time about what's going to happen at the airport and on the plane. Some airports and airlines now offer preparation sessions for families dealing with autism; these mock sessions allow your child to go through a simulated boarding experience so he knows what to expect during the actual experience. Books about flying can also help prepare your child for what will happen at the airport. If you have a long flight, assess whether your child will do better with short flights, where he can get off the plane and walk around between flights or with one long flight, where he only has to board and get settled once.
The security line can be long, frustrating and a bit scary, even for normal adults. The Transportation Security Administration has created a hotline, called TSA Cares, that can give you tips on navigating security with less stress. If you know your child will balk at security procedures, ask to go through the handicapped line so that you can take your time without feeling that you're holding up other passengers. The handicapped line is generally less crowded, so he won't feel as stressed by having a lot of people around him, often jostling to get ahead or standing too close. If he has an item that you know will be difficult for him to part with, ask if security can use a wand to check the item while he holds it rather than sending it through the scanner.
Boarding the Plane
If your child has difficulty handling crowds or standing in line, ask the gate attendant for either an early boarding pass so you can get him settled in a seat quickly or let them know you'll be boarding last, so you spend less time on the plane. When you choose your seat assignment, try for seats toward the front of the plane, where he might not feel as hemmed in and crowded by other people as he might in the middle or back of the plane. A quiet word to the flight attendant as you board can help her understand your situation and explain to other passengers if your child does act up in any way during the flight.
Your fellow passengers might not recognize your child's behaviors as being autism, but might just see him as another acting-out kid. Sometimes big visual clues help others get the message if you don't feel like spelling it out to strangers; wear a shirt with some type of autism message on it or use your "autism awareness" bag as a carry-on onto the plane. During the flight, give your child earphones to block noise and decrease stimuli; play familiar soothing music or certain television shows or movies as a way to de-stress and distract your child from the unfamiliar situations around him. Hand-held electronic devices are lifesavers during a flight, as long as he can deal with turning them off during takeoff and landing.
If you're counting on the airline to provide a nutritious meal, or any meal at all, you're probably in for a surprise, unless you're in first class. The best way to feed your autistic child on a flight is to pack a full complement of foods you know he'll eat, especially if he'll only eat a few things. Eating provides your child with a familiar activity and helps pass the time.
Suzanne Robin is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in oncology, labor/delivery, neonatal intensive care, infertility and ophthalmology. She also has extensive experience working in home health with developmentally delayed or medically fragile children. Robin received her RN degree from Western Oklahoma State College. She has coauthored and edited numerous books for the Wiley "Dummies" series.