Air Travel for Children with Special Needs

Air travel means a lot of change in daily routine.s

Air travel means a lot of change in daily routine.s

Air Travel can be challenging for everyone. It can be difficult to cope with the constant waiting, the sheer volume of people in one place, the assault on your sense of smell and the lack of personal space. But if you have sensory processing difficulties then air travel is not just challenging it can seem insurmountable, frightening and threatening. Additionally put into this equation the actual physical experience of taking off, turbulence and landing then it becomes a real assault on the senses.

How someone with special needs copes with a situation like this will depend on where they are on the Spectrum, their level of difficulty in processing sensory information and their ability to use coping strategies. Bear in mind that senses can be over-sensitive or under-sensitive or even both at different times. Sensory difficulties can have a profound effect on behavior at any given time. Air travel will target all of the senses: Sight; Sound; Smell; Taste; Touch; Balance and Body Awareness.

The success of coping with the challenge of air travel will also depend on the age and ability of the child. You will be able to target some of the foreseeable problems before you start you journey to the airport. Try to think ahead as much as possible to anticipate situations that may cause a great deal of stress. Balance this with what you already know and understand about your child and the strategies that you already use to prevent a meltdown; provide a distraction or help them relax.

So often we stress that anyone with special needs does not like change, and if travelling, especially air travel there is going to be a lot of change in their routine. We need to explain:

  • Why there is going to be a change (We are going to go to the airport and travel on a plane to get to our holiday destination)
  • When it is going to happen (We are travelling on Saturday).
  • What we are going to do instead (We need to get up very early to get to the airport by 8am).

When travelling by air, you have to be creative with packing due to space and weight limits. Decide what is essential for your child’s well-being, this includes packing a favorite toy or game; music or movies that usually relax them (what did we do before smartphones and tablets?); book (or books if you have an aspy that cannot live without reading). Plan ahead for snacks & meals as food on the plane generally leaves a lot to be desired even for the most easy going people. Most snacks can get through security without any problem.

Although you can plan ahead for most eventualities when travelling, there can be unexpected challenges to deal with. You will find it hard to make contingency plans for every eventuality. The other problem is that you can help your child prepare for the trip, through use of social stories and visualisation techniques but sometimes too much information can have the opposite effect and cause them high levels of stress and anxiety before you even start your trip.

Be selective about what to focus on and answer their questions honestly.

Start by deciding what you feel may be the biggest concerns that you may face with air travel and your child and focus on those first. These may include:

Sensory Meltdown. This is probably one of the biggest worries as it can happen anywhere and at any time. A child can appear to be coping well but something that may be insignificant to the majority of people will be enough to tip the balance for a sensory challenged child. Be aware of triggers like people who are wearing a lot of perfume or aftershave; unfamiliar foods; unfamiliar fabrics and noise levels. Be on the lookout for areas where there is minimal people traffic, is cool (airports are always too hot) and can afford some relaxation and become a bolthole for the stressed.

The need to stim. Stimming is their way of coping. If other passengers are bothered by this then gently explain the reason for stimming. If you are already flying, recruit one of the attendants to be your advocate. Try to deflect any undue attention from other passengers.

Asking questions. Don’t stop your child from asking questions or talking to other travellers or flight attendants as this will help them to make sense of everything. Most people react well to being asked questions but do keep a watchful eye to make sure they are appropriate questions.

 Using unfamiliar toilet facilities. This can be quite challenging as there are usually lines waiting to use the toilets. In this case it would be OK to use the disabled toilet.

 Waiting. Travel always seems to involve a lot of waiting. Waiting for check-in to open; waiting to actually check-in; waiting to go through security; waiting at the gate; waiting to de -plane. Time spent waiting can be enough of a trigger for an anxiety meltdown. You can avoid some of the waiting by signing up for priority boarding; fast track through security and a VIP lounge pass. There is a cost to use these facilities, but the cost may be well worth it. When you are waiting to board the plane have a word with the gate agent to see if they will let you use the pre-board facility. Pre-board will avoid your child and you boarding a plane that is already nearly full of people which can provoke a feeling of panic.

Taking Off/ Landing and Turbulence. All of these actions can cause additional sensory problems with balance and body awareness. The sense of balance (vestibular) can affect travel by causing motion sickness which means that the body feels that it is still moving long after take-off or landing. Turbulence is an additional problem that can be encountered suddenly. If you think that your child may suffer from this, it may be an idea to talk to your family doctor about some medication to help reduce sensitivity. Body Awareness of Proprioception is the sense that lets us know where our bodies are in relation to space. If your child uses a weighted blanket at home it may be worthwhile taking it (or a smaller one) on the plane to help them feel secure by providing deep pressure.

Sky Inclusion created the Airline Special Assistance review website (www.airlinespecialassistance.com) as an independent forum for passengers with special needs. Sky Inclusion plans to become the leading review site for airlines and associated special needs air traveler reviews. Sky must be inclusive!

Sky Inclusion created the Airline Special Assistance review website (www.airlinespecialassistance.com) as an independent forum for passengers with special needs. Sky Inclusion plans to become the leading review site for airlines and associated special needs air traveler reviews. Sky must be inclusive!

Useful strategies

  1. Check the airline’s special assistance. A brand new web site (www.airlinespecialassistance.com) is under development for information, reviews and rating.
  2. If possible fly the first leg of your journey from a small local airport. These are usually far smaller, less busy and generally less invasive to the senses. Going through security at a small airport can be less stressful as there are fewer people to herd through the security process at any one time. Generally you do less waiting in line at the check-in and at the gate.
  3. Whichever airport you are travelling from try to visit it in person or through virtual map prior to your trip.
  4. Dress your child in familiar clothes that they feel comfortable in. Don’t make them wear new or unfamiliar clothes on the day of travel.
  5. Let the child help with planning what is going into the luggage, help them to decide just what they need while they are plane so it can be packed in a carry-on. Let then access picture of the destination and hotel where you are staying.
  6. Rather than just talk about the travel arrangements, prepare a small book for your child that illustrates each section of their journey in the order in which it will be happening. This can reduce worry over ‘what comes next?’ Do not go into too much detail just in case actually eating at MacDonald’s for example does not happen due to short layovers or too many people already waiting to eat there.
  7. Depending on your child, try preparing some flash cards that can show how that express feelings. Even the most vocal of children may feel too overwhelmed to talk sometimes. The cards can be used for short messages such as pictures of a ‘smile’, ‘a sad face’ (or thumbs up and thumbs down), yes, no, please and thank you.
  8. Use social stories. Devise a story about someone flying for the first time and talk about what information that person may need to make their trip go smoothly. You will need lots of illustrations (as people on the Autistic spectrum are visual thinkers and visual learners) that you can put together as the story develops.
  9. Role Play. This can be very useful to help understand the order of what happens when you get on the plane such as getting comfortable in their seat, what needs to be stowed and what they may need during the flight to make them feel comfortable. Also use role play to highlight the need for safety instructions; use of seat belts and how to cope with eating from the tray table etc. Encourage your child to think about any other additional information they may need. You may find that you have a budding flight attendant.

Your child will also want to be reassured that the home and all of their belongings are safe while you are all away.

Happy Flying!



3 Comments

  1. Emma Clark Reply

    I recognise myself in what you wrote about. Our son is autistic and it is a big challenge to travel with him. Everything is about planning and preparation.


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