Updated: Jul 13
Going on vacation can be an exciting time. New places, new faces, and time flying in a plane. However, autistic children aren’t always open to all these new things. They can quickly become overwhelmed and overstimulated. Thankfully, I have discovered ways to make flying more manageable with my two autistic boys. We have survived flight delays, jet lag, and even cabin pressure changes. It hasn’t been easy. But it is doable. Today, I am going to share my best tips for flying with an autistic child. Will all these tips work for you? Maybe not. However, you can tweak them to fit the needs of your autistic child. We can even chat, as I plan your autistic family vacation, and I can help you figure out solutions to other issues that might arise during your flight.
Best Tips for Flying with an Autistic Child
Consider Your Destination
Let’s face it, some destinations are closer to home than others. If this is your autistic child’s very first time on an airplane, it might be better to choose a destination that isn’t half a world away. Now, that isn’t to say that your child cannot handle a longer flight. It just makes flying for the first time easier for everyone.
Talk with Your Child About What to Expect at the Airport and On the Flight
Airports can be loud and crowded. They can also be bright spaces. You can share with your child how you understand they may have difficulty coping with all those things. Let them know there are always quiet areas you can walk into to get away from it all.
Noise-canceling headphones and eye masks can be helpful to block everything out too.
You can also use visual tools, like a picture of the layout of the airports you will be visiting. Pointing out different restaurants or stores along the way will help your child understand where they are during their journey.
This is an excellent time to talk to your child about the boarding and disembarkation process, as well as what to expect when the plane takes off and lands. Their ears may need to pop. A baby might cry. And there will be noise the entire time.
Arrive at the Airport Early
Even though your autistic child knows what to expect at the airport, it is still best to arrive early for your flight. This will ensure you get through the security checkpoint with enough time to reach your gate.
This is important because not having enough time will cause everyone in your autistic family to be stressed. And stress is the last thing your overstimulated autistic child needs right before a flight.
Signing up for TSA PreCheck is helpful too. Being prescreened will allow your family to enter a shorter line at the security gate.
If you have TSA PreCheck, you can also call in advance and sign up for their TSA Cares program. You must do this at least 72 hours prior to your flight. Signing up for this program will allow you to share what accommodations your autistic child will need during the screening process.
Share Your Autistic Child’s Needs with the Airline Staff
Alerting the airline staff of your child’s needs will allow them to help if needed. It will allow them to know your child needs a little extra space and privacy during the flight. The staff will also understand you should board the plane first if that will make the experience better for your autistic child.
Although, some autistic families prefer boarding towards the end because there is less time waiting for the plane to take off.
While speaking to the airline staff is helpful, you can also sign up for the Sunflower Lanyard Program. This program is more popular in the UK and Europe. However, it is starting to be seen in more airports here in the US.
When any airport staff sees a person wearing the sunflower lanyard, they know that person, or family may need a little extra assistance.
Schedule Your Flights Carefully
Everyone seems to have their preferred time for flying with autistic children. I prefer to schedule our flights when it is bedtime. This allows my boys to sleep while we are in the air, and we wake up at our new destination.
This may seem tricky for some people. However, I dress my boys in their pajamas to go to the airport. This signals that it is bedtime for my boys.
Of course, my boys can sleep anywhere, as long as it is their regular bedtime.
If your autistic child needs to lay flat, it may be better to book seats in Business Class or First Class. Those seats almost always recline to a flat position.
Choose Direct Flights When Possible
You never know what types of delays you will face when flying. This is why it is always best to book a direct flight when traveling with autistic children.
The flight time is shorter. There are no waits in airports between flights. And you won’t have flight delays due to the other plane not arriving yet. Or whatever the reason why the flight is delayed.
Keep Your Schedule in Place
When you are flying with an autistic child, it is important to keep your schedule in place. This means snacks should be at the same time. Watching their favorite show at the same time should be considered too.
You can also create a visual schedule for your autistic child to follow. The schedule can look however you want. To give you an idea though, a visual schedule can look like this:
Get on the plane
Plane will take off
Alarm goes off for first snack – bring favorite snacks with you to avoid a meltdown
Alarm goes off for next snack
Get off the plane
Walk through the concourse to baggage claim
Pick up luggage – turn this into a game, it helps at the end of a long day
I created a simple visual schedule as an example.
Interested in an editable version? Download my visual schedule template here!
Incentives also work well with some autistic children. If your child does well with a reward system, you can let them pick something out of a goodie bag. You will want to let them know in advance what they need to do to earn their reward.
Plan Screen Time Carefully
It can be tempting to let your autistic child watch shows while sitting in the airport. This is okay, but they may be bored with their shows by the time the plane takes off. I recommend finding something else to keep your autistic child occupied while in the airport and save their favorite shows for the flight.
Watching other planes take off and land is usually a favorite for most kids. Your autistic child may be curious about how airplanes fly, and this is the perfect time to dive into that topic a little more.
These are my best tips for flying with an autistic child. There are other tips and tricks you can use when flying with your autistic child. Whether this is your first time flying as an autistic family, or you are taking a flight to a faraway destination, I am here to help. As a travel advisor who specializes in helping autistic families like yours, I can help you find solutions to many different scenarios. Contact me and let me plan every aspect of your next vacation. This way I can take care of all the flight details, and everything else, and you can focus on making this trip a wonderful experience for your autistic child.