Making air travel easier when you or someone in your family is/are autistic – Part 1: Planning

Intro

Since taking our first mini road trip with my son when he was 3 months old, I have committed myself to experiencing as many travel opportunities with my family as I can. Time spent exploring together (either domestically or abroad) presents unique learning opportunities as well as a chance to bond, that can’t be replicated in any other way.  Nothing is going to stop that, especially not my son’s autism diagnosis.  I mean he is ‘Touristo the Tiny Traveler’ and he has made some of his greatest gains whilst on the road.

As he has gotten older we have had to make a few accommodations to ensure that things go smoothly and I want to share some of these accommodations in this, and subsequent post to hopefully give others some inspiration.  Of course it is important to take into account that every person on the spectrum is an individual and will require their own adjustments / accommodations, but this is a starting point. The most important thing to consider (and it overarches all of the headings below) is to be organised, and to have a plan a, b and c for as many situations as possible.

Planning

  • When booking flights consider which time of day is going to suit best. For shorter domestic flights, is it best to go in the morning when you are well-rested? Would an afternoon flight be better so you can immediately check-in to your hotel on arrival.
  • For longer, international flights do you have a child that will sleep on the plane allowing you to get a rest, or will they be awake, overtired and cranky. For what it’s worth, I love night flights. Touristo gets so excited about going on a plane, he conks right out assisted by the hum of the engines.
  • When you book your flights, there should be an option to add your requirements regarding disability services. You request this directly through your airline booking, but the service is carried out by the airport you are departing from. What this includes varies from airport to airport, but at Sydney Airport it involves going to the disability services counter at the airport where you are assigned an escort who takes you to the check-in counter, moves you quickly through immigration / security and ensures you get to your gate. I believe they also help you find places like the quietest parts of the airport to wait (if required). This does need to be booked in advance.
  • When packing, write a list of anything you could possibly need in transit and ensure these things get packed in hand luggage. These could include sensory items, a weighted blanket, tons and tons of preferred snacks, comfort items, tablet (do not forget the charger), an external battery for the iPad, games, stationary and an empty drink bottle to fill after security.
  • If you have a child on the autism spectrum who is fidgety and/or has difficulty staying still, consider using a CARES Harness (Child Airplane Travel Harness – Cares Safety Restraint System – The Only FAA Approved Child Flying Safety Device). I cannot rave about them highly enough and they are the single most useful travel tool I have come across. I have explained to Touristo that being in a plane is like the car and we must remain seated at all times except toilet stops. He accepts this because his plane harness is similar to his car seat.
  • If you are not familiar with the airport you will be departing from, familiarise yourself with the airport map and figure out where you might be able to eat, and where the kids can run off steam.
  • Prime your kid/s. This is so super important. Some people like to write social stories with pictures outlining each step of the journey and what is expected of people when undertaking these steps. Personally, I find this does not hold Touristo’s interest well enough. I use YouTube clips and give commentary while he is watching, and I start this process months before we go so he is very familiar with everything. I find clips of what the process is at the airport, the lounge / food hall where we will eat, what play equipment there is at the airport, exactly what plane we are going on, and reviews of the flight we are going on that specifically shows the cabin and type of seats we will be in. I also do this for hotel, theme parks, activities etc (but that is for a later post). Because he is familiar with everything, he just gets on with the process like a boss.
  • When you are doing this research to prime your kid/s, also save pictures of the important steps you will go through at the airport and on the plane.  You can use them to create a ‘this / then’ visual schedule on your phone to let them know what is coming next whilst you are in transit.
  • Dress in layers and to cater for sensory needs. Temperature is changes as you move through the terminal and then on the plane so ensure outfits cater for that. Ensure outfits are comfortable and assist in dealing with sensory requirements if necessary. Is strip lighting and / or crowds and issue? Then consider hoodies to block out peripheral vision, use sun glasses and noise cancelling head phones. Always take into account the individual’s particular needs.  For oral stimulation, chewing gum, candies and lollipops help, and also have the added benefit of helping to equalise the pressure during the flight.
  • Consider packing electrical tape. No this is not a joke, it is super handy and I will outline why on my ‘On the Plane’ section.
  • Have a plan as to how to get from the airport you arrive at to your accommodation e.g. train timetable, booked transfers, knowing where the taxi rank is etc. After a long flight you really want to get straight to your hotel and rest because otherwise you are risking a big, huge, tired meltdown if you don’t.See you soon in Part 2!

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