“So how do you entertain an autistic child on long haul flights when they have limited expressive and receptive communication skills?”

A little while ago, I asked my Instagram followers to send me any questions they had regarding travelling when a member of their travel party is autistic.  This one really hit home, as it is something that I have been adapting and refining to suit Touristo’s changing needs as he develops and grows older.  I answered this via some Insta live posts, but thought I should write some more permanent notes here.  For this post, I am specifically talking about travelling with autistic children, but the same pointers can be adapted for adult travel companions.

My first few blog posts contain some very broad pointers about travelling with autistic children, however I feel this particular point deserves it’s own post because when you are flying long haul it really is where you need to focus the most amount of energy in your planning.  I think I have said this on my site before, but I really don’t find flying with Touristo (or travelling in general) any more difficult than I do with the Princess, but their needs are very different (and this shouldn’t be ignored).  If I chucked a couple of colouring books, some stickers and books into Touristo’s carry on and expected that to entertain Touristo in the same way it entertains the Princess, it would not be an easy, nor an enjoyable flight! He’s just not motivated by those things, and when you are packed into such a tiny space with so many other people, it is not the time to insist he try these activities! If I make the right accommodations though, he is a very easy-going travel buddy.  So how do I entertain ‘Touristo the Tiny Traveller’ on long haul flights?

  • This one is a bit basic, but I do try and travel on overnight flights as much as logistically possible.  I am shattered in the morning because I don’t sleep well on planes, but my children do….. so to eliminate a lot of time trying to entertain the kids, I pick flight times where I think there is a good chance they will sleep.
  • Snacks.  Like many other autistic children, Touristo is particular with food (a trait he shares with his mum).  So I pack all of his favourite snacks – a full tummy eliminates HANGRY.  Now this isn’t rocket science, I know…..but a tip you may not have considered is……..sabotage.  As much as you can, without changing the food so much they will be annoyed is…..make the bits smaller/harder to eat e.g. I chop up fruit salad into teeny tiny pieces which Touristo picks up one by one, thus taking him 20 minutes to eat something that would usually take 5 minutes.
  • Stuff. Touristo likes unwrapping presents. So before we travel, I do a shop for little ‘things’ that he might like and that might entertain him for a few minutes at a time.  I wrap them individually and hand them out one at a time.  This has bought me hours of quiet moments over the years. The sorts of things I buy are all very cheap for example, Disney figurines, sensory gadgets, and just basically cheap (I consider $5 expensive), novel things purchased from dollar stores or Alibaba.com (who have REALLY cheap fidget cubes and spinners etc).
  • Lots of $2 headphones.  This one won’t apply to most people out there, but when I can find something on the in-flight entertainment that he likes, he chews the cord of the headphones.  So I stock up from stores like Daiso, so he has his own and if he destroys them, it doesn’t upset me.
  • Cater for your child’s individual sensory needs. I always take his weighted blanket on the plane, even for day flights because it relaxes him and stops him kicking his legs.  I also take lots of things for chewing, as well as stretchy toys and things that are good for fiddling with.  A lot of the ‘presents’ I take for him, double as sensory things.
  • The good old iPad/tablet.  Goes without saying really that this is not the time to limit access to technology.  If he uses it for 14 hours straight on a plane and it keeps him happy, then “thank you to the late Steve Jobs”.  Some important things I do to the iPad though before travelling are; remove all the internet dependent apps, remove all to the apps that are location dependent if travelling overseas (I am talking about you ABC for Kids), download all of the YouTubes he watches repetitively to YouTube Red so he can access offline, and download as many apps that can be taught through visual or hand over hand instruction.  I know some flights have wi-fi but it is often patchy at best, so please don’t rely on it even if it is advertised as existing on your flight. I also show him the changes I make to the iPad BEFORE we travel.  If he is going to get upset about it, I want him to do that at home not on the plane.

Now these are things that work the best for Touristo.  As we all know, what works for one autistic person, may do nothing for the next….for example, these things would not have worked for me as a child but give me a few packs of post it notes to fold into paper cranes, and a packet of straws to chew and I would have been fine. But they are ideas meant as a springboard to start thinking about what might work well for your family.  Try to get into your child’s head and think about what might work for them.

Comment below if you care to share what works for entertaining yourself/your child on long haul travel.

2 thoughts on ““So how do you entertain an autistic child on long haul flights when they have limited expressive and receptive communication skills?”

  1. My now 13-year-old son hasn’t traveled on a plane since he was two. But even then I would make sure that the flight was based around his naptime. At that point he wasn’t even diagnosed with autism yet, but that is just always a good thing to do with babies and toddlers. Lately we have only been going on road trips but my hope is to get him on a plane this year or next year, the latest. I will be doing everything you have here on the blog plus more!


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