My husband works in the airline industry, and our children have flown over 100 times. I’ve learned traveling comes with so many variables that might be out of your control. But if your child needs a little extra help, you can take steps to prepare for a smoother journey.
Our son, age 9, is autistic and sensory sensitive and tends to feel anxious. Our daughter, age 7, is not autistic or sensory sensitive, but these tips help her just as much.
Check out books or watch youtube videos about airplanes and airports
Depending on your child’s age, picture books can be helpful for introducing concepts. You can also spend time writing social stories about airports and airplanes.
Print out a map of the airport
Some quirky kids love maps. Check the airport’s website for a printable map. Some airports have their own app. If you can’t find a map, look at airport photos on the website, or search for the hashtag or account on Instagram. Note if there is a train in the airport and get an idea of the general size if you have never been there. The goal is to introduce the airport as a concrete place instead of a vague idea, which can be comforting.
Does your kid need headphones?
This is a common practice with sensory-sensitive children. Some airports are very visually stimulating, and the combination of visual and auditory noise is just too much. Some kids like noise-cancelling headphones. Before you shell out money for them, try the hardware store and see if they can try on headphones made for leaf blowers and lawn care. If your child uses a tablet or likes to listen to music, try regular headphones made for kids that cover the entire ear.
Give your kid a backpack
As long as they can walk proficiently, slip on a backpack. It is great sensory feedback and gives them a sense of ownership and security. Depending on the sensory feedback needs of your child, it can either be fairly heavy or almost empty. If you have a 2-year-old, for example, put a comforter or stuffy and a book inside and maybe a bag of goldfish crackers. For a 7-year-old, put them in charge of their own book, tablet, charger, whatever. It gives them something to do and a sense of ownership. Consider wearing a backpack yourself to keep your hands completely free.
Arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare
The security lines could be long, the gate could be far away, the bathroom could be out of order and you have to walk to another one. Giving enough time cuts down on the intensity of rushing, which can get overwhelming fast.
If there is a choice, use the lane reserved for the disabled or children in strollers
There will be security at the line entrance. Tell them your child has special needs and you’d like to use the disabled line. Say it confidently and clearly. You don’t have to explain your child’s disability or sensitivity.
Review the security protocols before you get the airport
In my experience, this is where it can start to fall apart if you aren’t prepared. With organization, you’ll be fine. Young children need to be out of car seats and strollers. If you are babywearing with an ergo or wrap, it’s usually okay, but I found it best not to count on it. When you approach the TSA officer, have each kid hold their own boarding pass. Prepare them in advance that the officer may ask them their name, and to say it loud enough for them to hear the first time.
In the screening process, things can move very quickly, so you need to be ready
This seems to vary depending on the size and business of the airport. It’s all about having an order firmly locked in your head, especially if your kids are under age 7. Take care of yourself first. You can speed this along by not wearing jewelry, not wearing a belt, wearing shoes that are easily pulled off, and keeping your hoodie or jacket in your backpack so you don’t have to remove anything. Take your shoes off in line before you get to the podium so you are ready to go. Put it all in the first tub, including your phone. Now you have your hands free to help your kids.
If your children are under two, deal with the stroller or car seat first. Someone will probably jump in and tell you what to do. Some can go on the belt and some can’t. Have your child put their own backpack in the tub. Although having a lovely or favorite toy can be comforting to hold in all the pandemonium, it will need to go in the tub. No question. That’s the rule. Try really hard to keep it in the bag until you are through security to curb anxiety or a meltdown. Remind your child it’s inside the bag and it will be okay. Kids who can walk independently go through the detectors by themselves. Sometimes you can see your stuff on the x-ray, and kids think that’s cool.
Find your gate, but don’t hang out there
If there are two adults traveling, have someone stay and someone take the kids and walk around. They will be sitting long enough. Save the tablets and the reminders to sit in their seats for the airplane. Go look out the big windows at all the planes and watch the ground crew work. Do the moving sidewalks a bunch of times. Point out the letters and numbers of the gates. Have your toddler jump from square to square on the carpet. It will get the wiggles out and give your child time to regroup emotionally. Make sure to make a bathroom trip.
You don’t need as much time to get settled on the plane as you might think
Early boarding is great, but sometimes it’s just extra time sitting on a hot plane with a bunch of smells and engine noises.
Use your social stories to reassure during the flight, and go through the “steps” of what is going on
This is especially helpful any time the plane is moving. Taxiing can be especially confusing. The plane is moving, but it isn’t in the air yet.
Your kid might not sleep, even if it’s usually naptime or bedtime
There’s just so much sensory input. Give extra snuggles or reassurance, and be patient.
Hit the bathroom before the plane begins to descend
Airplane bathrooms are small and loud, so don’t be surprised if your child refuses to go in at first. You can try “it looks different, but it’s still a toilet like at home.” You might want to consider having your child step outside after hands are washed so you can flush it. It’s very loud and can be too much to take in.
Tell your child there will be a big bump and they will shake when the plane lands
This is normal, and you’re safe. Hold their hand if they are okay with physical contact.
Take your time getting your things together, and celebrate being wherever you are
I find a slower deplaning more helpful than the early boarding. There’s not as much rush to get out if you let other passengers go before you. There will be a lot more room to breathe when you’re on the jetway, and when you exit into the new airport, there will be room to move around. Take some time to let your child unwind. If they have vestibular self-stimulatory behaviours, let them work it out for a while. Give airtime for the vocal stims. As always, ignore the stares, ignore the glares, and let the whole family take time to adjust to the new place. Unless you are connecting flights or are in a rush, go slow, and only move back into the flow of the airport when everyone is ready to tackle it.
Although sometimes daunting to think about, travelling with kids can be really fun, and that includes kids with special needs. Just remember to plan what you can, and give time to go with the flow if the plan unravels a bit. The calming mantra we always use with my son is “sometimes plans change.” It’s a good one for everyone to keep in mind. Have a safe trip!