Do you have a family trip coming up? Want to take a vacation with your kids, but can’t imagine how you’ll make it through the airplane ride without a melt down? Here’s a sample timeline of how to prepare for your flight and then make it to your destination without too much of a headache.
Three Months Out
If you haven’t already, it’s time to start looking at flights. You may have a preferred airline, or you may be looking for the best price relative to your preferred dates and times for travel. Either way, here are the additional factors you need to think about when booking travel that includes your child with autism:
1. Luggage: What kind of luggage will you be able to check? Is it free or is there a fee? Will you be able to check equipment like a stroller at the gate?
2. Seat selection: Do the tickets you are purchasing include the ability to select your own seats, so that you can sit next to your child?
3. Schedule: Instead of the flight take off and landing times, frame this as your door-to-door schedule. What parts of your child’s routine will be interrupted or skipped? Knowing this outline ahead of time will help you problem solve in advance.
4. Stops: Can you fly direct? If not, when and where are the stops? Do you have to transfer planes? If so, is there enough time during the transfer to go between gates while allowing more time for you and your child than if you were flying solo?
One Month Out
Now it’s time to plan ahead for what you will do on the plane, and what your child with autism will do. What are their favorite activities? If possible, select and set aside favorite toys and activities that will fit in a backpack, so that they’ll be fresh and special during the flight. Try to select at least one activity per hour of the flight and hour between flights, if you are not flying direct. If you need to order anything for your child for the flight, such as headphones, allergen free snacks, or special activity books, now is the time to do so.
One Week Out
Now it’s time to pack. If you can’t pack one week in advance, this is the time to make a list and locate everything that you plan to pack, and make sure it will fit into the luggage and carryon bags you are bringing. You’ll also want to run through the larger equipment you plan to bring, such as strollers and booster seats, and make sure you can get from point A to B with the full inventory.
Make sure you consider what you need to pack for yourself, as well as for your child. For example, you may easily remember to pack a water bottle for your child, but forget that item for yourself.
This is also the time to make a plan for how you’ll get from your house to the airport, if you haven’t already. You also need to make a plan for transportation on the other side: is someone picking you up? Are you renting a car? Are you taking public transportation?
Two Days Out
This is a good time to start preparing your child with autism for the travel routine. Avoid getting bogged down in too many descriptive statements about the trip itself. Instead, draw or print a basic visual schedule using simple drawings or pictures to represent each stage of the trip. Show and tell your child the sequence of events, from leaving your house to arriving at your destination. If your child is anxious about leaving home, you may also need to go over the return trip with them.
The Day Before
By this time, you should have completed almost every step of preparation for your trip, so the day before can be focused on things such as reassuring your child about the trip plans using your visual schedule, adding any last minute items of clothing that needed to go in the wash before packing, and leaving instructions about home and animal care for a petsitter if applicable.
The most important thing that you can do the day before your trip is focus on ensuring you and your child get as much sleep as possible. Chances are, you will not sleep normally on the plane or once you’ve reached your destination due to a time zone jump, and neither will your child. Getting rest before your trip ensures you will be able to devote energy to helping your child have a successful flight.
The Day Of
On the day of your trip, leave yourself extra time to get from home to the airport. A good rule of thumb is to increase the time you would need for a solo trip by at least half. For example, if you would plan to leave for the airport two hours before your flight alone, leave three hours before your flight with your autistic child. By leaving extra time, you do not have to rush through security or to your gate. You can take your time and focus on showing your child how each step of the process works as well as shepherding them through each task.
At the Airport
At the airport, leave time for your child to explore, especially if they have not been to an airport before. They may want to look at the planes taking off and landing through the windows, or explore other gates as you pass them on your way to your own. If possible, allow them to “stop and smell the roses” by pausing and looking at things they’re interested in while you walk through the airport on your way to board.
Most airlines will allow families with young children to board the plane early, typically before the first standard boarding group. However, it’s a good idea to check with the attendant at your gate before boarding begins so you can understand the process. For example, if your child appears older than around four years old, and there are no other children on the flight, the attendant might not think they need to call for family boarding. If you’re comfortable doing so, explain that you have a child with special needs and it would be beneficial for you as well as the other passengers to board early.
Now you are on the flight! Take time to get settled in your seats and situate your carryons so that activities are easily accessible. If your child is anxious, go ahead and bring out the first activity now. If they are not, this is a good time to show them all the different parts of the plane, and narrate what others are doing as they board. Make a game out of guessing how much time will pass between boarding and actually taking off. The longer you can occupy your child with these observations, the less time you will need to fill up with the activities you packed.
Hours Two Through Five, And On
In addition to bringing out a new activity every hour or so, you can also encourage your child to rest on the flight, depending on what time it is. Also, try to take your child to the bathroom before they indicate they need to go – about every hour or two, if possible. This is helpful in case the flight attendants require passengers to be seated later on. It also builds in more movement time for your child than they would normally get on a flight.
Prepare your child for not being able to get off the plane immediately upon landing. If necessary, let others behind you get off the plane first, so that you have more time to gather your things and shepherd your child down the hallway.
You made it! Make sure you get some rest and time to recuperate from your adventure. After all, you’ll need to replenish your energy for the return flight!
Courtney Gutierrez, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA Courtney is a behavior analyst, educator, and writer in the Pacific Northwest. She has over fifteen years of experience in the field of autism services, and over ten years of master’s level experience in classroom teaching and ABA therapy. Her areas of expertise include infant and toddler development, parent coaching, ABA clinical leadership and training, P-12 special education, and case consultation for children and young adults with autism and other special needs. Courtney lives in Seattle with her husband and two children.