So last we left off we were discussing prepping for the actual travel day. While many use social stories, and given where your child is on the Spectrum that may be very suitable, for our child it’s best to show him. We live in a very rural state where you have to drive routinely an hour to get to your destination of choice so we started to go for drives. Each drive would get a little longer until our son was accustomed to sitting for longer periods of time without the need to get up. His anxiety levels as well started to go down over time.
We are fortunate as well that our son understands that certain things have to happen in a car (same as an airplane) in order for it to go anywhere. There are certain safety rules we have instilled that everyone’s seat belts have to be fastened for example. When pulling out of the driveway we need to be quiet, or if we come into some unexpected weather, the Driver needs quiet so they can concentrate on the road. Innately we have made hand signals between us like the “shush” symbol of putting a finger to the lips in cases where quiet is needed. The reason I state this is getting everyone loaded in the cabin of a car can be a very similar exercise to boarding a plane. There are rules that must be followed with any form of travel to make sure people are safe. These rules of the road once understood by our son have helped him grasp that the same could be said for flying.
Now, there was one area about flying that I was looking at with extreme nervousness. The security check point. We met with the school liaison officer at our local high school who met with both of our sons to talk with them about how important it was that if they were in an airport and saw someone in a uniform that they answer their questions and listen to what they had to say. He also spoke to them about how it is necessary to check people before they get on the plane and this is how it goes. We then did an example of passing through a metal detector. What we determined was if I walked through first, with my husband at the end and the two boys in between, I simply could turn motion to our youngest to walk through and he would be fine. Our oldest would follow suit, then my husband. This method has proved to work for us each time as the boys have gradually gotten used to loading their backpacks on the conveyor, taking relish in the fact that Mom and Dad have to remove our shoes but they can keep theirs on, and the promise of a possible TSA sticker. Knock on wood we have not had any incidents of our son refusing to cooperate, though it is always in my mind of explaining to TSA officers how he is Autistic and to be patient. Most of the TSA representatives we have met have been very friendly with both of our boys and have even helped him understand why he has to wait in line, etc.
For the actual flight we have found that Southwest Airlines has been our best bet when booking. They have let us preboard with our son, usually just one parent goes in but they have let our entire family board if he appears like he is going to have a meltdown upon separation. During the flight the attendants have always been professional to deal with and helpful, especially when our youngest has to go into the bathroom on his own. For in flight entertainment, we simply cannot beat the iPad. We load it with our son’s games from school, movies, books, etc. and it usually keeps him occupied during the entire flight. The first time though where he was told he had to put it up while we landed was an outburst, but since then we give him a 10 minute warning, then 5 minute, then 1 minute. He now gives it up for storage as he knows he is about to get off the flight. We also bring a weighted lap pad, comfort toys like stuffed animals, etc.
Tips for Navigating the Airport with One or More Children
- Dress your children in bright identical colored tops. For our boys I usually dress them in Reds or Lime Greens. If it’s cold I usually put them in a fleece, if it’s warm a polo shirt. But like it or lump it they wear the same top. It makes them easier to spot when walking and navigating through.
- If you can, explain the process in picture boards if your child is more visual or verbal lists if your child is more auditory. We have found again a great use for the iPad, in putting together social stories: First we will get into the shuttle, then check our luggage, next we will go through screening, etc. This has helped our son really grasp there is a process to flying and each step has to happen before the next in order to proceed forward.
- Provide for room in your schedule to decompress and process for your child if possible. We usually get to the airport no less than 2 hours before our stated flight time. This allows him to get used to the airport, the people, etc. It also gives him and us time if he does have a meltdown to go into a quiet corner and do some compression therapy to help him.
- Practice breathing/compression techniques for anxiety on the plane. We have some calming techniques that can be done while sitting in a seat and we have taught our son how to do them himself if the need arises. Breathing (Smell the Flower, Blow the Pinwheel); compression on the arms and legs, massaging his scalp and face (if necessary), seat stretching, etc.
Flying with a child with ASD can present it’s own unique challenges, but it can be done. I look at it like another adventure to have with our son and also another great stepping stone for him. He flies, he flies well, and after 10 flights in the last calendar year he has had great success learning what is and isn’t appropriate to do on a flight and how to calm if he needs to.
Next up, Navigating the Parks!