10 essential secrets to flying with an autistic child

It’s less than a week until we go on holiday and our thoughts are turning to the flights.

We’re going on four aeroplanes in four days, which is a challenge with two boys who have global developmental delay, hypermobility and autism thrown into the mix.

The airport is going to be a big deal. We’ve not been abroad on a family holiday for over two years so everything will be unfamiliar. There will be a lot of potential for meltdowns. Sitting still on a plane and not shouting or blowing whistles (Big Bear’s favourite activity) could lead to frustration and planes taking off and landing, not to mention ear popping could be huge trigger points.

However, we’re preparing as best we can and there are a number of ways to help reduce the anxiety of flying. Here are my 10 essential secrets to flying with an autistic child:


  • Visual aids

Contact the airport in advance and see if you can access pictures from different areas to make into a booklet or social story.

  • Departures entrance
  • Check-in desks
  • Passport control
  • Security
  • Departures lounge
  • Departures gate
  • The aircraft


  • Special requirements

Do you need to sit in a certain seat on the plane or area of transport? Do your children struggle with stairs or can they only eat certain foods? Make a list of any special requirements you might need and make your airline aware of them.


  • Discuss check-in and flight arrangements with your airline

Some airlines enable families with additional needs to check-in at a quieter time, sit in certain seats on the plane with no seats in front to kick, use a quieter area of the airport, board first or last or request special food in advance.


  • Lanyards

Some airports – including Manchester, where we’re flying from – now offer a special sunflower lanyard to wear on your journey throughout the airport. It enables staff to recognise that you have a hidden disability without you needing to declare it. It also enables you to fast track through the queues. Check your airports website for details of their scheme well in advance.


  • Plan for sensory issues

Big Bear is sensitive to noise so we’ll be packing ear defenders and flight ear plugs to reduce cabin pressure. If your child feels comforted by certain fabrics then think about what they might wear for the flight. You can also get weighted clothing items, which can have a calming effect on some children with autism.


  • Use visual aids

Cross off the days until the holiday (but don’t start the countdown too early). Create a holiday information pack with pictures so they can visualise where they are going and what to expect.


  • Practice routines in advance

If your child is worried about the flight, do a little role play to practice going through check-in or security. Practice carrying bags or wheelie cases so they can help out at the airport.


  • Create an emergency pack

This something you can bring out if you can sense a meltdown. Pack snacks, their favourite music, ear defenders, games, tablet or a comfort toy. Whatever helps them when they feel anxious. Make sure you’ve also got enough entertainment for the flight. The general rule is to plan for one or two activities per hour, including meals.


  • Encourage good behaviour

Think of things you can use to encourage good behaviour to distract the child during long waits and help them to keep calm.


  • Activity book

Sign up to my email list and receive a FREE 10-page holiday activity book which includes a checklist of things to spot at the airport, a page to write about or draw a picture of their journey, plus a place to write down any worries they might have.


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