Flying and ASD: How to Make Holiday Travel Easier for Autistic People - Autism Awareness
Flying and ASD

Flying and ASD: How to Make Holiday Travel Easier for Autistic People

My son, Marc, and I took our very first flight together November 2016. We did a 4 day trip to Montreal, Quebec. The trip was a great success, but only because Marc was well prepared for the trip, meaning there was a high degree of predictability and comfort level which reduced anxiety. We have taken many road trips and stayed in hotels, but this was new territory travelling by plane. With holiday travel about to start for many families, I’d like to share some tips and ideas I gained from our airline travel experience.

1) Create A Travel Program

Did you know that for travel within Canada both Air Canada and Westjet have a program that allows a companion to fly for free if your child is over the age of 18 and can’t fly independently? Each airline has a form that must be filled out and signed by your doctor. Once the airline has approved you, there is a code number given to you to use when booking a flight. This number is good for 3 years. You must have approval from the airlines before booking a flight as they won’t apply this status after a flight has been booked.

The Vancouver International Airport has implemented the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program. The Sunflower logo aims to assist those travelling with invisible disabilities who may need a little extra patience, care, and assistance during their travel experience.

2) Watch ‘How to’ Videos With Your Child

You Tube is a treasure trove for finding “how to” instructional videos on virtually every aspect of airline travel. There are ones for using the bathroom, airport security, and the baggage claim carousel. Every airport has its own website. It can be helpful to visit an airport’s website to determine where you might eat, location of washrooms, airport layout and other information. My son likes to investigate all of these helpful tools ahead of time so that he knows what lies ahead. As a result, Marc had no anxiety in any new airports and was able to relax and watch the planes take off and land – one of his favorite things to do.

Marc also found it helpful to have a toy plane of the airline he was flying on in his hand. This gave him a full view and scope of the plane on a smaller scale, the chance to re-enact the flight process, and I would imagine a feeling of connection and control holding this object in his hands. He does have a small collection of planes (KLM, British Airways, Delta and Westjet); he brought all of these on board the flight.

3) There’s an App for that and Online help

MagnusCards – an app offering digital how-to guides (Card Decks) for people with autism and other cognitive special needs. The introductory Toronto Pearson Airport Set of Ten Card Decks offers a personal step-by-step guide for passengers who might find the busy airport environment uncomfortable and gives users and their caregivers a chance to learn how to navigate community environments with greater ease and independence.

Autism Aviators also just recently launched in Charlottetown, PEI. Visit the link for lots of helpful tips on how to make flying a success. Great information just in time before the busy holiday season begins!

4)Allow Extra Time

We made sure we arrived 2 hours before our flight to allow for extra time to check our bags, go through security, have a snack and get settled. There is nothing more stressful than getting into a time crunch and possibly missing your flight. We did pre-boarding to allow extra time to get settled and not be in a huge line up with people standing close together in narrow aisles. At the end of the flight, we also waited to leave until everyone else had exited the plane.

4)What to Bring On Board

We brought our own snacks, a Rubbermaid drinking cup with a flip up straw to put liquids in as tight quarters can lead to spills, Marc’s mini-DVD player to watch his own programs, his favorite book, toy planes, a couple of favorite cars from Disney’s Cars, wet wipes for spills and cleaning hands, headphones, and a change of clothes. By keeping all things familiar, Marc was comfortable and confident leaving home.

5)Take Time To Enjoy The Trip

Marc’s greatest flying thrill was taking off and landing. He also loved hearing any type of announcement. Marc watched several You Tube videos of WestJet take offs and landings before he flew. He really was prepared for the flight experience!

What I have learned in planning this trip is a little bit of preparation goes a long way when trying new things. Creating predictability and lessening anxiety heightens the enjoyment of a new experience. I feel much braver now and think I can try and international trip with Marc. Bon voyage and happy holiday travels to everyone!

More resources for travelling with ASD

For those with autism, creating predictability is really the key to success.  For more information on creating predictability while travelling, you can read this post on successful summer vacations or check out these resources:

A Review of 6 US Airlines

Autistic Globetrotting – autism travel made easy all over the world. Lots of resources, articles and reviews of places.

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  1. Jennifer Cantello says:

    Hi Maureen. Another helpful article. Is this one we could translate for the Knowledge Base please?

  2. Pauline says:

    Great article, Maureen! We found noise-cancelling headphones especially helpful when the hand dryers were on in the washroom.

  3. Pam Wainwright says:

    Thanks for this. Long story short – our ASD guy developed a phobia flying when a child (more a motion related thing and a bad flight). Then we found a great psychiatrist to help him through and it worked!  This summer our family flew to Italy and had a great vacation. Don’t give up, there are solutions and these suggestions plus working with your health team can expand travel options for our kids. Happy travels!

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences, Pam. I just did an article on fears and phobias not too long ago. Travelling is such an important part of a well rounded life. You learn so much being out of your own environment. We just did a big family trip to Los Angeles with both of our autistic children and it was a great success. It took me 4 months of planning and preparation, but everything went smoothly. It was our daughter’s first flight. She is afraid of heights so we had her sit on the aisle.

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