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Autism and Vacations: Towards Comfortable Flying

A couple weeks back, we shared the extraordinary story of Shawna Wingert who penned an open letter to JetBlue Airways to commend them for their commitment to making flights for individuals and families with autism much easier.  For a mother like Wingert, who has to fly with her son, who has autism, upwards of nine times a year, the simple but effective measures JetBlue has adopted since 2013 made a monumental change in an activity that had frequently been fraught with problems in the past.


For any parent who has ever flown with a child or children with autism, Wingert’s relief was likely very easy to understand. While flying with children is a stressful proposition for any family, it is an exceptionally difficult one for children with autism as families must navigate a loud and bright airport terminal, getting through airport security, and boarding a flight with cramped seats, unfamiliar noises, and strangers.


As we discussed last week, preparation is the key when planning a vacation with a child or children with autism and this is especially true when it comes to flying. Ideally, your child’s first flight should be a short one—an hour tops—to get them familiar with the process of flying.


In addition, open a dialogue with your child in the weeks prior to the flight to familiarize them with what to expect on the flight: how you’ll get to the airport, where you’ll wait in line, how to find your departure gate, board the plane, and spend time onboard.


In addition to opening a dialogue, call your airport ahead of your flight to see if they offer an autism access program or allow families to take a test run through airport security. Washington Dulles, Boston Logan, Philadelphia International, and Atlanta are a few of the city airports that offer parents of children with autism ways to gain familiarization with the flying process, with some even offering mock boarding.


However, if such a program is not in place, you should still let your airline know in advance that you will be traveling with a child with autism and see what services they can extend to you to make your trip easier, such as offering a gluten-free meal if your child has dietary restrictions. Be sure to request bulkhead seats, which feel less confining and do not allow for seat kicking.


Furthermore, make sure to inquire if your airline will allow you to pre-board (and repeat your request once you arrive to make sure you can board the plane early). This will give your child the opportunity to get settled and not be overwhelmed by the stream of passengers boarding. Finally, pack a bag that you can bring onto the plane that is full of items and activities to engage your child or comfort them if the plane hits a rough spot. If your child is sensitive to noise, pack noise-cancelling headphones.


One other obvious option is to fly a particularly autism-friendly airline, like the above-mentioned JetBlue. In 2013, they inaugurated their Blue Horizons for Autism program in which they partnered with Autism Speaks to help kids with autism become familiar with flying by holding practice flights for future fliers. In addition, when booking a flight, the airline allows parents to indicate if their children have any special needs and parents can call ahead to speak with a representative who can help adjust your seating depending on any particular issues your child might have, such as moving him or her further away from the bathrooms if they are sensitive to smells. And when boarding, a gate agent will come and escort you and your child to the plane.


However, as Wingert’s letter made very clear, many airlines lag behind JetBlue’s progressive thinking. By letting your particular airline know in advance that you will be flying with a child with a special need and preparing your child in advance to the best of your abilities, you can avoid many of the issues that often arise when flying.