I am never sure exactly how things will go, what will happen, or if we will successfully get to where we need to go when we fly. But over the years, I’ve gained some tools to give me confidence that, most of the time, we will be successful — even if I am traveling alone with my son, Liam, who is autistic.
Liam and I recently traveled to the east coast to spend some time at the beach with the grandkids . Flying all the way across the country from Arizona to North Carolina is no small feat!
We had to get up a 3am to catch a 5:30am flight there. We had to make a stop in Chicago where we did not deplane and then continue on to our final destination where we had to get our luggage, pick up a car, and get to our hotel for the night. We also had to adjust to a 3-hour time change!
After spending 10 days away from home, it was time to do it all over again. This time, our flight home was a little later and it had a connecting flight. We were delayed on our first flight and sat in the plane an hour before we left. We missed our second flight and had to wait in the airport in Texas for three hours before finally getting on our flight home to Phoenix where we had to, again, get our luggage and pick up our car before driving home. It was a reallllyyyyy looooonnnnggggg day.
I am so happy to share we made it through without any major meltdowns or concerns!
So what are the tools that we use to help us when we fly ? Here are our Top 4 tools that you can use at any age!
? Tool #1: Have a plan and communicate the plan clearly and often!
When Liam was younger, I always chose flights that had layovers so that we were (usually) not stuck on an airplane for an extended amount of time. It helped to have the break in-between where we could get off the plane and he could get some physical movement, distraction, and food. With how travel is post-covid, I now try to get a non-stop flight as much as possible so that we can avoid the many delays that have become part of air travel. I also take the earlier flights as those generally have less delays. I make sure to always go over the plan with Liam before and during the trip: when we are leaving, how many planes we are taking, how long the trip is, what things he’ll be able to do or take. You’ll need to adjust this communication to the understanding level of your child/adult and social stories are a great for this!
Bonus Tip: Pay a little extra for flights to secure the best option for your child/adult — whether that be a longer layover, a non-stop flight, or a flight during the best part of your child’s/adult’s day.
? Tool #2: Have a “bag of tricks” for the plane ride.
Plan and have supplies for different things to keep your child/adult occupied. My trick bag includes snacks/drinks (or even a meal, if needed), art supplies, a plush toy, an iPad with games and a couple of downloaded movies, headphones, a neck pillow, a light jacket, sensory fidgets, and access to the flight tracker (or a timer). Be sure to gradually release access to the items instead of making it a free for all. Start out with a couple of choices and once they tire of their first choice or start getting restless, offer another set of choices.
Bonus Tip: Have your child/adult work for an extra reward for desired behavior. When Liam was younger it was usually some type of toy or extra treat. Now he really likes money. So he earns a “bonus” and gets it as soon as we arrive at our destination safely.
?Tool #3: Take advantage of early or pre-boarding options.
You can indicate the need for special assistance/accommodations on most airline profiles. Once at the airport, go to the gate agent ahead of boarding and let them know you have someone who requires extra assistance/time to get situated on the plane. I found Liam is the most successful if we can get onto the plane early and get him occupied with something preferred rather than waiting more in the gate area. Only one person is generally allowed to board with the pre-boarder, so you will need to consider this. If you are the only adult traveling with several children, then be sure to check with the airline or gate agent to if you are still able to pre-board.
Bonus Tip: If your child/adult tends to be restless or noisy, sitting over the wing or towards the back is helpful for the white noise and to stay away from those people who are on a mission to sit near the front and are generally less patient.
?Tool #4: Manage your own anxiety and remain calm.
I’m not sure you’ve noticed it, but I’ve noticed with my son and my former students that their anxiety often rises to the level of anxiety I am radiating. Practice speaking in a calm, quiet tone and relax your body language. SMILE. Do some deep breathing exercises. Slow yourself down. Often, I have to work hard to fake it, but the more I radiate calm and happy, the more calm and happy Liam gives me back.
Bonus Tip: Determine ahead of time that you CAN and WILL get through this no matter what the obstacles. When you practice a positive mindset, you are less likely to allow things to stress you out or distract you from being calm. Choose to focus on what you CAN control.