For many parents, the idea of bringing their children with special needs on a holiday strikes fear in their hearts, particularly if their journey involves air travel.
Walking through the airport, waiting to check in, going through security screening and just being on an airplane cause fear, tantrums and meltdowns for some children with special needs.
Crowds, lights and noises in airports cause sensory overload. Going through security, and separation from a parent or guardian for even a short time is very distressing for any child and even more so for those with special needs.
Thankfully, some airports and airlines recognize these potential problems and are implementing solutions. Here are some tips for air travel with someone with a disability or special needs:
- Check the website of your airline for any assistance they offer for people with disabilities. If the website doesn’t provide any information, contact the airline directly to explain your circumstances and the help you need.
- Decide if an “airport rehearsal” would benefit your child. Many airlines and airports have programs that allow children with special needs to get a preview of what they can expect on their trip. Wings for Autism is one program designed to prepare people with autism for air travel. Autism Speaks and Jet Blue run another program called Blue Horizons for Autism.
If an airport rehearsal isn’t possible, prepare your child for your journey using books about air travel. A Guide to the Airport Experience is available to download for free from Autism Speaks. In addition, you can download Airport Social Stories written by Carol Gray, from the Philadelphia International Airport’s website.
- You can also make your own guide to air travel using pictures and videos of airports and airplanes. Irish Autism Action describes the steps you should include when preparing for air travel on Dublin Airport’s website.
- If you are travelling to or from the United States, check the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) website for information on the accommodations they offer to those with disabilities and special needs. The TSA has a hotline, TSA Cares (1-855-787-2227), for people with disabilities.
- Make information sheets/cards with brief information about your child. Keep a few cards handy. Then, if a problem arises you give a card to airport, airline or security workers. This card is a discreet way to let others know you need extra help, patience and understanding.
- Get a letter from your child’s doctor outlining her disability and any medications she takes. This letter will help if you are bringing medications with you and if your child needs medical care during your journey.
- If you think the noise of the airport and airplane will present problems, bring headphones so your child can listen to music and/or bring earplugs.
- Bring your child’s favorite toys and snacks to help entertain, calm and/or distract him.
- Prepare for possible delays – if you have an extra hour or two at the airport because of a flight delay, plan what you will do with your child during that time and make sure your bring any necessary items such as crayons, games, snacks, etc.
- Prepare your child to answer questions from security or customs staff. Airport security personnel ask some children their names and the identity of the people they are travelling with to ensure the child is with a parent or someone else who has authority to travel with the child.
- Have your child carry or wear (on a lanyard) a laminated card with his name and your contact information to assist if he gets lost.
- When planning your journey consider the time of the flight, whether it is a direct flight and seating choices. Paying extra for a direct flight or to pre-book the best seat for your child may be worth it. Seat Guru is a website that shows the layout of seats on different planes and identifies which seats are the best and worst.