Thursday, July 17, 2014

5 Tips for Flying with an Autistic Child

*This list was originally intended for my parents, who will be flying with Ben for the first time alone in a couple of weeks.  However, I thought that others might benefit from the tips that I’ve accumulated from years of flying back and forth across the country, so I decided to post this here.

Dear Mom and Dad,

Thanks so much for taking such good care of Ben these past few weeks.  Ben loves to fly, and I know everything will go great, but I thought I’d share a few ideas to help make the process smooth.  They may seem like small things, but they can add up to a successful flying experience, which makes everybody happy.

So, without further ado, here are my Top 5 Tips:

Tip 1:  Stock Up Before The Trip

-The two main things I always make sure to include in my travel bag are food and entertainment.  (Also, a change of clothes is always a good idea, though I forgot to pack this last time, with no ill effects.)

-In the past, I would go to the store and pick out some new items for the plane.  I’ve found it’s helpful to have special toys that only used on the airplane.  That makes them novel and interesting when we fly.  This year, I included Ben in the choosing process.  Since he is into arts and crafts, we went to the Dollar Tree and picked out several easy art projects to do on the plane.  That was what he ended up doing pretty much the entire time, so I was very glad we got them!  After the plane takes off and is level, you can open the tray table for a great surface for projects.

-On flying day, I usually let him pick one special treat from the store after we make it through security to kill a little time and as extra motivation.  Usually this is a small pack of candy.  This time we did gum.  I told him we would practice blowing bubbles (bad idea, as he nearly hit the woman sitting next to me with a flying wad of gum).  We also buy a bottle of water and a bottle of apple juice from the store after security.  I find the extra minutes at security for them to check the juice are not worth it for us (see security later)

Here are some items that I’ve used on the plane in the past:

-Sticker books (The repositionable Melissa and Doug stickers are fun)
-Coloring books with crayons or markers (we like Color Wonder markers for less mess)
-Play Doh (though it can be messy so use discretion)
-Craft sticks and other items to decorate and play with
-Etch a Sketch or Magna Doodle (travel size)
-We also bring his Ipad and headphones.  I try to put a couple of new apps on it or short movies for novelty.  This usually entertains him for at least half the flight, but this past flight he only used it for a total of about 5 minutes.  This is why I like to be prepared.

*We also always bring a toy airplane, which he loves to fly around the airport while waiting at the gate

Things that Did NOT work well for us on the plane:

-Balls (they roll, fall between seats, and then the crying ensues)
-Cars, trucks, etc (same reasons as above)
-Super-messy items or things with small pieces (like puzzles) generally don’t work for us
-Extra heavy items (like big books) are bulky and tough to lug around, which leads me to…

Snack Ideas (when all else fails to entertain, bring out the food!):

-Teddy Grahams, animal crackers, or other lightly sweet cookies he may not otherwise get to have.  
-Cheese-its are usually our go-to for salty since pretzels are usually provided on the plane.

Tip 2:  Travel Light

When packing for the airplane, I usually have a carry-on bag for myself and a carry-on for Ben.  In the past, I would always bring my stroller without fail, and I would wear a backpack for me and sling a bag over the stroller for him.  Now that he’s five, he agreed that he’s a big enough boy to walk through the airport.  This made me nervous for several reasons, which we will get to later, but it worked really well.  I packed his school backpack full of his travel toys (see Tip 1) and his favorite stuffed animals, and I had my travel bag, since I was toting my laptop this time. 

The benefits of the stroller in the airport are ease of travel and carrying items on it, but the drawbacks include getting it through security, the hassle of getting a gate tag for it, and waiting for it to come off the plane at the end (as you’ll see throughout the post, waiting is a big deal!)

I try not to tote unnecessary items with us, because if he tires out I may have to end up lugging it all myself.  Do the best you can in this area, and don’t forget to pack something for yourself to do on the plane I case you magically find yourself with some time when you don’t need to entertain him (it can happen!)

Tip 3:  Always Look For Ways to Avoid Waiting in Lines

-Waiting is by far the most difficult part of travel for him.  There are ways to minimize this, if you look for opportunities.  Here are some small things we do to avoid big meltdowns later.

-Check-In 24 hours before flying.
Since we fly Southwest, checking in early allows us to get priority seating, which helps with waiting during the time to board.  It also allows you to skip the longer lines at the kiosk where you drop off your luggage.  You can also take advantage of family boarding, which allows you to board earlier if the child is the right age.

-Make sure you go through the shorter line at security (if the airport has it)
Going through security is one of the hardest parts of flying, but if the stars align, it can go (somewhat) smoothly.  At the Tampa airport, they have a regular line, and then a line for families and those with disabilities.  In the past, I always had a stroller, so they waved me into the family line.  This time I was nervous that they would make me go through the regular line, and I was going to tell the TSA agent that he had autism and ask to go through the other line.  Luckily, it was not an issue, as she immediately waved me into the family line, but in the future I will definitely ask about using that line, for our sakes and for the sakes of those around us.  If you call ahead, most airports will provide help navigating the security lines if you explain the situation, but we have not needed to take this step yet.

-Don’t get in the line to board right away
When it is actually time to board, I wait and jump in line right before they are ready to call my group.  Stay in your seat at the gate (hopefully you found one by a window looking at the airplane).  He has a much easier time waiting in the seat than waiting in the line.  Also, talk him through the waiting process.  We’ll talk more about airplane stories later, but reminding him of the process is soothing to him.

-When the plane lands, stay sitting down
At the end of the flight, getting ready to get off the plane is also very hard for him.  This is the part where everyone stands up but on one moves for about 10 minutes until they open the door.  I have found that the best approach for this is to not appear to be in any rush at all.  Don’t stand up.  Be very calm.  Distract him by looking out the window at the trucks getting the luggage and anything else you can see.  Pull out your smart phone and make a video.  Get creative but keep him distracted during this time, because he knows you’ve landed, he’s eager to get to his loved ones, and he gets very agitated that he’s being forced to wait.

Tip 3:  Narrate Events Before They Happen (Airport Social Stories)

-We use social stories for pretty much everything, and this is true at the airport also.

-We usually start a night or two before the trip during bedtime.  As part of bedtime routine, after reading books, we always tell the story of what’s happening tomorrow.   This is when I remind him about what will happen on the airplane. 

The airplane story might go something like this:

“Tomorrow we get to fly on the airplane to go back home to Florida.  When you wake up in the morning, we’ll have breakfast, and then we’ll pack up the car and go to the airport.  It will take a little time to get there in the car.  Then, when we get to the airport, we’ll park the car in the parking lot and ride the elevator to the luggage area. The lady will take our bags and put them on the special ramp that will lead it to the airplane.  Then, we’ll go through security.  Remember that your toys will go through the tunnel so the people can see a picture of them, and then they will come out on the other side (Putting his toys through the “tunnel” used to really, really upset him).  After that, we’ll get some snack and drinks for the plane and then we’ll find our gate.  We’ll sit and wait for the airplane a little while, and then it will be time to get on board.  It will be so fun to get to ride the airplane and go home to see Mommy and Daddy!”

-On the day that we fly out, you might need to tell all or part of the story as he asks about it (“What are we going to do now?”) so he can be reminded.

-As we wait for the plane to land, I usually have to tell a more specific social story to help with the waiting.  On the last flight, we did so well with saving time that we had almost two hours to kill at the gate.  This is when I told him the “boarding the plane” social story.

-Sometimes , I even show him on my watch an approximate time to expect the plane.  One time, when we were an hour delayed and he was getting very anxious, I let him wear his watch, and whenever he would ask when the plane would arrive, I would point to the watch.  After asking several times, he started to catch himself and would check the watch himself.

The “boarding the plane” social story might sound like this:

“The airplane is not here yet.  It will be here in (give approximate time).  (I would avoid an exact time, though, because if the plane is delayed, this can cause issues.)  When our airplane comes, the first thing that will happen is that all of the other people will get off the plane.  We’ll see them walking through the gate.  Then, after that, the flight attendants have to clean the plane up and put our food and drinks on the plane so it will be ready for us.  Then, the man will get on the speaker and tell us about how to line up to get on the plane (Be prepared- Any time there’s an announcement on the speaker, he will look at you and say, “It’s time yet?”)  First, the people who need extra help will get on first.  Then, the people on this line will get on.  (Tell him your spot in line so he will know what order you come.  For example, if you’re in the B group tell him A will get on first, then you).” 

*You could tell a social story for going through security, but he’s pretty used to it by now so I don’t think he’ll need that one.

Tip 4:  Before Flying, Let Him Run

When we’re waiting for the plane, if we have more than a half hour before takeoff, I try to find an area with an empty gate with an open space, preferably by a window, so he can run around a little and “get his wiggles out” before he gets on the plane.  This usually doesn’t bother anyone because we’re not near a crowd of people.  I usually give him his toy airplane and he likes to fly it near the flying airplanes or drive it along the window ledge.  Walk him around the airport and get his energy out any way that you can.  I believe the Indy airport has an area with a table and a TV.  That’s a great spot to settle into also while you wait.

Tip 5:  Give Him The Window Seat

If possible, let him sit by the window.  Not only does he love to look out the window, but this provides a buffer between him and the other passengers.  I always sit in the middle.  Even though this is my least favorite spot when flying by myself, it is the easiest place to manage him and also the person sitting next to me.  Along these lines, I always take his shoes off as well, so that if he does swing his feet, he’s less likely to kick the seat in front of him.  I usually ask him to sit criss-cross to avoid the kicking too if he gets to energetic with his movements. 

So, that’s it.  Barring any delays, these tips usually help ensure a successful flying experience.  Amazingly, Ben often gets compliments from the surrounding passengers about what a good flyer he is.   And, if worse comes to worse and a meltdown ensues, just know that this too shall pass.  Or, pull out your Iphone and show him a slow motion video.  He loves slow motion videos.  Happy flying!

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