The prospect of air travel can sometimes seem too daunting a challenge for someone on the autism spectrum. The idea can be so discouraging, in fact, that many people choose to forego flight altogether. Access to air travel is important because it allows individuals with autism and their loved ones to participate more fully in community. It enables them to visit family and friends on meaningful occasions and experience new places alongside the general population.
That is why Madison House Autism Foundation has partnered with American Airlines to help make air travel more accessible to those on the autism spectrum and their caregivers. We hope you’ll find these tips and resources encouraging and that they help make air travel possible for you and your loved ones.
AIR TRAVEL TIP #1: FAMILIARIZE YOURSELF
For most people, air travel is likely to be a fairly novel experience. While the ability to adapt to change varies from person to person, we know that those on the autism spectrum tend to have more difficulty re-calibrating to anything that falls outside normal routine. Knowing that the airport environment can trigger anxiety in even seasoned flyers underscores the importance of familiarizing our friends with autism with air travel well before they fly. Here are some ways you can begin:
• Participate in a flight rehearsal program
Airports across the country host rehearsal programs like Wings For All where individuals with special needs and their caregivers can practice air travel. Many people choose to attend the event annually, even if they have successfully traveled by air, to maintain familiarity with air travel.
When we spoke with Andrea, a mother who regularly participates in Wings for All with her daughter, she shared with us how rehearsal programs like these have changed her family’s life. Now, her 20-year-old daughter Rachael, who was previously too frightened to fly, looks forward to visiting family in Boston. “We can go whenever we want now,” she said. Watch our video about the program to learn more.
• Visit the airport
You don’t need to participate in a rehearsal or even have a plane ticket to make a trip to the airport. Consider visiting to get accustomed to the airport environment and even asking questions face-to-face with airline and TSA staff.
• Create a visual tour using photos and videos
If a rehearsal program is not available in your area, or you want extra exposure to air travel process without having to visit in person, consider creating a storyboard with photos or watching videos about air travel. Review them as often as is necessary to become comfortable with the steps of air travel.
• Go online to learn about airport layout, parking, and terminal amenities
Knowing where to park and what amenities are available at the airport before you arrive takes the guesswork out of your day and saves time. Visit the departure and destination airport websites or use ifly.com to gather useful information about your airport.
• If possible, book a short practice flight
Booking a short and easy flight can help prepare you for longer, more challenging trips that might require hours in the air and/or layovers and connections.
AIR TRAVEL TIP #2: IDENTIFY CHALLENGES
• Take time to identify triggers
Airports can be sensory overload for anyone, especially during busy times for travel like the holidays. For people with autism, the sights, crowds and sounds may be overwhelming. As you familiarize yourself with air travel, take special note of things that may trigger anxiety.
• Think about appropriate coping strategies
For each trigger you identify, consider what might help distract you or your loved one from the disruption or reduce it’s effect on overall well-being. These could include wearing sunglasses or noise-cancelling headphones or keeping a comfort object with you. Also, consider bringing snacks or portable entertainment.
• Make note of accommodations or support that might mitigate challenges
There may be some challenges that cannot be overcome with distractions alone. Fortunately, there are things the airline or TSA can do to help ensure stress levels stay manageable. In a busy environment like an airport or a confined space like an airplane, everyone has an interest in ensuring that travelers feel safe and taken care of so they can remain calm and collected. While this is not a comprehensive list, these are just a few of the things that the airline and TSA may be able to accommodate:
– A quiet place to check-in or to take a break
– Personnel to accompany you through the airport
– A wheelchair
– Expedited screening
– A special carry-on allowance
– A tour of the plane
– A specific seating assignment
AIR TRAVEL TIP #3: COMMUNICATE YOUR NEEDS
• Notify your airline at the time of booking
At the time you make your reservation, be sure to notate any accommodations or assistance you want to request. You can also call the airline after booking and speak directly with an agent who can answer questions about accommodations. The airline will then make note of anything they need to prepare for your arrival and you can rest assured that everything is already in place the day of your trip.
• Contact TSA Cares 72 hours before your flight
One of the most confusing steps in air travel is the security screening process. Luckily, TSA Cares is available to answer all questions and even provide support and accommodations from the moment you arrive at the airport to finding your gate. If you are unsure about what you can or cannot take in a carry-on, you need to request special exemption for a medically-necessary item, or you’d like assistance getting through the checkpoint, call the toll-free hotline at (855) 787-2227.
For one-on-one assistance, ask for a Passenger Support Specialist (PSS) who is trained to help passengers with special needs. They will arrange to meet you at the airport and help you through the entire process.
• Ask the flight crew for additional support
Once you board the aircraft, let a member of the flight crew know of any extra assistance you may need during the flight. They can answer any questions to help extinguish fears about flying and even give you a tour of the plane when you pre-board. It may be helpful to communicate what the symptoms of stress may look like so they can be attentive during the flight and intervene to assist you. Let them know what they can do to help reduce anxiety, should it creep up during the flight.
AIR TRAVEL TIP #4: BE PREPARED
When preparing for air travel, there are some necessary items you need to bring and rules to comply with. There are also optional things travelers can do to increase ease and comfort.
• Bring a government issued ID
Examples include a driver’s license or other state identity card, a U.S. passport, or a permanent resident card. Be sure to keep it in a secure, but accessible location as you will likely need it multiple times before boarding your flight.
• Prepare a carry-on
Make sure to bring a backpack or other small carry-on to store important information, medically-necessary items, and the things that will ease anxiety throughout the journey. Make sure items comply with TSA restrictions and your airline’s carry-on requirements.
• Dress comfortably
Avoid wearing belt buckles, shoes with laces, and jewelry for a more hassle-free screening experience.
• Bring an at-a-glance information sheet
Consider including travel details, emergency contacts, and other information that may help others understand your situation. You never know when you may need extra help or understanding from the people around you.
• Be well rested and arrive early
Traveling can be draining. Getting good sleep and arriving extra early will help reduce stress. The generally recommendation to arrive at least one 1 hour before domestic flights (or 2 hours before international flights) may need to be modified to ensure extra time for breaks, pre-boarding, and other special assistance.
AIR TRAVEL TIP #5: HAVE FUN
Although traveling by plane may come with some challenges, air travel can also be very rewarding. The ability to fly brings us closer together. It enables us to reunite with loved ones thousands of miles away in a matter of hours. It makes the whole world accessible for our curiosity and exploration.
It’s been just over a hundred years since humans have learned to fly, and you are one of the few in human history that gets to experience it! It can be quite thrilling to see the landscape from the sky, glide through cloud formations, and watch the sun rise and set from the air. We hope these tips will help you enjoy the view!
Free Travel Resources:
My Flight Book (Madison House Autism Foundation)
TSA Notification Card (Transportation Security Administration)
Wings for All (the Arc)
How to Travel by Plane (by wikiHow)
TSA Cares (Transportation Security Administration)
Carry-on Requirements by Airline (by ebags.com)
Facing the Challenges of Air Travel (Madison House Autism Foundation)
Air Travel Video Playlist (Various)