Skip to main content

Airline Travel and Kids with Special Needs

I've travelled a bit with my kids recently and each time it seems to be the same things which create the biggest problems. The flight itself is usually quite good, especially nowadays as there are so many electronic distractions. My kids took their iPads with them last time and they kept busy for the entire 10 hour flight. 

No, it's the other aspects of flying which present a challenge. 

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay


Airports are full of waiting areas. Flights always seem to do the unexpected, like get cancelled or delayed and then the waiting begins. Even before you get to the airport, there's a lot of waiting around in anticipation. It's not something that special needs kids are very good at, especially when their iPads are packed away preserving their batteries for the flight.

In my kids case, waiting means a whole lot of pushing and shoving and fighting. We have to keep them separated with at least one parent sitting in between them. It's especially during waiting in public areas that inappropriate language or gestures make their appearance.  I have a T-shirt which says "who are these kids and why are they calling me dad?" Sometimes, in waiting areas, I wish I was wearing that shirt. If nothing else, one of my regular airport waiting positions is the "facepalm" position with one finger in my good ear.

Ignoring the situation isn't the best response but regardless of how many other delaying tactics you use, eventually, you'll find yourself there too. It's just a matter of time. 

Airport Security

If the waiting areas are a place where you just ignore the kids and hope that they don't cause too much mischief, then security areas are exactly the opposite. You need to talk to your kids before you get into these areas and then once you get in, you need to watch your kids like a hawk. In security, little problems can escalate very quickly and you can find yourself in some very difficult situations. Here are some of the issues I've experienced with my kids in security;

On one trip, the kids got to customs and pulled their new digital cameras out of their bags and started photographing everything, totally oblivious to the signs around them expressly forbidding photography. I wasn't aware of what they were doing until they snapped a close shot of the customs official as he was talking to me. He was very unhappy and I had to hand over both the boys cameras to get the photos deleted.
Once, I forgot to warn my youngest that his bear would be a problem. He looks a bit too old for a bear, so security obviously thought nothing of simply snatching it off him.  It was only quick intervention on my part to drag him over to the TV screen so he could watch his bear have an x-ray that prevented a meltdown. 

Just recently, I went through the metal detector without remembering my phone in my pocket. The security guys told everyone to stop but my eldest continued on through oblivious.  I had to grab him and bodily push him back before the airport security team moved in.

Then there's talking. You know how your kids come out with the worst things when you're in the company of other adults. Well, it's the same with airport security. We don't watch a lot of movies about planes at home but when we do, the planes often blow up (Die Hard 2 and other family fun movies). Of course, for a kid with asperger's syndrome, that means that the airport is the ideal place to quote those movies or talk about plot details... or bombs.   Every time my eldest started talking at security, I had to tell him to shut up.  

I probably looked like the worst parent ever but since you never know what is going to come out of his mouth, it's better to be safer than sorry.

Flying Itself

Compared to the airport, flights are easy. There's often a bit of nervousness at take-off though and I'm reminded of those movies where the other passenger skilfully distracts the anxious one during take-off. This is a skill you need to learn. In my kids case, it's probably the only time I've ever shown an interest in mine craft. Those safety videos don't do much to inspire confidence either.

Planes are full of really cool gadgets and it's very difficult to prevent your child from playing with them all during take off. Of course, most of these gadget have to be in a special position during take-off so it's worth reminding the kids before the flight gets under way.  Even then, you'll still have to watch them carefully. Have some chewable sweets available during take off and landing. This helps kids to equalise the pressure in their ears - and takes their mind off what is really going on. 

Airline food is fun too. Be prepared to eat the yucky parts of your child's meal in exchange for your roll or dessert. Airline foods are sometimes spicy and nearly always contain a range of textures which seem to be "designed" to make special needs kids feel uncomfortable. You may also need to be on hand to open the foods for your child - or else you and the other passengers may end up wearing it.

Finally, there's the toilet. You'll have to talk to your kids about the toilet before they need to go because otherwise there's a chance that they'll freak out when it flushes. If you have boys, try to encourage them to sit and pee otherwise it will look like a stormtrooper has been in there. (Hint: Remember the stormtroopers in Star Wars who only had to shoot four fugitives in a straight corridor and they still missed every time).

Plane toilets are too small for you to go in to help but try to be next in line to do any cleaning up if necessary and if your child is too scared to flush, tell them that it is ok, provided that you're next in line.

Apart from all of this, flying with special needs kids can be a great experience . The key is simply to anticipate trouble before it happens.


sharon Morris said…
Ive just arrived back, literally half an hour ago, after flying from Melbourne to Perth with my two Aspies. First time flying with them without my husband. Your'e right that it's the waiting points that can cause the most problems. My son is fascinated with all the conveyor belts (there's lots in airports). And I do find myself struggling through the airport, but having done a 4 week journey through UK/Europe in July, I concur, with Ipads long haul flights can be quite manageable.
Travelling with kids is hard work, but its usually worth it.
Chris said…
I think the problem has much to do with uncertainty of the whole situation, including length of the wait. I guess if there was a way of letting the kids know how much longer we have to wait, and to monitor the process, while having some plans in place to keep them occupied, that would probably help.
Ha - love the little add-ons at the ends of each subsection!
Good ideas, too.
AlysonRR said…
I agree that preparation is key. My children are both seasoned travelers now, but when we first started (and with family 3000 miles away in each direction, we started with a vengeance!) it was a given that my son (Aspergers) would have a meltdown at least one leg of our four leg airline trips. Heck, my husband (ADHD but no other official dx) had a meltdown at least that often...

My son nursed until he was 4 so that was our go-to solution until then - it worked, despite occasional neighboring passenger disapproval...

Since then (my son is now 14 and daughter 11) it's been preparation and acclimatization and (so far) acceptance with the discomforts of travel. As long as he's aware what will happen, he is able to cope with it. If I am not comfortable, neither is he. TBH, I think some of his discomfort with earlier trips is due to my husband's discomfort - hubby is more comfortable now and when we fly with him there is little difference from when we fly with just me and the children, but he's had some bad flights...

One of the things I've found common between my son and my husband is that neither realizes they are hungry until they are REALLY hungry and out of control. They need to be reminded to eat every couple hours to keep their energy level stable.

Traveling is possible and desirable - it just takes some adjustments.
Anonymous said…
One very easy suggestion for parents who are traveling with toddlers that if you have planed your trip before few days or more then you have much time to arrange items to entertain or get busy you children. If your children like books you can provide same subject books as they love to read. You can provide necessary things for keeping children satisfied and comfortable during air travel.

Popular posts from this blog

Why Do Aspies Suddenly Back-Off in Relationships? (Part 1)

One of the most frequent questions I'm asked is why an aspie (or suspected aspie) suddenly goes "cold" and backs off on an otherwise good relationship. It's a difficult question and the answers would vary considerably from one person to another and would depend greatly on the circumstances. Nevertheless, I'll try to point out some possibilities. Negative Reasons I generally like to stay positive on this blog and assume that people are not necessarily "evil" but simply misguided. Unfortunately, I do have to acknowledge that there are some people out there who take advantage of others. I read a book a few years ago on "sociopaths in the workplace" and I was stunned by the figures. They suggested that sociopaths were so common that most workplaces (small business) had at least one or two. The fact is that there are lots of people out there who really feel very little for others and who are very manipulative. I'd like to say that aspies are

Why do Aspies Suddenly Back Off in Relationships (Part 2)

In part one, we looked at the role that Change Resistance plays in causing aspies to suddenly go "cold" in otherwise good relationships. This time, I want to look at self esteem and depression; Self Esteem The aspie relationship with themselves is tedious at best. People with Asperger's commonly suffer from low self esteem. As discussed in earlier posts, this low self esteem often results from years of emotional turmoil resulting from their poor social skills. Aspies are often their own worst enemy. They can over analyze situations and responses in an effort to capture lost nonverbal communication. This often causes them to invent problems and to imagine replies. Everything made up by aspies will tend to be tainted with their own self image. This is one of reasons that people with Asperger's will sometimes decide that they are not good enough for their partner and that they must let them go. Sometimes, the aspie will develop a notion of chivalry or self-sacri

Aspie Myths - "He Won't Miss Me"

I apologise for the excessive "male-orientated" viewpoint in this post. I tried to keep it neutral but somehow, it just works better when explained from a male viewpoint. Here's a phrase that I've seen repeated throughout the comments on this blog on several occasions; "I know that he won't miss me when I'm gone because he's aspie" Today, we're going to (try to) bust that myth; Individuals I'll start off with a reminder that everyone is an individual. If all aspies were completely alike and predictible, they'd be a stereotype but they're not. Each is shaped by their background, their upbringing, their beliefs and their local customs. An aspie who grew up with loud abusive parents has a reasonable chance of becoming loud and abusive themselves because in some cases, that's all they know. That's how they think adults are supposed to behave. In other cases, aspies who grew up in those circumstances do a complete a