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How to Make Air Travel Successful for People with Autism and Disabilities

By Fraser Sensory Supports and Training Manager Gina Brady and Pam Dewey • traveling tips for people with autism, traveling tips for people with disabilities, traveling advice for kids with autism, traveling advice for people with autism, air travel for kids with autism, air travel for kids with sensory sensitivities, air travel for kids with disabilities, flying with autism, flying with disabilities, traveling with autism, traveling with disabilities, sensory tools, sensory friendly, sensory accommodations, inclusivity, sensory friendly environment, inclusion, sensory tools for autism, sensory tools for kids with autism, sensory sensitivity, autism, autism spectrum, neurodiversity, neurodivergent • December 08, 2022

Traveling can be stressful, particularly flying. You have to fit all your clothes and necessities into a suitcase, figure out how to get to the airport and give yourself enough time to go through security and make your flight. However, for people with autism and disabilities, traveling can be even more complicated.

Sensory processing differences are common in people with autism. They may find loud noises, bright lights, strong smells, crowds or other sensory input completely overwhelming. That means being at the airport and flying can be particularly hard. People with intellectual or physical disabilities may also have sensory processing differences or need other accommodations to travel comfortably.

Here are some travel tips from Fraser Sensory CertifiedTM Supports and Program Training Manager Gina Brady, including some information from a parent of a child with autism.

Before You Travel

Call the airport before traveling

Call the airport ahead of time (at least 3 days in advance), and let them know you’re traveling with a child, or an individual, with autism who might have a hard time waiting in line for security. All airports have a program called TSA Cares, where someone will meet you when you arrive and walk you through security and to your gate. Don’t forget to call the airport you’ll be flying home from, too, and they can do the same thing there.

“The mother I spoke to said that TSA Cares was the single most helpful thing during her family’s travels,” says Brady.

Visit MSP Airport before your trip

The Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport (MSP) has also worked with Fraser and other organizations to offer a program called Navigating MSP. The program allows you to visit the airport ahead of time and do a walk-through, so it’s more familiar on the day of your flight. You can even get on a plane and meet a pilot!

It’s usually the first Saturday of every month, though sometimes it’s the second Saturday. You have to pre-register, and it fills up quickly, says Brady. They prioritize based on the date of your upcoming travel. So if you’re just curious about the program but don’t have a specific trip planned, you might get put on the waitlist.

Look for videos of your destination airport

Since you can’t do a “walk-through” of your destination airport, see if you can find YouTube videos that give tours, so it’ll look more familiar when you arrive.

Packing and Preparing for the Trip

Pack sensory tools

Bring some sensory tools, like headphones, fidgets, chewies, weighted items, their favorite blanket or other preferred sensory tools. All can provide calming input at the airport, on the plane or at your destination.

Bring extras, particularly for communication devices

Tiffany Hammond is a mother to two children with autism, an autistic self-advocate and a writer. For her family, packing is particularly important. She writes, “While loading up our luggage, we need to make sure we have duplicates—or even triplicates — of everything. We always have multiple fidgets so our boys have something to preoccupy their fingers. One of our sons is non-speaking — to communicate, he uses an iPad with an AAC app. It’s imperative for us to have multiple devices with the app, as well as multiple chargers.”

Don’t forget favorite snacks

Bring your own snacks for the flight. There are rules about liquids, but you can bring your own food and snacks through security. This ensures your family member’s physiological needs are met, even if there aren’t preferred foods available, or if they get hungry on the flight and food isn’t available.

Plan fun activities for the flight

Think about activities that work in an airplane seat. This could be watching videos or playing games on a tablet, reading, coloring and doing other activity books like mazes, crosswords, Sudoku or word searches. Your loved one also might like listening to music, podcasts or audiobooks. Have your family member help plan what they want to do on the plane to keep them engaged.

Figure out how to handle the airplane pressure change

Be aware of the times of increased or decreased sensory input. For example, the pressure in the plane could make your family member’s ears pop, which might be an unpleasant or painful sensation for them. Have them try chewing gum, sucking on hard candy or yawning to un-pop their ears. You can also talk them through what to expect before it happens. Devin Flagg, a young man with autism and “exquisitely sensitive ears to sound,” also uses Ear Ease when he’s on an airplane, which helps alleviate pain from pressure during ascent and descent.

Get in some “heavy work” before boarding the plane

If your loved one struggles with sitting still or becoming anxious, Brady recommends some movement or heavy work before boarding the plane. You can try yoga, have them push or pull heavy luggage up an incline, do planks or do push-ups. This helps them burn energy and provides their body with grounding input, which is calming for the flight.

After You Arrive at the Airport

Ask for extra assistance without saying a word

MSP Airport has also partnered with the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower organization. With this program, you can pick up a sunflower lanyard at any information desk, which provides a visual cue to MSP staffers that you and your family might require extra time or assistance. There are no questions asked, and no proof of diagnosis is needed.

MSP Airport also offers support for the visually impaired

MSP is also a part of the Aira Airport Network, “which is the world’s fastest-growing assistive technology service for people who are blind or low vision.” The customer uses a pair of camera-enabled smart glasses and a mobile app and are connected to an on-demand service agent, who provides visual descriptions of their surroundings to help them navigate the airport safely.

MSP has changing tables for adults

 MSP Airport is also one of few airports to offer adult changing tables in their accessible restrooms with hoists and ceiling lifts, says Brady. One of these equipped restrooms is located on the G concourse of Terminal 1.

Consider their airplane seat

Consider what seat on the airplane would be best for your family member. They might like the window seat to watch what’s passing by. Or maybe a middle seat with a family member on each side would help them feel secure. An aisle seat might be preferred because they feel like they have the most room or can get out of their seat when needed. Some families have a family member sit in front of the individual with a disability, says Brady, in case they kick the seat in front of them, or to avoid the seat in front of them reclining into their space.

Traveling with a loved one with autism or a disability may seem daunting. But these tips can help you prepare and better manage the situation, so everyone has a safe and comfortable flight. Look for our follow-up blog next Thursday, which provides helpful information for you once you arrive at your destination!