This article follows Part 1: “Traveling with An Autistic Child: Yes, it’s possible! Before your trip”
AT THE AIRPORT
Personally, this first step is not my favorite! My son is generally somewhat happy to go on vacation, but he becomes overwhelmed and loses focus as soon as we walk through the airport doors. It is the perfect storm of stimuli to cause a crisis: large bright lights, tons of people, loudspeaker sounds, waiting, etc.
That didn’t stop me and my husband from traveling by plane, sometimes several times a year, with him…but we have a pretty solid routine and know the roles we have to play to ensure everything goes smoothly.
The first thing to do is to check into your flight and check your luggage online to save time.
Remember that large airlines offer assistance and priority to clients who have special needs.
Personally, I always make sure that we can use the priority line when checking in and boarding the plane. I’ve even asked that my luggage be flagged as a priority on arrival when traveling alone with my two children. I could not afford to let my oldest meltdown in the middle of the crowd while waiting for our luggage since I also had to keep my little one safe. The personnel was truly accommodating and it really helped us.
Waiting in a line amongst strangers can be very difficult for an autistic person. Do not inflict this on your child! And don’t see the priority line as a privilege but as a right. You’re doing this for the well-being of your children, not just on a random whim. Even when traveling with my husband, we use the priority line. Once the agent has identified all of the passengers, the children and I head through security to a reserved area, and we wait for their dad away from the crowd when possible.
Once through security and, if necessary, customs, we always try to find a calm place as far as possible from restaurants and shops where we can wait.
Even though you’re boarding at gate B42, you don’t have to wait there for 2 hours! Find a corner all to yourselves when it’s possible, and sit your kids down with their tablets or toys. Have what you need to eat or drink if you prefer to avoid the restaurants, and head to your gate right before boarding. From there, go through the priority lane and get to your seats among the first, calmly taking time to put all of your stuff down and settle your child into their seat comfortably and stress-free.
Certain airports in North America have tools and zones for travelers that help designate the route to follow in the airport. For example, Toronto Pearson International Airport has an app called MagnusCards that allows travelers to anticipate and understand the route to follow in the airport. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, they offer a space for travelers who suffer from sensory hypersensitivity to allow them to wait for boarding somewhere calm. This airport incidentally has several initiatives in place to support travel for autistic individuals or those with mental disabilities.
We would love to see these initiatives on a larger scale…in fact, it would be great for more and more airports and train stations to have areas for hypersensitive individuals. It would benefit many people, not only those with autism but also agoraphobic individuals who suffer from anxiety.
ONCE ON BOARD
On an airplane
Alert the flight attendants
All of the parents that I consulted when writing this article told me the same thing: it is imperative to alert the personnel of your needs and those of your child. The idea is not to be difficult, but to be helpful. If the personnel is aware of your situation, they will be more understanding and attentive. Furthermore, it will ensure that the other travelers are respectful of your particular situation.
What do you do if the other passengers make comments about you, though? Most people are happy to help and open-minded when it comes to disabilities, but when the disability is invisible, it can sometimes be difficult for other passengers to understand our children’s behavior.
We have already been wildly insulted by another passenger who could not stand that my child was moving and did not tolerate that, by the end of the trip, my son was talking loudly and a bit disorganized. I will not hide the fact that this type of situation is extremely hurtful. Since then, I decided to make the flight attendants my allies. By expressing the particular needs of my child, I am ensured a certain amount of protection from attacks, which while rare, are unfortunately possible from certain people. On a recent flight, when someone started staring, the flight attendant said to me: “If she says anything to you, don’t respond and come see me…the pilot is aware of your situation.” If you also want to have the pilot as your ally, just say so…I can assure you that it will take away a lot of stress.
You and your children have the right to be there just like all of the other passengers, and you don’t have to apologize for being who you are. That’s what society is: different types of people who exist together.
I’ll finish here by addressing those who don’t travel with children with disabilities…if you ever find yourself on a plane, train, or bus with a family with a child who touches everything, hits your seat occasionally, or sometimes even screams, we are aware that it is not completely ideal for you and we are doing everything in our power to make our trip easier as well as yours. It isn’t fun for us either…please be kind.
I will always remember the nice young woman seated near us one time while traveling who played with my son and had offered to show him games on his tablet. It was a simple gesture, but it meant the world to me…
After all, we travel to learn about our differences. Our children are different…meet them!
Choose your seats carefully
The moment that you buy your tickets, choose seats near the windows if you don’t want your children to have too much physical contact with other people and so that you won’t have to deal with the comings and goings of the aisle. Ideally, especially if your children have particular physical needs or are unable to coordinate their movements, try to get seats reserved for families that have more leg space and no seats beside them. If those are unavailable, try to choose seats without other seats behind them.
It would be wonderful if planes had more seats reserved for people with disabilities. Stéphanie, mentioned in Part 1, needs space to travel with her son in order to provide the assistance that he needs during the fight in terms of hygiene, nutrition, and comfort. You can be certain that the family appreciates having access to more spacious seating in order to allow Louis to move and his parents to take care of him more easily.
Yet, the only seats with space are often reserved for young families, and there is very little for people with disabilities…it would be great if things changed so everyone could access these services.
Be Prepared for Meals
Concerning meals, if you think that your child will not like the vacuum-packed chicken on the plane, think ahead and bring whatever food you might need. My son eats almost anything, but as I’ve written previously, he doesn’t always know when he is hungry. If I sense that things are about to take a turn for the worse, I always have some snacks on me, and I also ask the personnel to make it a priority to bring out his meal at the same time as the passengers who have special menus. It has never been a problem.
Wait for Everyone to Leave Before Getting out of Your Seats
When possible, we explain to Xavier that, as soon as the plane lands, we will calmly stay in our seats. He can keep playing on his tablet or watching his movie. Most passengers have the tendency to leave as soon as the seatbelt sign is off and they then get all backed up in the aisle. In addition, if the walkway is slow to arrive, the plane becomes uncomfortably hot, and everyone gets impatient.
Take your time! Stay seated and get up only when everyone is almost gone and the atmosphere is calm. Take your time getting your bags, and make sure your child has their bag or take them in your arms and leave without stress. Advise the personnel that you need assistance. They’ll come and accompany you to your luggage and even to customs, if necessary. You use the priority lane, and everyone will go at your pace. It’s your right.
Traveling by Car
If you are traveling by car to get to your destination or at some point during your trip, here are some helpful tips:
- Take regular breaks so that your child can run around and get some fresh air as often as possible in calm places, ideally in nature or near bodies of water.
- Travel at night whenever possible in order to let the children sleep. If the lights of the other cars pose a problem, install a filter on the window in order to limit sensory overload.
Before we had our second boy, we bought a Westfalia van, drove from Quebec towards California, and traversed a large part of the United States. In total, we drove over 9,000 miles in 7 weeks, enduring sweltering heat and long hours in the car. Our son was 6 years old at that time, and he agrees with us that those seven weeks were some of the most beautiful in our lives.
He had a certain daily routine since our little van was also his house. He slept in the same bed every night. We were lucky that he really enjoys driving because he likes the regular movement of cars and the sound of the engine. When we had long hours to drive, especially at the beginning and the end of our road trip, we drove at night so that he could sleep on the backseat with Bernard, his rabbit. Of course, we needed to take turns driving and were exhausted, but it was much easier for him.
During the day, we took breaks as soon as he told us he needed to. Occasionally, we gave him his bike so that he could work off some energy, or we would go for a swim a half hour before we hit the road again. Our fridge was full of fresh water and food so that we could stop to eat in a calm place and not in crowded food courts.
Of course, I am well aware that not all parents of autistic children can do a road trip like that, but the idea is to go at your child’s pace and calculate the number of hours in a row that they can spend in a car. Once again, only you know their limits and their capacities.
Ask Your Doctor
Ask your doctor if it’s possible to give your child melatonin or another non-invasive treatment to help them sleep during the flight and to regulate their sleep in case of jetlag. Like Stéphanie, the mother of Louis, says, “It makes him more comfortable and we feel better, too.”
Read Part 3: Traveling With An Autistic Child: Tips to Make Your Trip Easier, During Your Trip
Thanks a lot to Viviane for her exceptional contribution, and get to know her a little more thanks to her short biography below
Also, a big thanks for their contribution:
- Eileen, firstname.lastname@example.org, FamiliesGo!
- Muir, email@example.com, Twitch Content Creator
- Lisa, firstname.lastname@example.org, Project HOPE Foundation
- Dr. Raun Melmed
- Mackenzie, email@example.com, Bolt PR
- Kristen, firstname.lastname@example.org, Mom Managing Chaos
- Merriam, email@example.com, Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT
- Vanessa, firstname.lastname@example.org, Vcreativeart16