Tips for Successful Holiday Travel with Children on the Autism Spectrum


The holidays are fast approaching and with that comes excitement to have loved ones near.  For families traveling by plane with children on the autism spectrum, they may be feeling something else… panic maybe? Yes. Most definitely panic. But don’t sweat it, below are some tips to conquering the airport this holiday season!

  • The prep. Children on the autism spectrum typically don’t like surprises and the environment of a busy airport during the holidays (the people, the smells, the sounds, the waiting) would certainly lead to challenging behaviors and increased stress levels if sprung on them last minute. Try using social stories, video modeling (watching videos/movies with airports) and/or talking about the airport and what happens there before the trip.  For children with auditory sensitivity, start working on their tolerance of headphones.  Depending on the child, you may need to start prepping them a few weeks early.
  • The wait. Long lines typically don’t agree with travelers on the autism spectrum.  Especially when traveling by plane during the holidays, you can expect to be doing a significant amount of waiting just to get through security.  Then when its finally you’re turn, you have to remove shoes and clothing items from your child that you might have spent an hour convincing them they should have on.  TSA PreCheck to the rescue!  The cost is about $85 and the process involves filling an application out online and having a face to face 10 minute interview before you’re approved.  Your children 12 and under will be able to skip the lines with you without having to apply for PreCheck status.  TSA PreCheck significantly reduces your wait time when moving through security and allows you to keep your shoes, belt, and light jackets on.
  • The downtime. You’ve made it through security and you now realize you have 2-3 hours that you need to entertain your child in one of their least favorite environments.  Once you have an idea of where your gate is, leave it!  Find an area of the terminal that is quiet with less people traffic.  There may be gates that are not in use, those areas are perfect for kids that may get visually overwhelmed by crowds and sounds.  Your next goal of downtime is to get your child moving.  Find an empty hallway/space and have them run to the window/wall and then run back to you and give you a high five, have them do silly walks (lunges, jumps, shuffles) down the hallway, give them some luggage to carry or move to another part of the gate, etc.  Soon they will be confined to a tiny seat on an airplane for an extended period of time, it may be a good idea to keep them moving while they still can.
  • The wait. AGAIN.  Your plane is boarding and you now face yet another long line to just get on the plane.  Nearly every major airline allows travelers on the autism spectrum (and one travel companion) to board the plane before other passengers during the preboarding process.  Some airlines will require you to have a special envelope or tag on your ticket to clear you for preboarding, others will let you walk through when they call for “passengers boarding with disabilities or requiring extra assistance”.  To know for certain which protocol your airline carrier uses, check with the airline attendant when you arrive at the gate prior to the boarding.


Best of luck, and safe travels!


By Jane Tammik, MA, BCBA

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