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An Airport Tour for Children with Autism

Is flying an issue for your child with autism? Are you concerned about navigating through the airport and not having the help needed for a successful trip?  If so, I have some wonderful information to share with you that may change the way that you and your family travel!

My boys recently had the opportunity to participate in a program at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport called, “Navigating through the Airport.” It was started by Delta Airlines employees, Sandra Smith and Maren Vargas, to help children with autism become familiar with air travel.

The tour was lots of fun and lasted about 2 hours.  The boys went through security, rode the underground train to their gate and boarded a Delta Airlines jet. They also had a chance to play in the new sensory room at the airport.

My boys waiting at the gate to board the plane.

My boys waiting at the gate to board the plane.

Four other families participated, along with the children of some of the airlines staff.  All of the Delta representatives helping with the tour had a personal connection with autism through a family member or friend.  I found them to be sincere and very helpful.

Tips for Parents

Captain Erich Ries, father of a son with autism, shared tips on how to prepare our children for airline travel.  He is a seasoned pilot and has flown with his son hundreds of times. Here are a few of his tips:

  • Show your child the date of your trip on a calendar and help them countdown the days.
  • Take advantage of the TSA Cares program (see further down for information on that).
  • Allow your child to pack and carry their own bag with a few of their favorite things. Make sure the bag is small enough to fit under the seat in front of them. This will make it easier to access during the flight.
  • Check-in to your flight online or by using an app. Also, check your luggage with the skycap to avoid waiting in long lines.
  • Check as much of your belongings as possible so that you can have your hands free to take care of your child.
  • A window seat close to the front can help your child with anxiety.
  • If your child is sensitive to noise, avoid getting a seat by the wings.  If it is unavoidable, try noise canceling headphones to block out the noise.
  • Let the flight crew know that your child has autism. Share with them ways in which they can help.
  • If your child has a meltdown in flight, press your call light and let the flight attendant know what is going on so that assistance can be provided.

It was obvious that Captain Ries is very passionate about making sure that air travel is achievable for parents of children with autism.  He even brought his son with him to help demonstrate the appropriate size for luggage and possible items to bring for entertainment.

Next came the boarding process…

An Unexpected Surprise

My oldest son became very anxious when he realized that he was actually going to board a plane. We persuaded him to get on and sit down after several minutes of explaining that the plane would not take off. Despite being seated, he continued to cry and show great anxiety. He had a bad experience with turbulence on a flight many years ago and hasn’t flown since.

Another child on the tour had a service dog. He brought the dog over to my son, trying to help.  At first, my son refused to touch the dog. But this service dog knew just what to do! He slowly went up to my son and put his head near my son’s lap. I started to pet the dog because I could feel myself getting anxious and overwhelmed too.  My husband was starting to think that we needed to take our son off the plane because he was so upset. But I didn’t want him to miss out on what was ahead and figured that we needed to give him a little more time to calm down. My son is usually afraid of dogs. So imagine our surprise when he actually started petting the dog?!  He began to talk to the dog about being scared of flying on the plane. After a few minutes, he calmed down and was able to take part in the rest of the tour!

This service dog was just what my son needed to calm down and enjoy the rest of the tour.

This service dog was just what my son needed to calm down and enjoy the rest of the tour.

This experience opened my eyes to the benefits of service dogs for children with autism.  I never even considered it to be an option for my family, but now I can clearly see the benefit!

Perks for Participants

Delicious snacks were offered to the children after they boarded the plane. In addition, each child had a chance to sit in the cockpit and wear Captain Ries’ hat. The children received kiddie wings and a Delta Airlines coloring book.  Parents were given a social story to prepare their child for air travel. Parents also received information on several resources for special needs air travel.

Social Story for Air Travel

A page from the social story booklet

TSA Cares 

Did you know about TSA Cares?  I never heard of it until a TSA representative told us about it on the tour.

The TSA Cares help line is available for travelers with disabilities and medical conditions.  You can call 1-855-787-2227 with any questions that you may have regarding screening procedures. You can also request a Passenger Support Specialist. Be sure to call 72 hours before your trip for specific information. The hours are Monday through Friday from 8:00am – 11:00pm EST.  Help is also available on weekends and holidays from 9:00am – 8:00pm EST.  You can also send an email to TSA-ContactCenter@tsa.dhs.gov for more information.

Overall Thoughts

I highly recommend this program with no reservations. It was a great experience that the boys will remember for a long time. Besides, how many children can say that they had a chance to sit in the cockpit of a Delta 767 with an airline captain’s hat on?

If a program like this is not available in your area, talk to someone at your local airport and see how you can get one started.  Tell them about other airports that are doing this, such as the airports listed here.  You can also ask for an individual tour to give your child a chance to practice for the big day. If needed, ask for someone to assist you on your day of travel from the moment you arrive to the moment that you board the plane. Many airports provide this service, but you have to request it.

Happy Flying!

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