The holiday season is that time of year when everyone makes an extra effort to be with family and close friends. You can’t seem to avoid holiday traveling if you have a large extended family that is scattered around the country. Therefore, holiday time often means traveling by air or ground to get to grandma’s house, dinner at Uncle Ted’s or a family party.
If you are planning on flying over the holidays there are many things you need to consider. I don’t have to tell you that traveling with children can be stressful, especially if you have a child with special needs. Getting to these holiday functions with a smile requires smart travel planning.
If you want to save time and minimize anxiety when traveling with your special crew this holiday here are some traveling tips that will come in handy.
1 - Call the airline. Consider sharing that your child has an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It will open doors to services that can make air travel less stressful for all. Airports and airlines have become much more accommodating to individuals with autism recently. Some are offering mock flights to help familiarize children and their families with air travel before the real event. If nothing else, go to an airport and watch planes take off and land and go into the terminal if possible to walk around.
2 - Contact helpful resources. As a parent of a child with a disability, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) exists to protect your child’s rights. To make sure that the US Dept of Transportation (DOT) complies with ADA and that appropriate accommodations are made for your child while flying explore the Americans with Disabilities Act website at http://www.ada.gov/ and click on Public Transportation – DOT. Once there click on ADA Technical Assistance to review the resources available or contact them to ask about the ADA Complementary Paratransit Service called Origin-to-Destination Service. If your child is eligible for this service, an ADA representative will be assigned to help you plan your trip to make sure the airlines comply.
3 - Educate yourself about the rules your airline has. If you are flying you will need to minimize surprises by being prepared for security rules, especially the new ones. Do you choose the scan or the pat-down? Both of these options have the potential to set any child with sensory issues off into a tizzy. Make your decision before you leave the house and find a way to practice or role play what will happen. Getting through the security check without a mishap requires knowing all the rules and sharing them with your child in advance. Time can be wasted if you have not prepared your children ahead of time for what they can and cannot do or take onboard the flight.
4 - Practice at home. Going through security checks with a child on the autism spectrum can be very unpredictable, especially if your child is not prepared. Take the time to go through an airport check dress rehearsal with your child before you leave for your trip. Taking a few hours to play, “Let’s go to the Airport” not only prepares your child for what is to come but can be a fun activity for the entire family.
5 - Anticipate sensory sensitivities. Pay attention to the sensory sensitivities your child has and thinking ahead to what might trigger resistance or a meltdown is important. If your child does not like walking in stocking feet then you need to prepare her for what is to come or find another solution. Stating this as a fact and writing a social story about it may be all that is needed.
6 - Don’t wrap it. Holiday traveling with gifts requires special consideration. Do not spend the time wrapping your gifts because you may have to unwrap them in front of the security guards. Any young child, regardless of ability, may not understand why the security guard is making mommy or daddy unwrap the gift they so carefully wrapped for their grandma. This alone may be enough to make them become unglued. To avoid this hassle, either wait until you arrive at your destination to wrap them, or mail them separately.
7 - Pack snacks. If your child with autism has dietary restrictions you obviously need to pack food items they can eat. It’s difficult to find gluten free, casein-free food in the airport eateries. Bring your child’s favorite treats such as fruits, veggie sticks, toddler finger foods, cheerios and such that will appeal to their young taste buds and keep them happily munching. Remember to bring along wipes to clean sticky fingers.
8 - Give your child a survival backpack. A flight is a long endless ride for any youngster. To help pass the time, pack your child’s favorite activities and simple toys in their carryon baggage to amuse them - crayons and coloring books, books to read, dolls and action figures to pretend with. Also include items that will soothe your child’s sensory issues - music with headphones, something to chew on, a fidget toy, a stuffed animal or a favorite blanket for comfort.
9 - Leave an hour earlier than you think you need to. Give yourself plenty of extra time. Checking in always takes longer than you expect, especially when you have children. A good rule of thumb is to be at the airport an hour before domestic flight times and two hours before international flight departure time. You may want to consider doubling that if you have a child that thrives on routine and predictability, something that most airports do not provide. Having to rush with a child on the autism spectrum in a busy airport can easily send them into overload. Then you need even more time to calm your child.
10 - Look at the map before you go. Every airport has a website now with a map of the facility. This way you can scope out in advance where the nearest place to eat is and how close it is to your departure gate. Sometimes if you have a lengthy delay you might even find that your airport has a quiet place for families with children to have some quiet rest time.
All of the tips above can be aided and enhanced if you heed the first suggestion of calling the airlines and airport in advance to identify yourself as a family of a child with autism to find out what type of accommodations they have to offer your child. You may also want to consider creating a card or some sort of written communication that will alert airport staff to the special needs of your child. This will keep you from having to verbally explain your situation to a security guard in front of way too many people.
For more specific strategies to experience truly happy holidays, click here to access this ebook on Kindle, Autism Parenting: How to Have a Happy Holiday with your Child on the Spectrum.