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My husband’s family live in the US and we took my eldest over at 3 months old. It was fine but for the past 5 years we have stuck to short holidays in the UK. I have to be honest flying with the kids is something I have been avoiding. It can be a pain getting to the supermarket some days so the thought of a 10 hour flight was not appealing.
Our two boys 3 & 5 are autistic and we have been preparing for this holiday and flying with them for a few months now. My boys both have difficulty with communication and making sure they understand something often needs preparation. In addition my eldest needs lots of processing time for new information. Having said that all kids need support for their first flight. So this post is my tips and links to resources we found helpful.
Prepare over time
As soon as you know you are going on a flight start talking to your kids about flying. You don’t need to tell them straight away about the holiday, this can be as simple as pointing out aeroplanes as they pass overhead. Talk about the bird flying, read books about going on holiday and flying.
Below are some links to toys we found particularly helpful:
My son is a big LEGO fan and the plane below is brilliant. We managed to pick up a second hand one which was perfect.
Visit a plane
In the run up to your flight see if you can visit a plane so they can see one up close. A great way to do this is to drop off or collect friends and family who are flying, this way the kids can see the airport too. Another way is to visit an attraction that has a plane, even historical planes will be helpful.
We live in Bristol so went to Bristol Aerospace and had a look at the Concorde. My eldest struggled with this visit as it was quite noisy in the main hanger and he refused to get on the plane. We spent a long time in the play area but even that is plane / flying themed so it all helps. Just seeing a plane up close was a good experience to do in advance.
Books about Airports and Flying
My youngest is a big fan of Zog, reading about dragons flying helped him to understand more about flying. The kids are Peppa Pig fans so we started to read Peppa Pig goes on holiday at bedtime. This is another lovely book we picked up second hand –
A mum recommended the two sticker books linked below. We found them really helpful as they go through the aiport, dropping off bags, security and on the plane. A great way to talk about what to expect using a visual aid.
Another book I would really reccommend is Sammy goes on an aeroplane by Charlotte Olson, you can also get Suzie goes on an Aeroplane.
Airport Special Assistance
Airports offer assistance for anyone who needs it, this includes for those with hidden disabilities such as autism. Our flight was from Heathrow, we emailed the special assistance team in advance who sent us a sunflower lanyard for each of the boys. The lanyard indicates to staff that you have a hidden disability and may need extra support. It also enables you to travel through the airport independently. My youngest was happy to wear it but my eldest wouldn’t so my husband wore it instead.
This is a great initiative and I did notice staff often looking at the lanyards. The boys did really well in the airport and none of the queues were that long so we didn’t need any extra help. I think it will be particularly helpful for autistic adults travelling alone. Most airports have information about special assistance on their websites. If you are travelling to Heathrow and need special assistance you can e-mail them in advance – firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a look at airports in advance as some have sensory rooms and others have soft play areas. If you have a long flight it helps to look at the restaurants in advance, for us we had to find where we could get a pizza so we knew the kids would eat something.
Some airports do tours or events to support autistic customers. A great example is Soaring for Autism in Indiana.
Speak to your airline in advance. We flew with British Airways who let disabled passengers book their seat allocation for free. This allowed us to book the four seats right at the back of the plane, next to the toilet with no seats either side. This was really helpful and well worth doing.
In addition we were able to board first. I was particulalry concerned how my eldest would cope with getting on the plane. He has really struggled with doors that are a bit different (shed / stable doors or cellars) in the past. I approached the staff when we arrived at the gate and straight away we were directed to a small seating area just past the desks away from the other passengers.
After a short wait we were taken down to the plane even before the other disabled passengers to give us that extra time to get on. It was at this point my son did get particulalry distressed. The staff were great just letting me help him and not allowing anyone else in the area until we got on. I did have to carry my son to the door to allow him to see through it and thankfully he calmed enough to go on. I think fear of the unknown often makes things a little worse.
Staff were great on the flight, friendly and helpful. Being able to get settled before the plane filled up was really very helpful. As we were at the back we didnt have lots of people passing us as the plane filled up either. Even better the TV screens worked straight away and had Zog and Frozen so we could instantly entertain them.
We had a similar experience at the gate on our return flight in Seattle being directed to disabled seating and allowed on first. Thankfully this time the boys got straight on happily, knowing they were going home really helped.
If your destination airport does not have special assistance and you need help to get through the airport speak to the airline as they may be able to offer help.
Free social stories about airports and flying
- Soaring for Autism,
- Heathrow Terminals guide
- Gatwick has a visual guide,
- Aer Lingus visual guides, and
- Kidmunicate social story preparing for a trip on an aeroplane.
Having a visual schedule showing what you are doing is particulalry helpful for young children and those who struggle with communication.
As we were visiting family so we prepared a photo book of who we were staying with and pictures of the car / house etc.
On the day
The best way to help children with a new experience is to be prepared and have a plan. To avoid a long drive from Bristol to Heathrow we decided to go the night before and stay in a hotel near the airport. We nearly always stay with Premier Inn as it is familar to the kids and you know the standard is good and comfortable. Turns out the hotel was really close to one of the runways and the boys loved watching the planes coming in to land from the car park.
We had an afternoon flight booked but as the flight was going to be 10 hours we decided to try and do something active in the morning. In the morning we went to Heathrow Gymnastics Club where for £5 the kids could have an hour in the playgym. It was perfect, lots of trampolines, climibing and soft play. They also had some fantastic sensory rooms in the playgym.
On the way there we used the kids hand luggage allowance to make sure we were well prepared. As well as iPads (with power bank chargers), magazines, books and teddies we had spare clothes (in case anyone was sick -thankfully not this time), nappies and wipes.
My kids are not particulraly noise sensitive, they are sensory seekers most of the time. However we decided to get some noise cancelling headphones as we were conscious how loud plane engines can be. We picked up some great site ear defenders from B & Q for £7 that were ideal. My youngest did use his but my eldest didn’t want to keep them on.
I was also prepared with snacks for take off. My kids don’t chew gum or suck sweets so I needed to make sure they were at least eating or drinking to try and avoid their ears popping. So I was stocked up with rice cakes, marshmallows and lollypops with water to hand. This did seem to help and also kept them occupied as the plane was taking off. My eldest was fascinated watching out the windows as we took off. Sadly my youngest was crying that he wanted to go home!
My kids are really picky when it comes to food so we knew they were unlikely to eat on the plane. We made sure we had a big meal in the airport and lots of familar snacks for the plane. My brother in law was collecting us at the other end we arranged for him to bring some fruit we knew they would eat to the airport.
I took the boys own cups on the plane and asked for milk before they went to sleep and the staff were happy to provide it.
Changing nappies on a flight
The first time we flew with my eldest he was 3 months old I did try the changing table. It was really small and a little akward and we ended up just changing him on our laps. That gets a bit harder to do with 3 & 5 year olds (yes they are still in napppies and that will be post for another day). Thankfully both my boys are now used to being changed standing up. Plane are pretty small, to change my youngest I sat on the toilet while he stood in front of me.
When my husband took my 5 yr old he put the lid down and stood him on the toilet to change him. Unfortunetly he was upset by the very loud toilet flush and refused to go in the toilet for the rest of the flight. This is where sitting at the back came in handy as we could change him in the corridor at quiet times. Thankfully we didn’t have any number 2s (we lucked out there given we did 20 hrs of flying).
How did it go?
I really think all our preparation helped, the kids knew what was happening and what to expect. They were still upset at the start of their first flight and had the odd moment. This was upset and not distress and there is a big difference. They did amazingly we all know how tough it is to fly long haul. Along with the upset we had excitement when my eldest saw we were flying through the window. On our flight home there was quite a bit of turbulance and thankfully the kids found it funny!
Those of you who have flown with young kids autistic or not what are your top tips? How else can you prepare for a flight? Let me know in the comments.
Thanks for reading and I hope you found something helpful.