Travel Help for Autism Families


Summer is upon us and we all long for a vacation, but any autism family who’s attempted to fly knows what an ordeal it can be. Increasingly, airports are providing special trial runs for autism families to put them at ease prior to undertaking a journey.

Logan Airport in Boston recently offered training to dozens of JetBlue volunteers to host such an event, going so far as to bring an Airbus to a gate to allow families to familiarize their child with the plane and practice staying seated and belted once aboard.

Of course, people with autism and other special needs are not exempt from screening procedures, so airport staff are being trained to understand their behaviors. The alien environment and aggravating wait times cause many children to flee, so advocates hosting the event designed a special autism lapel pin so that screeners would know who to allow more time and so security could help reunite a bolting child with their family. 

Airports in Philadelphia and Newark have staged similar events and Manchester Airport in London actually produced a great brochure on flying with autism.

Massport (the parent company of Logan Airport) will set up individual practice times for children and assign a customer service representative to accompany families through security on the day of a flight and it is worth it to inquire if such services are at the airport in your area.

If nothing is available, taking the child on a tour of the airport prior to travel day is certainly a good idea. Noise-canceling headphones definitely help with sensory overload. Parents have found tracking bracelets and even helmets to shield a child throwing a fit useful. Surrendering cherished possessions to go through the X-ray machine is a particular flashpoint to prepare your child for.

Additionally, be sure to take advantage of airline pre-boarding accommodations for travelers with special needs. It may never be needed, but be prepared to provide documentation such as a doctor’s note or IEP paperwork to prove that your child or fellow passenger does in fact have an ASD diagnosis. This will avoid having to wait in the general boarding lines, which can often cause undue stress for a child or young adult with autism.

Carrying favorite books to read or music to listen to helps with long waits. And packing never-before-seen coloring books, DVDs and other items of entertainment is also recommended. Don’t forget those favorite snacks as well. In advance of your flight, call for bulkhead seats. I recall spending a seven-hour flight trying to keep peace with our neighbors as my sons relentlessly and unwittingly kicked the poor people’s seats in front of them.

Frustrated parents launched the event at Logan and hopefully, airports across the nations will follow suit. It’s certainly in their best interest to accommodate autism families eager to be able to fly.

And if you aren’t under distance or time constraints, don’t forget the option of traveling by train. Kids love trains and it’s less of a hassle. They can walk around and personnel will deliver dining car food to your seat or compartment.

Whatever your mode of transportation this summer, we wish you happy and safe travels.

11 Responses to Travel Help for Autism Families

  1. david helton says:

    wonderful article susan, thank you, i have a five year old autistic son and we are still learning the ins and outs of protecting him from environments that cause him discomfort, haven’t attempted an airport yet but will someday . . . and a train ride sounds fun!!

  2. Susan says:

    Trains are definitely less of an ordeal, and are innately thrilling for a boy your son’s age. I personally don’t care for flying post 9/11…

    Thanks for writing!


  3. Madeline Santiago says:

    Hi. I have a 4yrs old autistic son. We are planning vacation by this June but my son has not travel in an airplane since he was like 7 months old. We are worried of how he will accept this. We are not sure if we can do something so at the security pointwe don’t have to wait for long time. We are traveling on the Jetblue. Could you provide me any information that will be helpful for us?


  4. Susan says:

    I think the best thing to do would be to contact the airport you are using, to ask what services and help they can offer you. Also call Jetblue and see what accommodations they make for autism. Let the airport staff you encounter know that your son has autism.

    Keep engaging activities on hand. Story books, hand held gaming devices, iPods, anything portable and entertaining.

    Read stories about flying in advance of the trip and try to visit the airport so it won’t be brand new to him.

    Good luck!


  5. Madeline Santiago says:

    Thank you so much. I will call.

  6. Amy says:


  7. gary bollinger says:

    where can my wife and i find help getting to see our son he is 18 and we just now put him in a group home, and my terminal illness wont allow me to drive the two hundred miles to see him and his mother my wife is disabled also, and she dont drive, we desperately need help with some way to go see him, please help, gary bollinger,,,,for my severely autistic son joseph bollinger,,,

  8. susan says:

    I don’t know enough to even make suggestions about your situation. All I can think is to contact your nearest autism society and to bring your problems up with your and your wife’s caregiver. Maybe call your local paper and news station and have someone do a short piece and ask the public for help. Good luck to you…

  9. Thomas Moll, PhD says:

    I’ve worked as a behavior therapist for over 10 years, having connected unbelievably with over 300 children. Experience as a Special Education teacher, yoga instructor for children with special needs, school consultant, etc.

    My forte is introducing children on the spectrum to nature, in all its glory. I have experience taking children hiking, biking, swimming, kayaking, canoeing, fishing, rock climbing, rollerblading, ice skating, XC skiing, sledding, biking… you name it, I’ve probably taken a child to do it!

    If you need a *professional* experienced travel companion (I’ve been to 17 countries, taught English in Spain), please contact me.

  10. Susan says:

    where in the world are you?

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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