Summer is almost here which means many Seattle families will be hitting the skies. And for some kids, this means flying for the first time which can be a challenge. Add a child with autism to the mix and there can be even more added stressors of sensory issues, anxiety and a basic level of fear. But now, there’s a way to prepare kids before take off and make flying a positive and safe experience for young travelers on the autism spectrum. Read on to learn more about the special training events for kids who want to practice and rehearse these new experiences ahead of time.

Practice Flight
The Wings for Autism/Wings for All program allows families to bring their young travelers to the airport for a dry run of the security and boarding process. Locally, Alaska Airlines offers the program at both Portland International Airport and Sea-Tac International Airport. The single afternoon program through Alaska Airlines, called The Sky’s The Limit, is sponsored by The Arc and is part of a national initiative that is funded by the Doug Flutie, Jr. Foundation for Autism.

The program gives young travelers the chance to experience a trip through a security checkpoint and the boarding process without ever leaving the airport. And the practice not only helps the whole family to be prepared for their first flight, but also gives all members of the airport team real world training. Airport staff, including TSA agents, gate staff and flight crews, get first-hand experience working with young travelers with special needs and travelers with autism spectrum disorders and intellectual/developmental disabilities. It’s a win-win for everyone!

photo: Rick Ostraat

How to Sign Up
To attend the next event with The Arc, they ask that families email them for information. The Arc schedules events as interest grows, so encourage other parents you know with kids on the spectrum to also sign up. Alaska Airlines also offers a broad range of helpful articles for families who travel with children on the Autism Spectrum.

Wings for Autism
For more information: wingsforautism@thearc.org
Waitlist for the next event: mauger@thearc.org
Online: thearc.org/wingsforautism

Tips for Flying with a Child on the Autism Spectrum:
When flying with a child on the spectrum, the following tips and tricks can help make your trip (and theirs) easier:

1. Think Through Your Child’s Particular Challenges. Kids on the spectrum may have a sensitivity to sound, light or touch. Try to anticipate unique challenges that your young adventurer may have and work to find solutions before there is a crisis.

2. Planning and Packing. Try to pack comfort items for your most inexperienced travelers. This may include a DVD player or an iPad loaded with his or her favorite games. You may also find things like gum, earplugs and sunglasses useful during your travels. Psst… something to chew on during take off and landing can help avoid ear pressure.

3. Bring a Blanket. For travelers who tend to get overwhelmed by being surrounded by too much activity, pack a lightweight blanket they can “hide” under during the busiest of times. Having a child buckled into his or her seat, with an iPad under a blanket may sound extreme, but it can be soothing for boarding.

4. Talk About Travel Early and Often. Children on the spectrum often take time to warm up to new ideas. Start talking about planes, travel and airports well in advance of your first flight. As your little traveler becomes more curious, talk about how things work at the airport.

photo: Rick Ostraat

5. Practice as Much of the Travel Process As You Can. Sign-up for the chance to take a practice run through security. Include your little traveler in picking up a family member from the airport, so they get an opportunity to see the airport beforehand. Also, visit the airport several times, so the whole family can get a feel for the lay of the land.

6. Be Vocal. Most families traveling with a little one on the spectrum can benefit from a little bit of help. Speak up when you or your loved one needs help. And use the resources available to make the travel experience safe and enjoyable.

Insider Travel Tips  
1. As a traveler with a disability, your child can qualify for pre-boarding the aircraft. You can ask at the gate for a pass that allows you and your family to board the plane first and get settled before the rush of travelers board. Take this chance to get your little one buckled in, comfy and if he or she wants to hide—wrapped up in their special blanket. This will allow everyone in your crew to be settled before the plane fills.

2. Even if you do not pre-board, be sure to inform the flight crew, when you board, that you are flying with a special needs child. Flight crews are often very accommodating and can offer support as needed.

3. To work with the challenge of TSA, consider using the TSA Cares program. By calling 72 hours in advance of your flight, you can arrange special assistance for security. During the phone call with the TSA agent, be sure to tell him or her about any sensory issues or delays your child may have. TSA agents can accommodate your entire party through a fast track version of security to avoid sensory overload.

TSA Cares Hotline
855-787-2227
Hours: Weekdays, 8 a.m.-11 p.m. (ET); Weekends/Holidays, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. (ET)
Online: tsa.gov/travel/passenger-support

Note: The TSA Cares program works best if you call at least 72 hours before your flight, but they can often accommodate with less lead time.

Do you have a great travel tip? Share it with others in the Comments below.

— April Horning