Originally published November 14, 2017; Updated June 23, 2022 with information from AutismNJ.

For many families traveling with a child on the spectrum poses a unique set of challenges. Not all children take easily to the unfamiliarity of new places and people, causing stress for themselves and those around them. One of the most stressful aspects of holiday travel can be air travel. To ensure a successful trip, planning ahead is key.

Before heading out the door, think through what experiences you may encounter on your journey and how they may affect your child. Megan Maguire, Behavior Analyst and Supervisor of Academy360 Upper School’s Behavior Intervention Department, has words of advice:

“In general, individuals with developmental disabilities tend to handle less familiar events better when they have been prepared regarding what to expect,” says Megan. “If possible, provide your child with a “social story” about your upcoming trip or vacation. Social stories are short descriptions of a particular situation, event or activity, which include specific information about what to expect in that situation and why.”

For the best results, says Megan, incorporate specific details about your trip with as much description as possible. “If your child enjoys watching videos, consider scanning YouTube for videos that demonstrate the air travel experience. One video by the Autism Society of Pittsburgh does a step-by-step explanation of air travel in easy-to-understand language.

YouTube: Video walk-through of Newark Airport Terminal C

In addition to social stories and online materials, there are other steps you can take to make the trip less stressful for your child and yourself.

If you live near your departure airport, taking your child to the airport in advance for a trial run is one way to prepare them for what to expect. Contact the airport or airline to find out if they offer tours.

According to Autism NJ, more and more airports are offering accommodation for individuals with autism. Check the airport’s website in advance. The Port Authority of NY/NJ (Newark, LaGuardia and JFK) participates in the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program, offering sunflower lanyards as a discreet way to communicate with airport staff about a hidden disability. Some airports offer quiet spaces for those with sensory issues.

The Travel Security Administration offers assistance for taking your child through screening. Contact TSA Cares 72-hours prior to traveling for information on screening policies, procedures, and to request assistance at the checkpoint. It’s often possible to skip to the head of the line if you inform the TSA agent of your situation.

Thought currently on hiatus due to COVID-19, The Arc’s “Wings for Autism” program, which offers “dress rehearsals” for the flying experience, is a great way to familiarize your child with air travel. Keep an eye on their website for future events in your area.

Finally, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Contact airlines, hotels, restaurants, and amusement parks to find out what accommodations can be made for your child’s needs – pre-boarding the plane, a certain room location, special meals, access assistance, and more. Most places are open to assisting persons on the spectrum and are happy to work with you.

For more tips on traveling with your special needs child: