Essential Plane Travel Tips for Families of Children with Autism


Air travel can be a thrilling adventure for families, promising new experiences, cherished memories, and exciting destinations beyond Singapore. For parents of children on the autism spectrum, however, embarking on a plane journey might bring not just joy, but anxiety and apprehension as well.

travel on plane

From the moment your child’s diagnosis was confirmed through a thorough autism assessment in Singapore, you must’ve anticipated how your life would change, including the way you travel. Fortunately, not all is lost, as the key to successful travels with children on the spectrum lies in thorough preparation and understanding of their unique needs.

Here are some essential travel tips you may find useful the next time your family travels by plane with your child who’s on the autism spectrum.

Pre-Travel Preparations

Assess Your Child’s Readiness for Air Travel

Before booking your tickets, consider your child’s current developmental level and comfort with new experiences. If they exhibit heightened anxiety or sensory sensitivities, it may be wise to gradually introduce them to unfamiliar environments through short outings or trips.

Obtain the Necessary Travel Documents and Approvals

Whether you’re traveling internationally or domestically, you need to prepare medical documents to inform the airline about your child’s condition. You may offer to email a doctor’s letter or medical certificate stating their official diagnosis ahead of time. And to ensure a hassle-free travel day, bring a copy of this document with you when you get to the airport.

Select the Right Airline and Flight Timings

Research airlines that offer assistance or accommodations for passengers with special needs. Moreover, opt for flights during your child’s most relaxed hours to minimise disruptions to their routine.

Building a Supportive Itinerary

Choose Autism-Friendly Destinations

Select destinations that offer sensory-friendly activities and attractions, such as parks, aquariums, nature reserves, museums, and quieter beaches, to provide a more comfortable travel experience.

Allow Ample Transition Time Between Activities

Plan your itinerary with sufficient downtime to help your child transition smoothly between activities, preventing overstimulation or meltdowns.

Essential Packing Tips

Pack Familiar Comfort Items and Sensory Tools

Don’t forget to pack your child’s favourite comfort items. For instance, you can bring their special soft blanket or cuddly toy to provide a sense of security during the flight.

Prepare In-Flight Entertainment and Distractions

Prepare a selection of preferred toys, books, or electronic devices with headphones to keep your child entertained during the journey.

Ready Snacks and Meals for the Journey

Bring a variety of familiar snacks and consider any dietary restrictions to avoid disruptions during the flight.

Communication and Social Strategies

Bring Communication Cards and Visual Aids for Travel-Related Situations

Use communication cards or visual aids to help your child express their needs and communicate with airport personnel or fellow passengers.

Encourage Social Interactions with Airport Staff and Fellow Passengers

Ask your child’s therapist or educator for social interaction strategies that will make your child more comfortable with new people they may encounter during the journey.

Prepare Siblings and Fellow Travellers for the Journey

Educate your other children and travelling companions about autism. Be candid about your child with autism and their specific needs to foster a supportive and understanding travel environment.

Managing Sensory Overload

Identify Potential Sensory Triggers During Air Travel

Identify situations that may cause sensory overload for your child, such as loud announcements, bright lights, or crowded spaces.

Create a Sensory-Friendly Travel Kit

Assemble a sensory-friendly travel kit, including noise-cancelling headphones, sunglasses, and familiar sensory tools. These items can significantly reduce sensory input during the flight and help your child maintain a sense of calm.

Preparing for Departure

Familiarise Your Child with the Airport Environment

Show your child pictures or videos of the airport, explaining the different stages of air travel, from check-in to boarding and security checks. This familiarity can ease anxiety on the travel day.

Practice Airport Procedures and Security Checks

Rehearse the airport procedures with your child, including going through security checks and handling carry-on items.

Use Pre-Boarding Strategies to Ease Anxiety
Request pre-boarding to allow your child to settle comfortably in their seat and avoid the rush of boarding.

Onboard Techniques for Comfort

Create a Calming Space During the Flight

Establish a designated space in the plane where your child can retreat and relax when feeling overwhelmed. It’s a good idea to inform the airline in advance about your child’s needs, and request seating arrangements that accommodate their sensory preferences.

Practice Relaxation and Deep-Breathing Exercises

If your child is feeling stressed out, see if they are able to perform calming techniques like deep-breathing exercises to manage anxiety and promote relaxation during the rest of the flight.

Coping with Unexpected Situations

Handle Flight Delays and Disruptions

Prepare your child for potential flight delays and disruptions, using visual schedules or social stories to ease frustration.

Stay Calm and Adaptable in Unpredictable Circumstances

Remain calm and flexible during unexpected situations, as your child will take cues from your response.

Seek Assistance from Airline Personnel and Support Services

Don’t hesitate to seek help from airline personnel or support services if needed; they are often well-equipped to assist families with special needs.

Arrival and Ground Transportation

Plan for Smooth Transitions Upon Arrival

Prepare your child for the transition from the aircraft to the destination. Try to clearly communicate how you plan to go about the process using visual timers, visual aids, social stories, and other tools to explain, for example, the modes of transportation that you will be taking next.

Choose Autism-Friendly Transportation Options

Prior to the trip, make sure to research autism-friendly transportation options at your destination to ensure a comfortable and secure journey. Taking a cab or using a private car transfer instead of the mass transit system might help to prevent your child from being overstimulated.

Set Up Familiar Routines at Your Destination

Maintain some familiar routines and activities at your destination to provide a sense of comfort for your child.

Travelling with a child on the autism spectrum may have its challenges, but you can overcome them with thoughtful planning and preparation. It’s an exercise in patience and fortitude, but in the end, you’ll be rewarded with your child’s delight in new-found experiences.

As such, it’s time to leave your anxieties and apprehensions behind and embrace the journey ahead. Be free to appreciate the joy that travel brings for you and your family.