Traveling with children can be tough. Traveling with children with disabilities can feel nearly impossible.
I remember the first time that I headed to the airport with my sons. It had taken me YEARS to build up the courage to take them on an airplane. My fears were two-fold: I worried about how our experience may affect other passengers, but I also feared that it could present a traumatic experience for my children.
Andrew, my oldest, is autistic. He is amazing and easy-going. He is always up for a new adventure and sometimes that excitement can be overwhelming.
He does not have a lot of "typical(remember that is not even a real thing)" sensory issues, but he is very BUSY! Waiting in line is HARD, sticking with his adult is HARD, using an appropriate voice level is HARD!
Davis, my youngest, is adorable and hilarious. He does not have an autism diagnosis, but he STRUGGLES with sensory and anxiety needs. Loud noises, big crowds, strong smells-He is not a fan!
With all of that in mind....the airport felt like our own personal nightmare.
My thoughts ran wild..."What was I thinking? This was the worst idea ever! We are going home to our safe place. This is too much for us all!"
One was going to be running around like a hyena, cutting lines, bouncing past the security check point, and having conversations so loud that the lady 10 rows ahead of us on the plane could participate in.
The other was going to be a puddle of nerves from the moment he went through those automatic glass doors. The TSA officers were going to fully send him into a spiral, as they yell at the top of their lungs, "TAKE OUT YOUR LAPTOPS, LIQUIDS, IPADS-SHOES OFF AND IN THE BIN-KEEP THE LINE MOVING!"
Somehow, I calmed those voices in my head that were doubting this leap of faith. I could not, WOULD not, allow my fears to keep my children and my family from experiencing the world outside of our little, safe haven of home. They deserved this experience, and they had the same right to travel as every other person in that airport.
And let me tell you...THEY ROCKED IT! They blew us all away. We had some bumps here and there(see what I did there with that airplane pun), but they defied all fears and worries that I had.
HOLD UP THOUGH-The cold, hard truth behind it is I PUT IN THE WORK to make this a successful journey. I read the blogs, read the books, showed them the videos, created the social stories-I did all the things!
In this post, my goal is to put all of the resources that I have found about airport travel with children with differing abilities together in one place. Some of these concepts may not be new or profound, but some are some really, cool and interesting resources that are so inclusive and helpful along the way.
PREPARATION BEFORE TRAVEL
1. Create a social story.
There are great apps and online websites that have premade social stories for traveling to the airport that you can use. I have always preferred to create my own using real life pictures, as much as possible. I basically put myself in the position of my child and write simple information about each step of the process. Here is a link to a great example of an airport social story.
2. Watch videos that give your child a visual of the airport process and flight.
Here are two videos we watched several times before heading to the airport.
Prepare your child for their first PLANE Ride and Airport Tour for kids
3. Create a visual schedules/strategies for the trip.
Include every step of the process from leaving the house to arriving at your destination. Allow your child to check off or tear off with velcro each step as it is completed. This gives your child some control over their travel experience and may help to ease the anxiety of it all. Here are some great visual resources for air travel.
4. OVERPACK THE SNACKS AND SCREENS!
This is not a time to worry about too much screen time. Give them the all screens and all the snacks. I made sure to preload downloaded content onto the Ipads for when there was no Wi-fi connection.
Make sure to pack high value snacks for two reasons: 1. It totally helps to keep your child entertained and excited during the flight or wait-time at the airport 2. If your child is a picky eater, they may not want the food provided in the airport or plane.
Don't forget the headphones to drown out the noise and of course, to hear those Blippi episodes. Books, travel games, WaterWow coloring books, fidget toys, and favorite stuffed animals are also great items to bring along.
5. Get the wiggles out before the flight.
When you are waiting to board, try your best to get your kids up and moving. Ride the moving walkway over and over again, stretch, hop up and down, or play Simon Says. They are going to be sitting for a long time on the flight so use this time to wiggle around.
PREPARING FOR SECURITY
To be honest, this is always the hardest part for us. I really think it is the hardest part for all travelers. There is an underlying, subconscious anxious, aura around security. The agents are loud, often not outwardly friendly, and people are in a rush to be done with that part.
HOWEVER, TSA has really made an effort to show that they are care! For real-it's actually called TSA Cares. TSA Cares is a helpline that provides travelers with disabilities, medical conditions and other special circumstances additional assistance during the security screening process.
You can request a passenger support specialist to help with this part of the process. Here is the form to apply for this amazing resource.
It is also helpful to obtain and show a TSA Notification Card: Individuals with Disabilities and Medical Conditions.
Lastly, Do a trial flight run. You can contact your local airport to see if the TSA will let you and your child run through the airport security process. This may help your child familiarize the security process before your travel date.
If a trial run is not possible, role-play the process or make sure to watch the videos linked above.
During Flight Boarding. Immediately notify gate attendants that you are flying with a child with exceptional needs, and ask if you are able to board early or last. This totally depends on your preference. For us, it is always better to board near the end. The longer we sit, the harder it is for my kiddos. Boarding early and late could have the advantage of not waiting in line at the gate or on the airplane while other passengers take their seats-just totally depends on your preference.
Avoid Ear-popping. Ear-popping can trigger during flight takeoff and landing. Offer your child to suck on a piece of candy or chew a piece of gum. However, if your child cannot safely do so, a chew tube can also be helpful during this time.
Lastly, never be afraid to ask for help and take part in any available options should you feel that they might help you with the whole flying experience. These resources are here especially for our children and families. They are one more step towards providing everyone with an inclusive environment for travel.
The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program
I'll leave you with one of my FAVORITE programs that is being implemented in many airports across the country(including Charlotte Douglas). It is called The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Program.
The Hidden Disabilities Sunflower is a simple tool for you to voluntarily share that you have a disability or condition that may not be immediately apparent – and that you may need a helping hand, understanding, or more time in shops, at work, on transport, or in public spaces.
Charlotte Douglas International Airport is proud to partner with the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Organization to make CLT more accessible for passengers with hidden disabilities. Starting June 30, 2021, passengers can request sunflower-branded items at the terminal. These items discreetly indicate to stakeholders around CLT, including staff, colleagues and health professionals, that they may need additional support, help or a little more time.
Discover other "sunflower friendly" locations here!
I hope this post has been resourceful and helpful. My BIGGEST piece of advice is to take the leap of faith and give your child and yourself the chance to experience the world through airline travel. THERE IS SO MUCH SUPPORT OUT THERE FOR US!
With my love and support, Anna