7 Things We Learned Flying with an Autistic Toddler

Recently we went on a trip to Maui. We took the whole family with 2 kids ages 8 and 3.

That task in and of itself is daunting when facing a 6 hour plane flight and a return trip, but when you throw autism into the mix, it becomes a whole lot trickier. Jonah, my 3-year-old has severe non-verbal autism. New experiences can be daunting to him, or they can be thrilling. I was terrified of taking Jonah on this trip.

Here are 7 things we took away from the airplane flights.

  1. Wear “autism” apparel.
    People aren’t aware of what autism “looks like.” Sometimes you DO need other people to know that your child is autistic and that his needs may be different than others. It’s not about “scoring shortcuts” and getting advantages over other travellers. We had a tough time waiting in line for the TSA security check, and we were pulled out and let through the disabled line because Jonah was having a meltdown. When the agents were aware that he had autism, they made accommodations for him and for us.

  2. Fly in the Morning.
    Or whenever the child is refreshed. I know it is tempting to fly during “nap time” or at night, but it is not a guarantee that he will sleep. Or if he does, it may be in the airport, and you will have to wake him up to board in the middle of his nap, which would not start/end your journey on the right foot, if your child is as cranky as mine if he is woken up. I would rather my child be in a good mood and not nap than have him grumpy and more likely to have a meltdown for the POSSIBILITY of a nap. Also, if your child has a favorite “blankie,” be sure to bring it. Jonah held on to his for nearly the entire flight.

  3. Bring a Stroller.
    We were tempted to simply “rent” one at the airport so we didn’t have to pack our stroller around, but that stroller kept his sanity. Not only in the airport, but for the entire trip. It is HIS stroller. The stroller was his “safe place” in a new environment. You can check it at the gate. You WILL use it for your entire trip.

  4. Download movies and TV shows onto your devices.
    This should be obvious. Bring your Electronics. Use them. Make sure they are all fully charged. Beware that most planes have a USB charging port, but not an AC/laptop plugin. The USB port will charge small devices like phones, but it will not charge tablets.

  5. Use a child airplane harness.
    This is specially designed for use on an airplane. Kids understand what being buckled in means. They don’t use just “lap belts” anywhere else. Using an airplane harness gives your child a sense of being strapped into a car seat which will also give him a familiar sensation of “car travel” and he will be more willing to sit for longer periods of time. You can find them on amazon for around $70.

  6. Bring a box of ziplock bags.
    Sometimes your child will eat food you purchase at the airport or on the plane. It’s always nice to be able to save the leftovers for later. You can also break down large boxes of crackers or chips into smaller ziplock bags to save yourself room in your carry-on.

  7. Contact your airline about travel accommodations for your child.
    You may be able to get a wider variety of food if they are made aware. Oftentimes, the flight attendants will give you boarding preference and let you and your family off the plane first. Jonah was antsy to get off the plane, but not any more than the other kids on the flight so, though we could have gotten off first, we opted to wait.

If you want to read more about our actual experience, you can read more below.

The Flight Out

One thing that made our first flight go so well is the fact that we went early in the day. Jonah is grumpy if he is sleep deprived or hungry, and he had a good night’s sleep and was well fed and refreshed.

We came prepared. We prepacked snacks into ziplock bags and downloaded half a dozen movies and tv episodes onto the ipad. We had Jonah wear “Autism” t-shirt so other passengers would be aware and contacted the airline about special accommodations for us.

Our flight out was at about 10am. When we arrived at the airport, we put Jonah into a stroller immediately. Jojo has probably outgrown his stroller, but it was an invaluable asset. It is familiarity for him in a new environment.

After we checked in and checked our bags, which took a while, we went through the security checkpoint which took maybe 10 minutes to get through. The security agent had me remove Jonah from the stroller and I walked through the checkpoint while holding him. The novelty of the airport still had Jonah curious with his new surroundings and he did just fine. He actually wanted to go back in his stroller when we were through.

The flight was on-time which definitely helped. Even though we arrived an hour and a half early, they had begun boarding already when we got to the gate. We informed the service agents that our son was autistic and asked if it would be okay if we could board last and disembark first. I figured the least amount of time spent on the actual airplane, the better.

They let me take the stroller right up to the gate and then they “gate checked it” so I would have it when we disembarked.

When we got on the plane, we had 4 seats all across the same row. Jonah sat in the middle with my wife and I on either side.

We used a child airplane travel harness ($69.95 on Amazon) which made Jonah feel more secure in his seat. As a matter of fact, as the flight started, I thought it might be a bit tight, but Jonah fussed if I even TRIED to mess with it. He would try to rebuckle it as soon as it was unbuckled.

He loved it for the same reason he liked being in his stroller. It gave him a sense of security in an unfamiliar environment.

The novelty of being on an airplane was actually new and exciting for him. When the plane took off, he giggled. Each time he felt the plane move, he laughed. Jonah is a bit of an adrenaline junkie and he actually enjoyed the motion.

As the plane gained altitude, I worried that his ears would bother him so I tried to give him a sippy cup but he wasn’t thirsty. Luckily he yawned a couple times and it wasn’t ever an issue.

Eventually, we settled in.

He didn’t eat any of the food on the airplane, but he ate his own prepacked snacks and they did have milk to drink.

The movies on the tablet definitely helped. He made it 3-4 hours without even getting out of his seat. They have USB ports for charging small items on the plane, but it would not charge a tablet or laptop so beware. If you reserve a first class seat or preferred seat, they may have AC outlets you can use for charging a tablet/laptop and that is something we might think about in the future.

Luckily, the battery on the iPad lasted for the journey.

Jonah did get restless. Eventually, he started to kick the seat in front of him, about 4 hours in. We got a few looks from the gal seated in front of us. I tried to keep him from kicking, but he started fussing when I did. He figured out how to unlatch the tray attached to the seatback and started lifting the tray up and down in addition to kicking the seat.

When I tried to keep him from doing both, he started getting REALLY agitated. I prepared for the worst.

When I unbuckled him, I found that he was SOAKED. I had given him loads to drink and hadn’t even thought to let him out of his seat lest he never return to it.

His fussing started amping up and I could see a few precursors to a meltdown. This was a problem.

I picked him up and he continued to struggle. I grabbed a pullup and a change of pants and headed for the lavatory. It was about the size of a phone booth. There was a changing table, but it is for small infants. Jonah is 3. I couldn’t even lay him down.

Luckily, Jonah has grown accustomed to being changed while standing so he let me change him without incident. If he had been more than just “wet,” it would not have gone well, but as it was he calmed right down after he had a fresh pull-up. Being wet had made him agitated and we had changed him fast enough that it didn’t escalate.

The gal seated in front of him saw his “autism” shirt when we went to return to his seat and told not to worry too much about him kicking her seat. I was very grateful for the understanding.

We didn’t buckle him in right away when we returned to our seats. He needed to stretch his legs and he liked standing on his seat and looking at everyone. He needed about 20 minutes or so and eventually he sat back down. We loosely buckled him in, and he eventually fell asleep. The nap only lasted about half an hour.

When he woke up, we only had about an hour left on the flight. We let him stand or sit as he needed. When the plane started its descent, he thoroughly loved the sensation, and we used the distraction to buckle him back into the full harness.

Before we knew it, the plane landed. It was like magic.

Returning Home

The plane flight out went much better than the flight back. The novelty of the new experience of airplane travel had completely worn off. We dealt with much more on the return flight.

On the return flight, we were early to the airport and the plane was late to the gate. So we had extra time. A lot of it.

My wife had the great idea to drop me and Jojo off at the terminal to get all situated with Jojo and check the bags and get through security and she would meet me at the gate with Jonny (my 8-year-old NT) after dropping off the rental car.

It really was a good plan… except for the automatic check-in system that spit out all 4 boarding passes when I only wanted mine and Jojo’s.

Which meant I had to wait with Jojo for Mama and Jonny at the checking area. Jonah was already grumpy because I had gotten confused about the different lines and had to backtrack multiple times figuring out the bag drop line, agricultural clearance line, and the check in line. Apparently there is a correct order and I went 0-3 on that order. There was a lot of backtracking.

So by the time Jonny and mama arrived, I had just checked MY bag and then my wife made all the same mistakes as me, having to backtrack from bag drop, all the way to agricultural check… and then back to bag drop.

We had been at the airport nearly an hour by the time we even got in line for the security check.

The terminal is also an open air venue which means it is about 85 degrees at any given time. Heat and time stuck in a stroller. Not a good combo for an Ausome little boy.

Jonah was DONE.

TSA security check line was a complete disaster this time. Meltdown the entire time. Jonny started crying because Jonah wouldn’t stop screaming from his stroller. Jonny sat on the ground covering his ears and crying, upset that Jonah couldn’t be consoled. This went on until we had waited a good 20 mins and a security guy pulled us out and took us through the wheelchair access line which had a waiting line one person deep, so we could zip right through and didn’t have to take a screaming, flailing Jonah out of his stroller.

I’m sure we got some looks. I’m sure we got some judgmental stares. I’m sure people were thinking “Dear, God, I hope I don’t have a seat around THAT kid.” But I wasn’t looking. I was busy trying to handle of the situation. So I don’t know. And honestly, I don’t care.

When we got to the screening area, Jonah was still in full on meltdown mode.

They initially asked me to take him out of the stroller and walk through with him, but I flat-out refused. That stroller was the only thing not bringing us to a screeching halt. They wouldn’t let me take the stroller through the screening area. It seemed like there was going to be a problem until I told them he has autism. They seemed to be much more accommodating after that.

Instead of removing him, They just needed to take a “swab” of his hands and the stroller… not sure what for, but it required me to hold his hands down in place while they did it. Thankfully Jonah complied, even though he was still screaming. At least he didn’t have to come out of his stroller. I told them there was no way he would go back in.

Once we got into the terminal, he was fine (he calmed down at least). I let him run around the airport for another hour or so. He was still running a very short fuse and it took very little to set him off…

Like the line at Starbucks to get him some more milk. Not happy about waiting in lines.

The Flight Back

When we finally boarded, Jonah decided he had had enough being carried and insisted on walking by himself. I was carrying 2 other bags so I didn’t have the strength or leverage to resist. So I had to relent and put him down. Luckily we were on the plane already so I just had to try to steer him in the right direction. This time, we booked our seats 2 in front, and 2 behind so that Jonah could kick his brother’s seat to his heart’s content without a judgemental look from the person in front.

When we got to our seats, 3 rows from the back of the plane, Jonah climbed right up into his seat and let me buckle him in.

This time, he was asleep within 5 minutes after takeoff. He was exhausted. We were exhausted.

He napped a good hour and a half. When he woke up, I put on Moana on the ipad and he watched the whole thing while munching on some chips I had packed. Before I knew it 4 hours had passed. Thank God.

I think Jonah’s threshold for airplane tolerance is about 5 and a half hours.

The flight itself was around 6 hours so the last half hour was spent with a very cranky, stir crazy, but also energetic wiggly 3-year old who learned how to both undo his seatbelt AND slide under it while it is fastened.

He not only wanted to stretch his legs this time, he wanted to run up and down the aisles. We let him do for a bit. The kid is a runner. But we had to return to our seats for the final approach. It was a struggle to get him back in his seat.

A real struggle.

It took bribery and a Daniel Tiger’s neighborhood episode.

They said to turn off all electronic devices as we made our final approach.

We were on the very cusp of a total meltdown so I made an exception for him. That iPad was the only thing keeping him from finding the closest thing around him to throw across the plane or break.

He settled on putting the tray table up and down over and over.

I snuck away the iPad and turned it off about 2 minutes before landing.

So as we made our final approach, his tray table was most definitely NOT in it’s secure upright, locked position.

We touched down and he was not even sitting in a seat.

I think if the flight had been any longer, he would have melted down for sure.

I was terrified of taking Jonah on this trip. It turns out my fears were misplaced. Sure, there was some hiccups along the way, but by and large, this trip went better than I could have ever dreamed.

Here’s to successful airplane travel to you and your Ausomes!

Have anything to add? Sound off in the comments!

Jason Reynolds
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Jason Reynolds

Jason is a freelance photographer and graphic designer. He is also a parent of Jonny (9) and Jonah (4) who was diagnosed with Autism in December 2016.
Jason Reynolds
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