Flying with Special Needs

Flying with Special Needs

Getting ready to fly with special needs? On a “Wing and a Prayer”

It may be scary to think about the challenges of flying with special needs.

When my daughter was 8-years-old, my cousin asked her to be a flower girl in her wedding.  My daughter was thrilled about this role when I showed her pictures and videos of little girls walking down church aisles in fancy dress.

The only problem: we had to fly from Indiana to Florida for the wedding.

My daughter had never flown before and I was a bit nervous.  She has autism, and her language skills were still in an early stage of development.  Explaining through verbal reasoning was not the best way for her to understand what goes on around her.

Still, I bought airline tickets and hoped for the best possible scenarios during our travels.

Well, “wishing and hoping” is not the best way to plan for flying with an autistic child for the first time.

Meltdown on the Airline

While the flight out to Florida went fairly smoothly, the flight back was a nightmare.  First, bad weather delayed our outbound flight to our layover stop.  After boarding the second plane to go home, we sat waiting for nearly 45 minutes. Then they made us get off to plane after discovering mechanical issues.

My daughter was going ballistic.  When others around us were confused and getting upset, so did she…exponentially! That fact that I was a hot mess—frustrated, tired and hungry—only made things worse.

We finally got back on the plane but still waited again. My daughter was in the middle between me and another woman having a meltdown, crying and writhing around.

I apologized several times and explained that she had autism to her, but fortunately she was incredibly understanding, saying that she had someone in the family with autism.

Finally, the plane took off and she settled down some.

I vowed that as a family we would only travel by car whenever we decided to vacation.  Flying was out of the question.


Flying with Special Needs: Learn from My Mistakes

 “If only I knew then what I know now…”

I had flown a few times before in my life, but I was not experienced enough to anticipate all possible scenarios of what “could go wrong”.  I knew my child, but I suppose I was in denial of the need for the right preparation.

  • Did I create her a social story video of flying in an airplane or being at the airport?  No.
  • Did I read stories about flying to her?  No.  
  • Did I take her to the airport for a little “show-and-tell” outing?  No.
  • Did I prepare for the potential delays and sensory impact of such a different setting?  No.
  • Did I tell the airlines about her needs?  No.

I did not adequately prepare her for our flight. Actually, not at all.  If only I had done my homework, we might have had a better experience.  Well, I’m doing it now…for you.


5 Steps to Preparing Your Special Needs Loved Ones for Flying

My first mistake was not seeking out help.  Often, we don’t get help because we don’t know it’s available in the first place.

But now with greater awareness of organizations to help individuals and families with autism and other special needs, we can simply ask if assistance is available before “going it alone”. (Click through the links for more information.)


1. Know your rights as a passenger!

This is your first stop for getting help.  Due to passage of the Air Carrier Access Act, airlines may not discriminate based on disabilities.  The Department of Transportation has set rules defining passenger right and the obligation of airlines for flights within the United States (Title 14 CFR Part 382), including those with developmental disabilities.

One of those rules includes not limiting the number of persons with disabilities on a flight.  Another right is that airlines are required to provide assistance with boarding, deplaning, and making connections as well as within the cabin.

Armed with this knowledge, you can ask for help confidently.


2. Ask for “special assistance” from the airline when booking the flight.

Be sure to request special assistance when you buy airline tickets.

When you go online to book a flight, most airline carriers will give you an option to select special needs assistance.  American Airlines has a page with information to contact them directly via phone or online. They can contact you before your flight to confirm the type of assistance you need for your flight.

Southwest has an option to select for special assistance for passengers with “cognitive and developmental disabilities” when you select your flight (see photo).

There is a special code within the travel industry that is used to alert airlines of special needs: the DPNA code stands for “passenger with developmental or intellectual disability needing assistance”. If you are using a travel agent to book a flight, be sure to let him or her know to use that code.  For information about the DPNA code from a personal experience, watch this Facebook video by a family with autism.

If you book a flight yourself through a travel booking website like Expedia and it doesn’t give you the option to select “special assistance”, then be sure to contact the airline directly and ask for assistance for your specific flight. If you google the airline and “special assistance” you will most likely find the information you are looking for. Be clear about exactly what you need.

In some cases, this may be the need to pre-board before everyone else and/or to sit together as a family or group. Alert the gate boarding staff to the needs of your family or group.

Finally, consider booking direct flights instead of one with layovers, especially during seasons with a high chance of delays and cancellations.

Also schedule a flight time during the time of day when the airport may not be so crowded.  This may be hard to avoid (especially at busy airports like Atlanta or Chicago), but usually early morning flights may see long lines at the security checkpoint.

Call your airport to find out when it’s less crowded and then schedule your flight times around that if necessary.


3. Conduct a “practice-run” at the airport or at home.

Given that families with autism have had too many negative experiences at airports, some decided to take matters into their own hands.

With the help of advocacy organizations like the ARC and the Autism Society, these families have developed programs to practice being at the airport and boarding the plane.  These programs tend to run only a couple of times a year, with most scheduled in April during Autism Awareness Month.

If you think of ever flying with your autistic child—even if not in the immediate future—then it would be a good idea to sign up. Check with your local autism organization and airport for information on these programs.

Here are a few that are popular in the Midwest:

If participating is not an option, then consider making a social story about the entire process at your local airport.  The links above have some videos to view; the Autism Society has a link to a downloadable social story.

As a “field trip”, visit the airport yourself with those who will be flying with you.  You may not be able to get through security without a plane ticket, but you can take pictures of the process of parking, baggage check, amenities, security, important signs, seating areas, etc.

With these you can create your own social story that can be read again and again to build comfort and confidence with the process.


4. Inform TSA Cares of your need for accommodation through airport security.

Know the TSA regulations for security.


By calling TSA Cares at least 72 hours in advance of your flight, you can get someone to assist during the check-in to security process.  You will forward your itinerary to coordinate assistance by a Passenger Support Specialist so you, your family, or your group to get through the screening process with greater ease.

Carry a TSA notification card and/or provide medical documentation to communicate in a simple, non-verbal way each person’s needs to TSA officers.

Also know that just because someone has a disability does not mean that person is exempt from a pat-down.

I HIGHLY recommend thoroughly reading the TSA website about the procedures, watching videos about the screening process (including this social story and pat-down video), and even create your own social story “book” about the sensory issues as the process can be very over-stimulating in a visual, auditory and tactile way.  Consider practicing the process at home along with the social story.

If you think you’ll be flying more than once a year, consider purchasing the TSA Pre√ ($85 for 5 years) to expedite the process (no need to remove shoes, liquids, belts, jackets, etc.).

5. Packing Sensory Items for the Flight

Fidgets are great sensory tools for plane travel.

Airports and airlines are sensory-overloaded environments that have the potential to trigger meltdowns.  Start with knowing what type of triggers to which your autistic loved one is most susceptible.

If someone is hypersensitive to noise bring noise-cancelling headphones.  Some may block out sound entirely while others block background noise but allow someone to hear close conversation.

If someone is hypersensitive to visual stimuli, then wear a baseball hat that blocks out the wider panorama.

If someone is very sensitive to touch, indicate so on the TSA Notification card. If someone is hyposensitive then bring a compression shirt or other similar item.

Bring items that can be helpful distractions or soothing activities, such as coloring books; pre-downloaded music, games or movies on an iPad or iPhone; fidgets and other sensory toys; weighted lap-pads; neck pillows; chewy necklaces; soft brushes, etc. All of these items can fit into a “Sensory Bag” as a carry-on.

Don’t forget to bring an empty water bottle and healthy snacks.


Ready to Fly!

It’s the day of arrival at the airport.  As one of the most sensory stimulating places to visit, you’ll find stressed-out people rushing around.

Those with autism are very sensitive to the feelings of others around them. If you as a parent are stressed, then your autistic child may be very stressed!

Being calm and relaxed yourself is very important. Ask your airline staff if the airport has a sensory or calming room to use while you wait.  And make sure everyone in your party is well fed.

Another important tip is to … (wait for it) … HAVE FUN! Take walks around the terminal before boarding as a way to release energy. Play silly games like “I Spy”.  Read a story or watch a funny movie together while you wait.

Having the right preparation and a fun, positive attitude will ensure a more successful flight for everyone!


For help searching for and booking flights, feel free to get in touch! I would love to help you the perfect vacation!  Just click on this link for a free travel consultation!