Autistic traveling – Ain’t it fun!

June 10, 2012

Image from Boeing Web

I am sure I do not need to tell you that travel these days, well, it sucks.  Traveling with an Autistic child, well, sucks even more.  Of course you get the stares and the “Oh great, another horrible monster child getting on my flight” but traveling today is so much worse that it makes you want to stay home.  We can’t do that.  We have family in other cities and far enough away that getting in the car simply does not make sense.   Simply put we must fly but everyone’s stress level is so elevated, you should never be surprised by the crazies running up and down the aisle.

Zak has been on planes almost all his life.  Mostly due to the fact that I convinced ZAKSMOM to move to Arizona from Minnesota and her family, for some reason, decided to not move with us.  We have had our challenges on flights.  The very first flight, Zak was about 6 months old and we were nervous parents.  We have both traveled on business most of our lives and we, prior to being parents, were like most – hated having kids on flights.  So, in our infinite wisdom as parents, we just kept feeding Zak a bottle so that he would fall asleep on the flight and we would be able to rest easy.  An hour in, I am covered in hot puke and doing the walk of shame down the aisle to the bathroom.  The second flight was not much better and the third flight, when we should have started to recognize there was an issue, he screamed and begged to get off the plane – while we were in first class.  We were hated and they practically asked us to never come back.

These days, he is much better but we believe it is because we have a strategy.  Being prepared, setting the expectation and knowing what will set your child off is the key to making your trip as successful as possible.

  1. Preparation is key.  Making sure you have all your “tools” available and close by is imperative.  Zak has sensitivities to noise and airports and planes tend to get noisy.  Having noise cancelling headphones go a long way to overcoming over stimulation and potential meltdowns.  Calming devices such as chewelry or a favorite soft plush toy are good strategies to keeping your child in a soothed state of mind.
  2. Set the expectation.  Letting your child know that a trip is coming should be talked about in advanced and reminders that you are X days away.  Explaining the trip from start to finish and what they should expect is an important part of preparing the child.  Remember, their routine will be broken and our kiddos do not do well with the change.  Any and all feedback with the child is key to limiting meltdowns.  With Zak, it gets to a point that we sometimes overdo the schedule as he reminds us what we “should” be doing while on the trip.  “Dad, we are supposed to be at the park right now.” or “Dad, that plane is supposed to take of at 6:40pm and it is now 6:45pm.”  He can be that regimented.
  3. Knowing what will upset your child and how to avoid the issues before they happen.  As I mentioned, Zak has terrible sensitivity to noise and too much activity.  Finding a quiet place to wait or ensuring that he is removed from the situation prior to his escalating to a 5 makes for a more caliming environment and eases his transition to the plane and beyond.  Another importat key is to let the flight attendants know your child’s challenges.  We ask to be sure that Zak can leave his headphones on at takeoff and most are more than happy to help.  Believe me, not all will but they want the plane to be as calm as you do.

Having a strategy will make your life easier.  Not perfect but easier.  Zak has adjusted pretty well over the course of time and this trip was probably the best we have ever experienced.  And, the 6 year old daughter even behaved (well, as much as she can).  I attribute some of this to being less stressed.  I do think our kids pick up on it and in turn, become even more stressed.  Traveling with an Autistic child can be incredibly stressful; on your child, on you and on the other passengers and crew.  Having a plan by preparing your child for the trip, setting the expectation of the trip and knowing how to calm your child before the meltdown occurs will help you go a long way to ease your stress.  That, and a few vodka tonics never hurts!  Stay sane.

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