Health & Fitness

Simple strategies to prepare your special-needs child for holiday travel

The thought of flying can be overwhelming, chaotic and stressful for anyone, especially for those traveling with children who have special needs.
The thought of flying can be overwhelming, chaotic and stressful for anyone, especially for those traveling with children who have special needs. Miami Herald File

With the holidays approaching, many parents are starting to think about travel plans. Flight delays, long lines, crowds, unfamiliar sounds, impatient looks — the thought of flying can be overwhelming, chaotic and stressful for anyone, especially for those traveling with children who have special needs.

Children who have difficulty with changes in routine, trouble following directions or increased sensitivity to sensory stimulation face a greater number of challenges when it comes to travel, with the prospect becoming so daunting that you may even reconsider traveling. But with a few simple considerations and a little planning, you and your family can increase the chances of a (relatively) stress-free, successful trip.

Ask for help

Call TSA Cares, a passenger support service that provides travelers with disabilities and special conditions assistance, 72 hours ahead at 1-855-787-2227. You can also download a TSA disability notification card.

On travel day, it may help to disclose to passengers around you that your child has a disability. Also, inform them of some behaviors they may expect from your child during the flight, such as kicking the seat, opening and closing the window shades, vocal sounds, pacing, rocking or flapping arms. Give tips about what usually calms them when upset, for example, quiet voices, not making eye contact, hugs or songs.

Prepare the environment

When booking flights, choose a time of day when your child is generally most relaxed and well-rested. Set preferred seating arrangements based on your child’s needs and preferences. Make a list of potential triggers, including long waits, separation from preferred toys, or loud noises, and try to prepare the environment as much as possible. For example, if loud noises typically trigger a meltdown, buy noise canceling headphones or ear plugs and bring them with you on travel day.

Pack favorite foods and snacks, and bring more than you need in case there is a delay. Take a familiar or soothing item, such as a stuffed animal, favorite book or toy figures, to reduce anxiety and increase feelings of comfort. You may also consider creating visual supports like a “wait” picture card to provide additional cues for expectations during travel day.

Prepare your child

In the weeks leading up to your trip, begin to talk with your child about what will happen. Review the travel process in detail, from start to finish. It can be helpful to read children’s books about flying such as “The Noisy Airplane Ride” by Mike Downs, and to look at real-life pictures of airplanes, the airport and your final destination.

One very effective way to prepare children with autism for a new or unfamiliar experience is to use a social narrative, which is a sequential word and picture story that describes social situations and socially appropriate responses or behaviors. Social narratives can help relieve stress and anxiety and reduce problem behaviors. You can make your own or use those created by specific programs, such as the MIAair (Airport Instruction and Readiness) program at Miami International Airport. Read the narrative a few times before your trip, and bring it with you on the day of travel.

Keep travel day fun and interesting

Consider purchasing new, novel items for the wait in the airport and on the flight. Depending on your child’s age and attention span, you may choose to introduce a new item every hour or so to reduce boredom. Bring electronics and headphones, but be on the lookout for signs of exhaustion or overstimulation from your child. When needed, set aside breaks. Find an empty space with few other travelers to relax and wait until your child is feeling calmer.

Praise small steps toward success

Throughout the day, take opportunities to praise your child for on-task, appropriate behavior. Some children may also need tangible reinforcements such as stickers, fun snacks or small toy prizes, so you may want to use a system where your child can earn prizes for good behavior. For example, if using a social narrative or schedule on travel day, you might make a check mark or put a sticker next to each completed step. You can make the process even more exciting and rewarding for your child by giving a small prize after every three to five checks.

Remember, change is a process that happens over time and is achieved with repeated practice and effort from all involved. With a little preparation and practice, you too can enjoy the magical experience of travel with your child.

Diane Adreon, Ed.D., is associate director at the University of Miami Center for Autism and Related Disabilities (CARD), and Meaghan Parlade, Ph.D., is clinical psychologist and intervention services coordinator at CARD. For more information, visit or