Autism and Flying

June 6, 2013

With the upcoming summer vacations, I'm fielding a lot of questions in my developmental pediatrics clinic about flying. Flying can generally be a stressful experience for any traveler but especially so for some of my patients with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their families. The crowds, changes in routine, and unpredictable events can have a way of triggering anxieties and possibly behavioral difficulties for children with ASD (along with other developmental disabilities). Some of my families report feeling traumatized after a bad airline experience, especially when it seems that others around them do not understand the root of their difficulties.

But avoiding air travel may not be possible, or may result in missing out on opportunities to see other parts of the country (or even world) which may be of great interest to all children.

To address these issues, a number of programs have recently been developed to help families and their children prepare for the stresses of air travel. Most of them address one of the key triggers for anxiety in kids with ASD, namely unpredictability, by giving families the opportunities to practice going through the motions of checking in, walking through security, and even sitting on a plane, so that their kids can have an idea of what to expect when the real time comes. This type of practicing is a common and often helpful strategy for children with ASD to cope with unfamiliar situations.

A recent New York Times article gives some examples of these programs. Another program, Autism Explores, was developed by a developmental and behavioral pediatrician in Philadelphia, in collaboration with the Philadelphia International Airport and TSA.