Traveling with a child with Special Needs- Testing Autism and Air Travel

Wanted to share this article I came across in the New York Times since a busy travel season will soon be upon us.  This article provides some insight to one of the real life struggles that a parent with a child with autism faces.

I enjoy working with pediatric patients in both a clinic environment and home environment because if gives me the opportunity to see how my hard work in the clinic is translated in a home environment, as well as giving me insight into the daily lives of some of my patients.

As physical therapists, we not only try to improve function or decrease pain during a patient’s time with us, we also have to make sure that are efforts go beyond the walls of our clinic.   So not only do I practice gross motor milestone activities in a clinic environment, I take my patients outside and make them practice in the real world.

Here are the highlights from the article:

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder, health officials say. And for the parents who struggle to navigate the nation’s airports and airlines with these children, aviation officials are providing more help.

Over the past two years, Washington Dulles International Airport, along with airports in Atlanta; Boston; Bridgeport, Conn.; Manchester, N.H.; Philadelphia; and Newark, have offered hundreds of parents and autistic children “mock boarding” experiences, allowing them to practice buying tickets, walk though security lines and strap themselves into a plane that never leaves the gate.

As of now, Jet Blue, AirTran, Continental, Frontier, Southwest and United Airlines have participated.

I didn’t know that airlines had mock boarding experiences, but I will definitely recommend that to parents who have concerns about traveling.

The early word suggests that the programs, which are free, seem to help. Autism experts and parents say that increased familiarity with busy airports helps autistic children and their caretakers travel more comfortably. And airport and security officials say they gain a better understanding of the difficulties experienced by autistic travelers.

…Hoping to avoid such unpleasant experiences, many parents are developing their own survival strategies. Some carry letters from doctors describing their child’s autism diagnosis, pack noise-canceling headphones and dress their children in brightly colored T-shirts that declare “autism awareness,” trying to make the invisible disability visible.


Taking a child on an airplane for the first time is often a stressful experience, but for parents with children with autism, that stress is multiplied. What follows are some suggestions on how to minimize the anxiety and the potential for surprises.

 Pick a short flight — an hour or so.

 Visit the airport ahead of time to familiarize your child. If possible, participate in a mock boarding experience. If none is available, call your local airport to see if they will allow you to show your child the ticketing counters, security lines and waiting areas in advance. Parents interested in participating in a mock boarding experience at Boston Logan International Airport, either Nov. 3 or next spring, can use this link — — to register. Washington Dulles International Airport plans to offer additional mock boarding experiences in the spring. Check the “What’s New” section of the airport site — — next year for information.

 Call the TSA Cares hot line — (1-855) 787-2227 — 72 hours before your flight to alert them that you might need assistance going through security. Some parents ask to go through the handicapped line with children who have difficulty in crowds or waiting in long lines.

 Call the airline ahead to alert them that you might need to board early or require additional assistance onboard.

 Tell your child what to expect, including delays and long waits, in the airport and on the airplane. Philadelphia International Airport offers a story — — that can be read to children to help them prepare. It is designed for mock boarding experiences, but can be adapted to any trip.

 Pack a carry-on bag with anything that might be soothing during a rough patch. Be sure to include documentation of your child’s diagnosis that you can share with security and airline personnel.

 Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, offers a page — — with additional online resources and travel tips.

This last link from the Autism Speaks website is a great resource with travel tips for traveling with a child with autism.

Categories: News Articles

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