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How to Help Kids on the Spectrum Manage the Airport

by Susan Finch

Oct 4, 2017

Paulus Rusyanto | Dreamstime

Travel Tips

Once the excitement of booking and planning a hard-earned vacation sinks in, you’re left with a creeping dread of what’s to come. You know it’s going to be a challenge to help your special needs kids on the spectrum manage a crowded airport that’s a breeding ground for sensory overload.


But you’re not alone. Not only are there plenty of other parents navigating the same issues, more airports are taking notice and making accommodations to help their special needs travelers. Arm yourself with these five tips to help turn your next family vacation into a success.

Main hall in Hartsfield Atlanta Airport

Photo: Sean Pavone | Dreamstime

Do a Test Run

The anticipation of go-time can be enough to send adults over the edge, let alone kids on the spectrum. That’s why taking a test run is crucial to your success in helping your special needs kids. Some airports, like Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, offer travel rehearsals for challenged travelers who are on the spectrum and of all ages.

If your own airport doesn’t offer such a service, pack up and head to the airport to show your kids where you will park, what the ticket counter is like and the security line. Then walk through the airport and point out the different areas so they at least have an idea of what to expect from the hustle and bustle.

Young boy at airport with headphones

Photo: Mariadubova | Dreamstime

Bring Creature Comforts

You know your kids better than anyone. Think about what they could use not just for their trip, but for the airport. An oversized, soft pair of headphones can keep out excessive noise from swelling airport crowds. A big, floppy hat can also help kids on the spectrum shut out bright lights and too much movement from rushing travelers.


If your kids are generally okay with the noise and movement, think about what will help them soothe their anxieties or fears. A soft blanket, wearing their favorite outfit and bringing along a coveted video game player or snack can help create security.


Give Yourself Plenty of Time

Traveling with kids on the spectrum may require some unexpected lag time to readjust or take a breather after a challenging wait in the security line. Give yourself an additional hour on top of what you think you need, devoted to taking your time. Get through the airport at a brisk, but leisurely pace and use any excess time to do some OT in a quiet corner with jumps, headstands, heavy input or whatever your child needs to adjust and tackle their day.


Chart Out Your Quiet Spots

Despite the intensity of the airport, there are quiet spots you can chart out in advance. Check to see if your airport has a quiet room or sensory play area designed with special needs kids in mind. Shannon Airport in Ireland created such a sensory room with a wavy wall and color-changing lights for travelers with neurodevelopmental challenges including autism.


Purchasing an airport lounge pass for the day can also help snag some much-needed quiet time while finding an empty gate in between flights can create a space to spread out a blanket for a quiet picnic.


Reach Out for Help

Remember you’re not the first family to navigate the airport with kids on the spectrum. Reach out to your network or an online forum for parents with special needs kids and ask for advice on how to plan. They’re likely to have insights you never considered that will be invaluable for your own trip. And when you come back from your trip as a pro traveler with kids on the spectrum, be sure to pass on that knowledge to another family.


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