The holidays are here and for many, that means travel. Having a child with sensory processing disorder can make an already hectic trip even more challenging. Our family lives on the other side of the country so if we want to see them, we need to brave the airport. Our 2.5 year old, M, has autism and as most parents know, the airport can be a sensory minefield.
We discussed his first flight months in advance with his behavioral therapist and OT and created a plan. In addition to lots of heavy work and a child harness (M runs away), we created a social story. For those of you not familiar, a social story outlines exactly what a child can expect for a particular event, along with the tools for how to handle it. They can be several sentences or several pages, depending on the occasion and the child. We decided to give ours a sensory focus and read it to him multiple times a day for a couple weeks before our trip. Because M enjoys memorizing logos, we also used pictures of as many logos as possible, so that at the airport he would point them out to us. This gave him a distraction from some of the aspects that might otherwise bother him, like noises and crowds.
In addition, we made a dry run to the airport the day before during the evening (so it was less busy) and spoke with a TSA agent about the best way to get through security. He recommended we use the handicap line for faster access (in our airport there is a general line, which includes families, and then a line for first class passengers and passengers who need assistance due to their disability). We also secured pre-boarding so that we would not have to wait in line to get on the plane. We spent the time before takeoff giving M deep pressure and re-reading the portion of the social story that discussed take-off.
Below is the story we wrote. Feel free to adapt it for your own family!
We are going to take a trip in an airplane. Going on long trips can be exciting!
Airports sometimes have long lines. While I’m in line it is important to stay with my mom and dad because they keep me safe. To make sure I am safe I will wear my puppy backpack. If I get tired of the line, I can sit in the stroller.
When we go to the airplane we may have to have people check our pockets to make sure everyone is safe. This is okay because my mom and dad will be there to hold my hand making sure I am okay. I will need to take my shoes off but I can help put them in the tray to be checked. Dad can carry me so I don’t have to walk on the ground barefoot.
Airports are loud because there are a lot of people, loud airplanes, and other machines. If the noises are scary I can ask for squeezes from my mom and dad, or cover my ears. It is important to always have a calm voice so the noise doesn’t get to be too much.
When we are on the airplane or in the airport, the bathrooms might be very loud. It’s okay though; the sounds are just from the potties like we have at home. We can sing songs to take my mind off the noise.
When the airplane is in the air I might have a weird feeling in my ears. When this happens I can ask my mom or dad for a little snack and it may help my ears.
When I am on the airplane it is important for me to be nice to my fellow travelers. This will mean I wall always have to have calm hands, calm feet, calm voice, and a calm body. I will need to stay in my seat with my seatbelt on.
Riding on an airplane can be very fun. I can look out the window and see the clouds. Flight attendants will bring me some juice or snacks. I can also read stories, play with toys, or watch my Elmo movies.
When the plane lands it will be bumpy. I can squeeze Daddy’s hand if I want to. Then we will need to wait our turn to get off the airplane. In the airport we will need to walk to get our suitcases. I will hold Mommy’s hand to be safe while we wait.
Then we will get in our car and go get something to eat.