Air Travel with Autism – Tips on What to Bring Aboard
July 21, 2021

Air travel with Autism can be a challenge. Preparation is key! Familiarizing your child with the airport and with as much of the process as possible is the place to start. (Read Flying High from June 28, 2017, for tips on preparing to fly). Just as important is planning for the flight itself. And planning for a successful flight means carefully selecting what to bring aboard.

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Air travel with autism

Can your child sit in one place for a lengthy amount of time at the airport? Not many children or teens with autism can. With the answer to that question in mind, begin thinking about what your child needs in order to be occupied for that duration and to stay calm. Air travel with Autism isn’t that different from a long road trip, and in fact, you may want to put together a goodie bag and plan to take a long drive (equivalent to the length of the flight you may be on) to give it a trial run.

Here are some ideas for what to include in your air travel goodie bag, grouped by category.

Safety in Air Travel with Autism

Identification: Find whatever type of ID works for your child (temporary tattoos, name tag/sticker, ID bracelet, road tag, lanyard, patch, pin, etc.) and use it. (If your child is 18 you will need a valid, state-issued ID card, license, or passport. A birth certificate is also recommended.).

Air travel with autism

Notification Cards: These are great for passing out to folks who may need a gentle introduction to autism. This is especially handy when you or your child might be seated next to someone who just might need a little push toward compassion.  TACA and the NAA both have decent cards.  Purchase a pack or make some yourself with your own wording.

Food/Medication for the Flight

Packing a little meal (or several, for longer flights) and snacks is essential to feeling good, curbing hunger, and avoiding hypoglycemia. Since many kids with Autism have food intolerances and can be finicky as well, plan to take favorite foods aboard at the airport. Avoid liquids and anything needing refrigeration.

Ice packs (like those used in lunch boxes) can be taken on board as long as they are frozen solid during screening. If melted or squishy, they are subject to the 3-1-1 rule for carry-ons. You know your kid “on sugar” so think wisely about candy and other treats. Perhaps save those for last!

Air travel with autism

Bringing prescription and over-the-counter medication in your carry-on is fine; anything over 100ml must have supporting documentation from the physician. Medical marijuana is not allowed in carry-ons nor checked luggage even if it is legal in the departure and arrival state/country.

Activities for Air Travel with Autism

Having something to fill the time is necessary unless you know your child will sleep the whole time. And one cannot count on that! Electronic devices are THE thing; it goes without saying. Remember that devices must be turned off during departure and landing at the airport; if that causes a meltdown, have a plan to deal with it. Also, familiarize yourself with new electronic bans when traveling to/from certain countries.

airport | flight

Other ideas for activities include mess-free art, books, card games, road-trip style games (travel bingo, magnetic toys), and felt storyboards. You can also fall back on talking games if appropriate, like 20 Questions and I Spy with My Little Eye. Mad-Libs can be fun as well as Travel Pictionary. One brilliant thought: to make it exciting, wrap each activity in colorful wrapping paper.

Sensory Needs/Comfort in the Plane

We all have sensory needs, don’t we? When traveling by air, the flight itself is a sensory experience, which may or may not be enjoyable. Would fidgets help? How about a small weighted blanket? Chewing apparatus? Stress balls? A foot fidget? Bring onboard whatever calms your child. And if you’re going to store the sensory items in the pouch where the sick bags are, think about putting your sensory items in a baggie (for germs).

If your child has sensory needs around toileting, you can prepare for that too. Airline toilet bowls are usually cold metal and small. You can bring a collapsible potty cushion aboard. Also, prepare your child ahead of time by using a video of an airplane toilet for desensitization.

airport | flight

Since airline travel is noisy, check out noise-canceling headphones. To combat potential offensive odors, put some essential oil on a cotton ball and stick it in a snack-size baggie; you can hold the baggie to your child’s nose and have them inhale. Last, never underestimate the power of a snuggly blanket.

Hygiene On Board

Wipes, wipes, and more wipes. Bring a package aboard to use against germs, to freshen up, and wipe down surfaces such as armrests and tray tables. On a more sensitive note: you might need wipes in case of a bladder, bowel, or vomiting incident. And speaking of that, packing a change of clothes is another highly recommended tactic! Put the clothing, including socks and underwear, in a tightly-sealing plastic bag so in the event of soiled stuff, you have a place to stash it.

Hand sanitizer is good to have “on hand.” Make sure it follows the 3-1-1 rule about liquids.

airport | flight

Although brushing teeth in an airline lavatory is tricky, for long flights you might want to have a travel toothbrush and paste in your carry-on.

Pack it Up

Finally, think about the type of carry-on you will use and bring to the airport. And if your child is capable of carrying their own backpack, consider a sensory-friendly version. You’ll be able to pack more items for the flight if your child/teen can handle their own bag. And, when doing air travel with autism, you can’t follow the “less is more” approach because preparation is key! Plan for a variety of circumstances and needs, and flying with autism will be a breeze.

Call Ahead for Help

Many major airlines will allow you to call ahead and speak to them about accommodations you might need. Here are a couple of links.  American Airlines United Airlines Southwest Airlines

If looking for more information about special needs, visit our blog.

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Keri Horon

Keri is a special needs parent and a veteran high school English and journalism teacher turned writer. She enjoys reading, hiking, gardening, cooking, traveling, wine tasting, and practicing yoga. Both she and her son love to create art. She has a passion for educating people on all things autism. Visit her blog at

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