Air Travel and Autism

My mom was recently diagnosed with cancer.  I want to be there and support her. Only problem is that I am in Washington DC and she is in Seattle.

The only good way to see her is to fly out. However since I am the main caretaker for my autistic son, I can’t just leave him with anyone. It’s one thing to hire a babysitter for a couple hours. But for a few days it’s just not possible. I’d have to take him with me.

I’d seen the news articles about autism families forced to leave the plane because of disruptions. After reading those I was struck with fear and had sworn off air travel. But now that I needed to see my mom, what to do?

I consulted Google and read various articles about traveling with autistic children. One article in particular mentioned a program called Wings for All. Sponsored by The Arc, the program is held at various airports around the country.

It’s an opportunity for an autism family to experience the process of going to the airport and boarding the plane.

I signed up for the program at Reagan National Airport. When we arrived, we checked in and got our boarding passes.  We then walked as a group towards the TSA lines (Transportation Security Administration). Thankfully they had a designated line where the wait wasn’t as long. The TSA employees were very friendly and tried to talked to my son.

Real Boarding Passes were issued to us!
Real Boarding Passes were issued to us!

He did fairly well up until this point. I could tell as we were walking that he was in deep thought, trying to figure out what this place was and why we were here.

Once we made it through the TSA lines we headed to our gate. We waited in the boarding area for a good 20 minutes. My son was getting restless so we walked around the terminal. It gave me a chance to scope out the restaurants and food.


My son is very particular with food and on a limited diet. He also has food sensitivities. And unfortunately we were not allowed to take liquids through the TSA lines. We couldn’t bring the one brand of juice that he likes. Or the goat milk yogurt he is accustomed to having.

So I tried to find alternatives and to my surprise there were some good ones. There was a place called &pizza. Not only did they have a gluten free pizza crust, they also had vegan sauces and even Daiya vegan cheese.

&Pizza’s Cheese Menu which includes vegan options. Way cool.

Then there was the Georgetown Market. They had a variety of gluten free dairy free snacks such as Justin’s Chocolate and Tate’s Cookies.


The scones are not gluten free, but we really wanted one!

After some walking around we headed back to our gate. The boarding process started and my son became anxious. He saw families lining up and I could tell he was in deep thought. Then we went to stand in line and he wasn’t so sure about all this. The closer we got to the boarding tunnel, the more resistant he became. The airline employees were very kind and told me to take my time.

Although he didn’t want to go, I made him go with me. Or course once we stepped into the cabin he made a beeline for the cockpit! The pilot redirected him towards the seating area.


We walked through first class to the coach area, then found some seats. At this point my son was befuddled about what was happening. He looked around the plane. Then I had him sit and strapped him in.

The flight attendants and pilot pretended we were on a flight to Baltimore. They did their usual safety presentation and handed out water.


Then we sat and enjoyed our pretend flight. Every now and then the pilot would make an announcement overhead. I tried to keep my little guy focused on reading a book. But he was really anxious by this point, he simply wasn’t interested in a book.

Across the aisle a child started melting down, crying and asking to get off the plane.  My son soon joined him and started crying too.


About five minutes later we had “arrived” in Baltimore and it was time to deplane. My son was so relieved when he realized it was time to go!

We went back to &pizza and I consoled him with his favorite meal – pepperoni pizza.


Overall it was a good experience, I recommend Wings for All if you are thinking of taking your autistic child on a plane ride. At the end of the day, it helped me realize that my son is not ready. But if we need to take a flight I will be better prepared.

Some recommendations:

  • Use a neck pouch to hold your ID and boarding pass. I was alone with my son, I had one hand holding him and the other was fumbling through my bag for credentials. Having that pouch would’ve made things easier.
  • If you are travelling alone with your child, use the bathroom before you leave. And ration your drinks! I found myself needing to go, but no one to watch my son. He’s terrified of public bathrooms so there was no way to drag him in without a big scene.
  • If you have a child with a limited diet or food sensitivities, find out what terminal you will be in. Then research the restaurants, their menu offerings and plan accordingly.
  • If you flying with a small child their feet will just dangle from the seat. It becomes uncomfortable if it’s a long flight. Bring a carry-on that can act as a footstool for the little one.
  • Nausea – make sure you know where that barf bag is in case your kid decides to throw up.

I want to thank American Airlines, The Arc of Nothern Virginia and Reagan National Airport for making this program possible. It’s an amazing resource for autism families and I hope your family gets to experience it.






One thought on “Air Travel and Autism

  1. Great tips! My daughter with autism loves pepperoni pizza too!

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