Air Travel Tips for Autistic Teens

As our Autistic teens move towards adulthood, we need to be constantly thinking about how we get them to a place of independence.

I’m sitting on a plane as I write this, traveling with my family to visit some relatives over Spring Break.  It’s been an interesting trip as we’ve navigated the airport with our son’s future independence in mind.

Here are some tips on things we did to help our teen be as independent as possible as we traveled today:

Tip #1:  Choosing the Right Seat on the Plane

When we booked our trip, we asked our son where he wanted to sit.  Did he want to sit next to us?  Did he want to sit on his own?  He’s a typical teenager in terms of not wanting to hang out with his parents. He chose to sit alone.  So we chose a seat in front of the row we were in.

With this vantage point, I was able to see how he did interacting with the other people in his row, communicating his drink and food order with the flight crew, and if he kept to himself and didn’t bother other people.  He could simply look back if he needed help.  I purposely ignored those looks a few times just to see if he could manage on his own.  And of course he did.

Tip #2: Being Responsible for his own Luggage, ID, and Plane Ticket

We packed the night before.  We sat down and created a basic checklist,

We are going to be gone 6 days so you need 6 shirts, 6 pairs of underwear, … razor, toothbrush,…

I asked my son if he wanted me to check that he had everything he needed.  He told me it was fine so I left it alone.  If he forgets something, he’ll learn something.  And a forgotten toothbrush can easily be purchased on the other side.

At the airport, he had his passport and needed to keep track of his ticket.  We had a connecting flight so there were 2 tickets to keep track of.  It pleased me to watch him holding that ticket as if it were a million dollar lottery ticket.  He was being responsible and he knew he could not lose it.  (He set his passport down when picking up his backpack and would have likely forgotten it.  A gentle queue helped him remember and that was the only almost-miss he had today.)

Tip #3: Coaching on Navigating the Airport

After getting our tickets, we showed our son how to read the flight number and the gate number.  Then we told him we would follow him and that he needed to read the signs in the airport to get us to the gate.

He reached a couple of crossroads where he needed help.  We explained how to read the signs and with just a tiny explanation, he was on his way again.

My son really does NOT like to engage in conversation with me or anyone else.  But he was engaged in these conversations!  I could see he really wanted to learn.  We told him that we were teaching him these things so he could someday take a plane somewhere all by himself.  He wants that very badly so he was motivated.

When boarding the plane, we showed him how to read the row numbers and seat letter and then let him lead the way to find his own seat.  He struggled on the first flight but figured it out on the second one.

When we reached our first destination, we showed him how to look up the flight number and destination city on his ticket and then find it on the electronic board to verify which gate we needed to go to next.  He figured it out and led us to our gate, which happened to be the same one we arrived at.

I’m lucky because when my son is happy, it is communicated through his face and his whole body.  When he’s in charge, he stands taller, smiles brighter.  I could see that in him today.

I worry about him being out there on his own but I know that’s where he needs to be.  Watching him take direction and independently navigate the airport with me following behind gives me confidence.  He’s pushing me.  I’m pushing him.  And the confidence in both of us builds.  I don’t know how long it will take us to get there, but we are definitely taking steps forward.  Forward progress is all you can ask for no matter how fast or slow it is.