My son has some special needs. For example, he has trouble with any situation that is out of his routine, any situation where he isn't quite sure what will happen next, and also anything that involves strange, loud noises. Not surprisingly, those traits can make for a very nervous flyer.
One of the things I know helps him is doing a detailed, step-by-step walk-through of what will happen on our trip. These days he pretty much knows the drill, but he will still ask me about what is coming up next on our journey over and over again: not because he doesn't remember, but because it reassures him to hear it repeated.
Here is the walk-through I've used, and still use, with my kids. I usually start going through it about a week before we travel. Because my kids have more travel experiences now and are a bit older, I don't need do go into quite as much detail as when they were younger. My 5-year old daughter will sometimes tell me "but mom, we already know this!". She doesn't need the walk-through as much as her brother did and still does, but it has benefited her as well, and still helps prepare her by reminding her of what is coming up.
1. Getting to the airport
This step can be upsetting for many reasons for kids, especially if one parent is not coming on the trip, but just dropping the other family members off. Some kids might also feel uneasy about leaving home for an extended period. Or, like my son, they might even feel some anxiety about leaving the family car parked at the airport.
Talk to your kids about how you will get to the airport, and if needed what will happen to your vehicle while you're away. For my son, it helps to reassure him that yes, we are parking the car at the airport, but it will be there when we come back.
This is usually the first wait your kids will have to deal with at the airport. Prepare them by telling them that there might be a lineup, and that you will have to wait your turn. Also explain what the check-in procedure is for. In my experience, kids handle waits and other frustrating travel-experiences better if they know why things are happening. I usually tell my kids about how the airline employee will check our tickets, our passports, and put tags on our luggage so it goes to the right place.
For my son, it can sometimes be difficult to part with the luggage, especially since he really likes pulling one of our suitcases ("the green one") himself. However, it does help that he knows ahead of time that this will happen, and that we will pick up the suitcase once we arrive at our destination (or so we hope!).
Security means more lineups, and this time with the added hurdle of having to part with your hand luggage so it can be scanned. This is a step that can definitely be easier if your child knows about it ahead of time. Also explain to your child that they will have to remove their jacket (and maybe their shoes) at security.
Some kids really don't like this step at all. Mention that they will have to walk through the metal detector by themselves, and that they will then be able to pick up their belongings on the other side.
4. Waiting at the gate
Waiting at the gate can be hard for kids who just want to get going (who doesn't?). For my kids, it helps when I explain that each plane has to be prepared for travel. It has to be cleaned, checked, fuelled, luggage has to be loaded, and so on.
My children sometimes pass the time by looking out the windows and following the steps of flight preparation out on the tarmac: fuel trucks, cleaning staff coming out, food trucks arriving, etc.
5. Boarding the plane
With my kids, the most important preparation for this step is to remind them that they can't choose just any seat on board: we have our seat numbers and that's what we look for. Also, I try to decide ahead of time who gets to sit where, especially if we have one aisle seat, one window seat, and one middle seat. The kids might still complain about how they sit, but it does make things go smoother if we've decided this before we get on board.
The main things I talk about with my kids to prepare for a long flight are that yes, we will be on board for a long time, they might get bored, but there will also be some fun stuff to do: movies, games, maybe an activity pack from the airline, and eventually we will reach our destination and disembark.
This is also when I talk about some simple rules for behavior: don't kick the seat in front, don't play with your tray table, and don't yank or push on the back of your own seat. All those things are very annoying for fellow passengers, so those are the rules I'm most strict about on board. Also, the kids have to know that they must wear their seat belts for takeoff and landing, and sometimes during the flight as well.
With my son, who tends to worry quite a bit about such things, I also talk about that the noises on board, and that they are all airplane noises (we've read and talked about those a lot over the years). He doesn't much like turbulence either (who does?), and we usually talk about that too: what it is, and what to do (sit down, and put your seat belt on).
More waiting! Many kids will get very restless when they have to wait for the doors to open once the plane is at the gate, and it helps if they know why it's happening: the plane has to be in position, the gate has to be in the right place, and so on.
8. Transferring to another flight
When we're catching more than one flight, I will definitely prepare the kids for that ahead of time. We will talk about how many flights we have to take in total, and that we have to get off each plane, and then head through the airport to the next gate and the next flight. On our trips to see family in Sweden, we usually have to catch three flights, and I'll do the "1 down, 2 to go!" countdown with them as the trip progresses.
9. Waiting for the luggage
This is something I highly recommend preparing your child for ahead of time, especially if they haven't traveled by plane before. Otherwise they might wonder why you have to stop and wait again, or they might get anxious if it takes a long time for your suitcases to appear (it makes me anxious for sure!).
With my kids, I also mention some simple safety rules, such as no sitting on or touching the conveyor belt, and no getting in the way when other travelers are trying to get their luggage.
Is it worth the effort?
This kind of detailed step-by-step walk-through might seem like a lot of work, but really, all you do is talk to your child about what will happen on your trip: you just go into a little bit more detail. For me, it has definitely been worth it: my son has overcome a lot of his fears and anxieties about flying, and is now quite the seasoned traveler.
Exactly how you do this kind of preparation with your own kids will of course depend on your own situation, but I think some form of this approach can be very useful when traveling with any child, special needs or not.
Tips & resources
Many parents of kids with special needs might be familiar with visual calendars or planners (my son uses one at school for example). This is a type of planner, usually for daily, weekly, or monthly activities, that uses pictures (sometimes with words) to communicate with a child and help them know what is coming up next.
A visual planner with a step-by-step breakdown of what will happen when you're traveling by plane could be a great help for many kids. And not just for kids with special needs, but also younger children, or kids who are very fearful of flying. I haven't used one for my son for our trips, though if I'd known about them when he was younger, I would have probably done so.
If you are interested in creating a visual planner for your trip, there are products and resources available to help you do that.
- Products like Timer Companion Schedule With Fabric Strip, Choiceworks Visual Support System and PECS Daily Schedule Board (Picture Exchange Communication System) can be useful.
- These days, there are also apps for that (of course!). For example: First Then Visual Schedule. GoodKarma, the company behind this app also has their own website.
- Autismspot has a nice write-up on creating a visual calendar
- Autisable has some specific travel tips for kids with special needs
- For more general travel tips, you can also read my post Traveling with kids who have special needs.