Holiday air travel tips for autistic people and their families

A little planning goes a long way

autistic child wearing headphones while traveling on a plane with his family

Holidays are the busiest time of year to travel by plane. Preparing a child, teenager or adult with autism spectrum disorder for plane travel - and new security techniques used at airport security checkpoints - can make a huge difference in making holiday travel a more enjoyable experience for all involved.

Start by providing the airline with advanced information. Offer to email or fax information to let them know you will be traveling with an individual with autism and the challenges the individual may face on travel day. A good place to start is to prepare a one page document with information stating the diagnosis, any allergies or medications, and other special information (i.e. communication ability).

Persons with autism should always carry identification. Make sure an ID tag is attached somewhere on the individual. You can order medical bracelets, necklaces and tags to attach to shoe laces. If the individual carries a cell phone, activate the GPS device as a safety precaution. Adult passengers (18 and over) are required to show a U.S. federal or state-issued photo ID that contains the following: name, date of birth, gender, expiration date and a tamper-resistant feature in order to be allowed to go through the checkpoint and onto their flight. Acceptable identification includes: Drivers Licenses or other state photo identification cards issued by Department of Motor Vehicles.

To help prepare the individual for the trip, bring a special item to make him or her feel more comfortable. A favorite electronic device or book can help focus the individual during travel days, which are often filled with lots of waiting, Having special foods readily available, rather than standing in long lines for food, will help things go smoothly.

Remember to rehearse or discuss the travel plans with the individual prior to the travel day. You can use the following social story, "Taking an airplane: A guide for people with autism" prepared by Autism Speaks, JetBlue, or you can create your own!

Jet Blue stewardess wearing an Autism Speaks pin while passing out snacks on a flight

Autism travel tips

Traveling by Plane

"I called the airport and explained that my 6-year-old son Marcel has autism and had never flown before, and we were planning a trip in December. Before our travel day, airport personnel allowed my son to do a simulation of what would happen when he went through the security checkpoint step-by-step. This made all the difference Marcel. If you can't do a practice run, at the very least alert security about your child's needs."
-Marcy Mullins, Cincinnati, OH

Transportation Security Administration (TSA): Getting Through the Security Process

Every individual has to be screened regardless of age or disability before going through an airport security checkpoint. Security techniques include: walk through metal detectors, Advanced Imaging Technology (AIT), pat-downs and other types of security measures. Be sure to check the TSA website for airport listings and the techniques being used.

“Passengers with intellectual disabilities or developmental disabilities, such as Down syndrome or autism, can be screened without being separated from their traveling companions if traveling with one. You or your traveling companion may consult the TSA officer about the best way to relieve any concerns during the screening process. You may also provide the officer with the TSA notification card or other medical documentation to describe your condition.”
- TSA website

How to contact the TSA

What triggers a pat-down?

Pat-downs are typically used to resolve alarms at the checkpoint, including those triggered by metal detectors and AIT units, or when a person opts out of AIT screening. But pat-downs can also be used as part of heightened security measures. Watch what to expect during a pat-down in this TSA video.

Pat-downs are always conducted by an officer of the same gender. That officer is required to explain the procedure to you as they conduct the pat-down.

At any time during the process, you may request private screening accompanied by a companion of your choice. A second officer of the same gender will always be present during private screening.

Parents or guardians of children with disabilities should:

  • Inform the Security Officer if the child has any special needs or medical devices. 
  • Inform the Security Officer if you think the child may become upset during the screening process as a result of their disability.
  • Offer suggestions on how to best accomplish the screening to minimize any confusion or outburst for the child.
  • Ask the Security Officer for assistance during the process by helping you put your and the child's carry-on items on the X-ray belt.
  • Know that at no time during the screening process will you be separated from your child.
  • Know that if a private screening is required, you should escort and remain with your child during the private screening process.
  • Tell the Security Officer what are your child's abilities are. For example: can the child stand slightly away from equipment to be handwanded, walk through the metal detector, or need to be carried through the metal detector by the parent/guardian.
  • Know that at no time should the Security Officer remove your child from his/her mobility aid (wheelchair or scooter). You are responsible for removing your child from his/her equipment at your discretion to accomplish screening.
  • Know that if your child is unable to walk or stand, the Security Officer will conduct a pat-down search of your child while he/she remains in their mobility aid, as well as a visual and physical inspection of their equipment.  You may request a chair to sit if needed.

Other Resources on Travel and Autism 

Autism Speaks does not provide medical or legal advice or services. Rather, Autism Speaks provides general information about autism as a service to the community. The information provided on our website is not a recommendation, referral or endorsement of any resource, therapeutic method, or service provider and does not replace the advice of medical, legal or educational professionals. Autism Speaks has not validated and is not responsible for any information, events, or services provided by third parties. The views and opinions expressed in blogs on our website do not necessarily reflect the views of Autism Speaks.