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Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

Spring 2010

Meeting Point: Latest From Lovaas

Tips for Airplane Travel

By Stefanie Knaus Lovaas Institute - Sacramento
With contributions from Noreen Laberinto, Rob Myers, Rachel Russell, Linda Wright, and Vang Yang

For families of children with special needs, airplane travel can be difficult. From lengthy security procedures to the confined flight itself, the entire process can be overwhelming for anyone. For children with special needs, this overwhelming experience typically leads to challenging behavior that can be difficult to manage by parents and/or airline personnel.

Utilization of the preparation tips below can familiarize your child with the travel process. In addition, preparing and practicing ahead of time will give caregivers the ability to work through challenging behavior associated with airplane travel. You will have the opportunity to develop desensitization exercises over the course of time, allowing for greater success. You will also have time to develop techniques to reinforce your child's effort and appropriate behavior during and after the flight. A combination of preparation, familiarization, desensitization, and reinforcement/response cost should help enable your family to travel more easily.


Gather materials to show your child airline procedures, airplanes, and other related aspects of traveling.

Borrow books and movies on "going on an airplane" from the library.

Visit an airplane museum where your child can see different airplanes and the inside of airplanes prior to boarding an airplane for their flight.

Visit an airport to familiarize your child with the sights and sounds of large airplanes and crowds of people.

The TSA website contains videos that your child can watch for exposure to security procedures . This is also a great resource for parents and instructors to use when developing role-play travel scenarios.

The TSA website also has a list of things to know when traveling by air for persons with special needs:

Create a visual script displaying steps for "going on an airplane" and review the steps with your child. For example, draw out 9 boxes that represent the entire "airplane trip": the first picture shows the child going through security, then boarding the airplane, then watching the first movie (write out the actual name of the movie), eating a snack, going to the bathroom, watching a second movie, getting off the airplane, waiting in line at customs, and finally receiving a reward. Individualize your script to reflect the particular flight your family will be taking.

Create role-play travel scenarios and practice them with your child multiple times (e.g., twice per day for several weeks prior to the actual travel date). Example scenarios might include:

  • Walking through the airport, riding an escalator or elevator, and standing in line
  • Removing shoes and jacket and placing in tray at security checkpoint
  • Individual security screening (waving wand around child's body, patting child's clothing)
  • Boarding the flight, sitting in a seat, wearing seat belt (for young children, you may consider taking a car seat on board)
  • Activities during the flight
  • De-boarding the airplane, waiting for luggage

Practice riding on local buses, trains, etc. (for a long duration, when possible) to simulate a similar environment to that in an airplane.

If this will be your first travel experience, consider taking a day trip or overnight trip locally to see how your child will tolerate other aspects of traveling.

If you are able (e.g., if you or a friend has access to a small plane), make connections with a local airport to visit and practice with a real airplane. One family said, "We had a friend who worked for the airline so we got two "trial runs" before the flight where we were permitted to go onto an empty plane, practice finding our seat, sit down, put on a portable DVD player and watch for about 20 minutes."

Decide on reinforcement techniques and incorporate them into practice exercises. You may have the most success by using a reinforcement system (e.g., token board) that is already in place. Adjust the response requirement (e.g., number of tokens) to help your child succeed for the trip's entire duration. This may mean that you provide smaller reinforcers intermittently (e.g., every 5 or 10-minutes) throughout the trip and you reserve a large prize once the airplane has arrived at its destination. Incorporate a response cost component as needed. Shorter practice trips on buses and trains may help you determine appropriate reinforcement specifics.

Do not forget to provide your child with information about the destination. Discuss (verbally or visually) people, activities, and places you will visit when you reach your destination. Use a calendar, if possible, and show your child when he will return home.

During the Flight:

Gather items to engage, entertain, and distract your child during the flight.

  • Headphones, music player (pre-loaded with preferred music)
  • Portable DVD player and movies
  • Favorite toys/activities (put these away for the few days prior to the trip so that they will be even more reinforcing and enjoyable)
  • New books and toys with automatically reinforcing qualities such as those that light-up, are squishy, etc. (Tip: Have a new one for every 15-20 minutes throughout the flight - a visit to the dollar store can provide an inexpensive, yet large stash.)
  • Snacks (check airport regulations for permitted items)
  • Remember to pack lap activities that can be used during take-off and landing when electronics and desktop activities are not permitted.

Consider choosing a flight time around your child's nap/sleep time. Some families have had greater success scheduling evening flights.

Use a visual schedule during the flight to help with transitions.

Explore and utilize pre-boarding options. In one instance, Aaron's mother and the sibling pre-boarded to get the seats set up while Aaron stayed back with his father to minimize the time he would be sitting on the plane prior to take-off.

If your child has difficulty keeping his feet/legs still, consider obtaining a "body sox" (used by occupational therapists) to keep his feet away from the seat in front of him. A small blanket or sleeping bag may also help.

Consider how you might incorporate your child's special interests/hobbies into the travel experience. One consultant successfully helped a child tolerate airplane travel using a mixture of desensitization (small planes), reinforcement (contingent upon 5-minute tantrum free intervals), and redirection (maps and computers). The family made arrangements with a small regional airport for their child to spend time in the terminal near a plane (first visit) and gradually worked towards getting on the plane (2nd visit, small charter prop-plane). During the third visit, the plane was turned on, but did not take off; the plane took off and flew around local points of interest that the child could locate on his map (fourth visit). On the fifth and final practice visit, the plane flew to the next city over. The team was able to connect specific elements of the flight (e.g., location, points of interest) with the child's special interest in maps and computers to keep him engaged and to minimize fear through a greater understanding of the travel experience. He was provided with the tools to keep track of where the plane was on a computer map which was supported by free software that had been downloaded onto a laptop.

Use a "time passage" cartoon (be sure to familiarize your child with this concept in the weeks prior). As the flight goes on, cross off boxes (or indicators of some sort) so that he can see "how much longer."

Talk to the flight attendants; you may be able to make arrangements to get off the plane first to avoid waiting at the end of the flight.

Equipped with all of these tips or just a few, I wish you enjoyable travels in the near future!

Would you like more information on Airplane Travel? Let us know here

The names of all children in this newsletter have been changed in respect for family confidentiality.

Aladdin's Magic Carpet! Put the child on a towel or blanket and pull them across the floor.

Jump! Sing, "Jump" by Van Halen and jump when the song tells you to.

I'm Shocked! Fall completely over with surprise and shock that the child answered the question correctly.

Car Ride! Line your chairs up next to each other and go for a car ride. Put seat belts on. Check left and right for traffic, beep the horn, etc.

Monster Palm! Draw a monster on your palm. Use the other hand to hold the wrist of monster palm so it can't get you. However, we all know a monster palm is stronger. Elicit the child's help to get rid of monster palm.

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