How to Help a Special Needs Teen Fly Solo
What we've learned from teaching our son go it alone
Even though we’ve done it before, I’m starting to feel a familiar pit in my stomach as the big day approaches. My 14-year-old son James will be flying from Houston to New York City to visit family for a couple of weeks. Three hours and 51 minutes plus who knows how long sitting on the runway. All alone.
You’re probably thinking that I’m some overprotective helicopter parent. I mean, James is going into high school next year. But here’s the thing: On our last flight together, James suddenly started screaming “My ears! My ears! Help me! Make it stop!” as the plane descended and his ears popped. Thank goodness for compassionate flight attendants (and lots of gum).
Though James can come across as fairly high functioning, he has a multitude of special needs (including autism and ADHD) that interfere with crossing the street safely, let alone flying solo. To further complicate things he’s also unsteady on his feet, especially when his feet are thousands of feet above ground. James won’t know that a lit seatbelt sign means “Don’t go to the bathroom right now.” (Honestly, I’m not even sure when you’re allowed to go to the bathroom.) He may very well spill his drink while putting the “amazing seat tray” up and down two dozen times. What if his neighbor thinks he’s annoying? What if he steps on her foot while going to the bathroom? And what if his ears pop?!
Why fly solo?
You’re probably wondering why I would ever put this child on a cross-country flight alone. We live 1,800 miles from James’s dad and stepmom, and despite the distance, it’s very important to me for James to maintain relationships with as much of his family as possible. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a small country to raise a special needs child. We just don’t have the resources to have an adult accompany him both ways.
But it’s also the case that as James gets older we are constantly working on his independent living skills, which are invaluable to his long-term success and happiness as an adult with special needs. James will never drive a car and still can’t ride a bike, despite numerous attempts. But this year we will be coaching him to walk the one block to high school by himself, and have purchased him his very first cell phone so that he can call me the minute he arrives without being hit by a car on the one street he has to cross.
So despite the risks, with a lot of planning (and fretting), James has now officially made the trip alone twice. There have been hiccups, sure, but James feels ready to fly again.
Here are some tips on how we prepped our special needs child, and his airline, for the big trip:
DA should stand for Definitely Awesome
When you’re ready to book tickets, go online and find the flight you want. Then save yourself some trouble and call the airline’s Disability Assistance (DA) line to book it.
Before I knew about the DA line, I tried the regular reservation line for Jet Blue. The first person I spoke with told me that, no, someone could not escort James to the restroom because attendants didn’t deal with “bathroom issues.”
“He doesn’t need help inside of the bathroom,” I explained, “just down the aisle in case he trips or falls.”
“That’s outside the scope of the attendants,” I was told.
“So if I fell down on the way to the bathroom, nobody would come help me?” I asked incredulously.
I hung up, frustrated, but once I found the DA line I was told that that James could not only be helped to the restroom but would also have a special seat, one row away to minimize walking. Jet Blue accommodated all of our needs, and even followed up the morning of the flight to see if we needed anything else to make James more comfortable!
Exaggeration is a good thing here
I applied a very unscientific amount of motherly concern to every number thrown at us. Be there one extra hour early for the gate pass? Okay, three hours early, just in case he gets hungry, needs to use the bathroom or gets stopped in security for talking incessantly about what all of the sign symbols stand for (How many guns do you think people have in line? Do you see any? What sound does a bomb make?). The flight will take four hours? Okay, we’ll pack enough snacks and activities for at least six hours because taxiing at a busy New York airport could take that long alone.
Speaking of activities…
They should be quiet ones. For watching TV on the plane, two pairs of headphones should be enough (in case one breaks). We also stuck a few brand new comic books into James’s backpack so that he would be totally distracted during takeoff, a charged Kindle, and some new Wikki Stix. Wikki Stix are these amazing bendable, waxy things that will entertain any of my children (ages 1-14) for at least 30 minutes, and on the plane every minute counts.
Peanuts are not enough
Pack several snacks, or a meal, depending on when the flight is, and factoring in possible time spent parked on the runway. In James’s case, I let him pick out a couple of favorite treats at the airport and packed a neat, easy-to-chew-quietly, non-crumbly sandwich and a drink with a lid. You’re welcome, passenger in 24C.
Gum is not a snack but a necessity
Not just for fresh breath, but for those pesky takeoffs and landings that might make James’s ears pop. Earplugs or Dramamine might be helpful here, too, depending on your child.
Speaking of drugs…
James was bringing a small pharmacy worth of medication with him, some of them prescription. After finding conflicting information on how to handle this, I got a copy of the script, put it inside his backpack with the pills and took it through security with no issues. Depending on how hard it would be to replace medications, you may want to put pills in your carry on just in case luggage gets lost.
Gate pass, not passes.
The general rule is only one adult can get a gate pass to accompany your child flying solo-not even siblings,the other parent, or an infant, as I found out. In any case, bring your ID and your patient face to the reservations desk so you can pick one up (plus infant if you have one) and help your solo flyer through security to the gate.
A love note might be helpful in this case
Not to your child, but to the flight attendants. In mine, I wrote a short summary of things to watch out for and how to best handle James if he got nervous or upset on the flight. I gave them my cell phone number and profusely thanked them for the time and effort they might have to put in if James’s ears did in fact pop (thank heavens, they didn’t).
Hmm, any last minute tips here? If I had to pinpoint a key factor in our success so far, I’d really go for that extra time. I recommend as many hours early as you can stand. James and I like to relax and have a snack together, do a little shopping, read some books and watch the planes take off while we’re waiting. It helps him get used to his surroundings and calm down before heading out on his own.
You might be surprised at how easy it is to make a potentially stressful experience into a special day together with just a couple extra hours. After you’re frisked, of course.