Our experience of air travel with a child with ASD

We are back from our trip to Cyprus, the last of the washing is on the line and the tan is fading as we speak. I finally have time to update you on how it was travelling by 'plane with our youngest who was diagnosed with ASD last year.

 Mostly it was a positive experience but I am very glad I did my research before we went, and went with my instinct to take his Maclaren Major Elite chair with us.

We flew from Luton which is currently undergoing massive expansion and improvement works and frankly, it's much needed but it's chaotic. As anyone with any experience of autism/ASD knows, chaos is not a happy word in our world.

Our son is not good with new experiences, queues, new people, noise, smells, crowds...everything you find at an airport.

As soon as we got to the doors leading to the departure area, my youngest (nicknamed Grumpy on tis site) started to lose it.

Unfortunately there are information screens right as you get through the doors so everyone just stops to look up creating a logjam of bodies and suitcases and trollies.

Grumpy got very distressed but thankfully he was in his chair as a precautionary measure and so I whipped out his ear defenders, and tried to calm him as we simply barrelled through the crush of people.

The scene ahead of us was no better with queues everywhere for bag drop and check in. Luckily my husband spotted a member of staff who, bless her, immediately leapt to our aid and showed us through the maze of people to drop our bags and then on to the special assistance desk.

We had booked special assistance and so the process there was quick and easy. We were given a special sticker which I wore indicating to staff that we had someone in our party with an invisible condition. Having said that by this point his condition was quite visible as he was not loving the whole experience so far!

I had been told we could head for the priority lane at Security but when we got to the guy at the entrance he was insistent this was not the case. I dug out the email I had received stating this and he very reluctantly let us through. This was quite stressful for me trying to juggle passports, bags, buggy and children very aware people were waiting behind us having paid for a speedy trip through security.

Past this guy however it was plain sailing with some awesome customer service and real consideration for our little man.

They did pat him down (while allowing him to stay in his chair) but only after talking to me and giving me time to prepare him for what would happen and allowing me to stay with him.

We hadn't been told to got early to the gate and when we got there in plenty of time there was already a queue.

I found another special assistance desk right by our gate luckily and they once more whipped us past the queue at the desk where we handed over his buggy to go in the hold. Unfortunately this only put us in another queue in a cramped corridor and since his chair had gone, he kept trying to curl up on the floor as it was all too much for him.

In future we will accept the offer of the lift onto the plane - we did at Paphos and it made life a little easier.

Once on the plane he was fine and thanks to his bag of activities and sensory toys he stayed calm all the way to Paphos.

Paphos was hot when we landed and we found ourselves once more in a HUGE queue. There seemed to be no-one to ask for help and we wished we had asked staff on the aircraft. We didn't get his chair back until we had gone through customs but luckily we managed to distract him and a set of automatic doors held his attention for quite a while!

Coming back though Paphos airport we spotted signs for special needs check in. This did avoid the queue but the staff member on the desk was stoney faced and unhelpful. I felt my stress levels rising.

Back to the official social assistance desk and we were allocated a wonderful helper - we should have gone there first! He chatted to Jonas, established a relationship, offered him his walkie talkie to hold and whizzed us through customs and security, all the time acting for us, explaining and facilitating our trip through with as little stress as possible.

All the security staff were amazing, especially when they asked for Grumpy's ear defenders to check them on X-Ray. They waited until he was ready to let them have them (I held my hands over his ears) then literally ran so he could get them back asap!

They let him stay in his chair, patting him down and swabbing his shoes and the chair to check for... whatever they check for with that swab.

We were told the gate number and to arrive 20 minutes early and make ourselves known. Then we were bussed to the plane (rather than queuing at the outdoor covered  "cattle pens" they have at Paphos) then put in the lift up to the aeroplane.

The bus and the lift were both quite crowded but we agreed it was better to all stick together than for it to be less crowded and for one of us to have to go with Grumpy while the other parents stayed with the rest of the family.

Arriving back at Luton we had no idea what we should do so just waited until almost everyone was off the plane then headed for.... another queue. By this time Grumpy was losing it and I was feeling really stressed. We queued all the way to customs where I spotted a guard and begged for help.

 He took one look at Grumpy and whizzed us to where the special assistance porters were waiting. They even knew Grumpy's name and quickly led us through customs to baggage and retrieved his chair.

We had booked meet and greet thinking we would spend the extra money but save Grumpy another queue on a crowded bus to a car park but after 40 minutes wait in the rain we wished we hadn't bothered. Then we had to call the RAC as somehow the air intake hose had come off while we were away. Hmmm.

So what did we learn from our trip?

Book special assistance when you book your flights and follow up with an email confirming exactly what help you are expecting or will be offered. Without that email reply in my inbox the security man would not have let us through the priority security lane, even though I had the special assistance sticker on.

I learned it's better to speak up quickly rather than hope someone will offer to help. Don't wait until the situation is out of control; anticipate issues and act before they overwhelm.

 I wish we had asked on the aircraft for assistance directly from the plane both ways. I was very glad I took the chair. If you don't have one I'd try and borrow one or book a wheelchair especially if like our son, you or your child tends to collapse or kick out when over stimulated or stressed.

The chair came in handy during our stay as he was much less tolerant than usual with everything being so different and with any routine out of the window. He only made it down half an aisle of the supermarket during our stocking up visit so my husband whizzed him back to get his chair and calm down so we could shop as a family.

I took his favourite foods away with me and fed him at his usual meal times then allowed him to play on his tablet wearing headphones if we ate out. He was offered other food but never wanted to try it. We discovered quickly that what was a lovely atmosphere for us with music and lights and dancers was hell for him without his props. By utilising tech and his foods from home it meant we could all enjoy our holiday.

Altogether I'd say we had a very positive experience with the exception of just a couple of individuals who let the side down at Luton and Paphos. I did think staff on the aircraft could have taken a minute to check we were ok as they must have had it listed that we had someone requiring special assistance with us? Maybe then we would have known what to do when leaving the aircraft.

I was very impressed with the special assistance service at both airports and feel much happier about arranging family holidays abroad in the future now I have an idea of what to ask for and what to expect.