Airports are crowded, busy and noisy. This constant bombarding of the senses can make your child anxious. Even if they are not visibly stressed, all of the stimulation does challenge their senses and can be tiring.
If you have a child with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder, this is even more true. Here are some ideas for ways to incorporate proprioceptive input, aka “heavy work”, in your travel day, brought to you from Beth at Cloud Surfing Kids.
How to Help Your Sensitive Child Be Calm on a Plane
Children with sensory processing disorder have difficulty managing sensory input. When traveling through an airport, their senses are bombarded by lights, noises, crowds, scents….the list goes on and on. It is likely that your child with Autism or SPD will be on high defense when traveling through the airport and on the airplane. Proprioceptive activities (also called “heavy work”) help “increase attention, decrease defensiveness, and modulate arousal.”
I have found that even for children without Sensory Processing Disorder adding some of these activities helps keep them calm on the plane.
My daughter, Ella (age 7), is a “sensory seeker.” So she craves extra sensory input and really enjoys the flying experience. Still, her senses are constantly triggered as she notices and takes in every detail of what she sees, hears, smells, etc., and it is easy for her to get overwhelmed. When that happens, a meltdown follows. These are some of the activities and tools we incorporate in our travel day to help her remain balanced and calm.
Activities: Waiting In Line
- Have your child wear a rash guard, slightly tight, to give him/her that feeling of pressure on the skin. (Test this in advance to see if it’s something that your child likes or not.)
- Have a (controlled) “arm wrestle” by just pushing against each other with clasped hands.
- Thumb War. I am not positive that this helps a lot, but it seems to for my daughter, Ella. When one thumb is pinned, keep it pressed down for 5-10 seconds for deep pressure. Even if it’s your thumb that’s pinned, the pressure they are giving can help.
- Give your child’s forehead pressure by putting one hand on their forehead and one behind their head. Push slightly for gentle pressure.
- Jump up and down in place.
- Squeeze each other’s hands or give hand massage.
Activities: In the Airport
- Let your child use a ride-on suitcase, such as this SkootCase Rider.
- Have your child wear a backpack if he/she will. This is a classic way to provide “heavy work.”Keep this in mind for the school year as well.
- If you are using a stroller or a rolling suitcase, let your child push or pull it.
- Take a break from walking and do wall push-ups
- Seek out children’s play areas so your child can climb, jump, and spin.
Activities: On the Plane
- Hand or Arm massage
- Forehead pressure (as listed above under “waiting in line”)
- After takeoff place the child’s backpack in their lap for weight.
- Have your child squeeze their knees together while sitting in an upright posture. This will also help relax the muscles in the lower back.
- Have your child push his/her own hands together in a “praying hands” position.
Activities: For the “Busy Bag”/Toys On the Plane
- Scratch and Sketch Art Activity Book
- PlayDoh (Don’t forget this needs to be under 3.4 ounces and in a Quart-sized Ziploc bag to get through security). Rolling pins and PlayDoh scissors add extra input.
- Stress Ball
- Mini Etch-A-Sketch
- Erasers (The action of erasing with a rubber eraser gives deep pressure. Bonus if you get an eraser that can double as a fidget toy.)
- Small dolls with comb or brush (I’m not positive that this counts as proprioceptive input, but it is definitely calming for Ella.)
- Bubbles (I like to always have a mini bottle of bubbles in my Quart-Sized Ziploc bag of TSA-approved liquids. It comes in handy for extra-stressful moments like during a delay or when your child or another has just had enough. As a flight attendant I have stopped in the terminal to blow bubbles for a crying toddler.)
- Sticker Mosaic (These tiny stickers require great focus and are a great chance to work on fine motor skills. You’ll have to keep an eye out for dropped stickers, but this is a nice activity, usually for ages 5-9, depending on ability.)
Chewy foods and resistive sucking give proprioceptive input also.
- Gum (Some kids love sour for extra sensory input. Stride Sour Patch Kids Orange is Ella’s favorite.)
- Granola bars
- Gummy Candy (we love the kind from Trader Joe’s, which is naturally colored and real sugar instead of corn syrup)
- Fruit leather
- Sports Bars (Ella loves the original Power Bar)
Resistive sucking is also useful:
- Water bottle with resistive straw, such as CamelBak
- Chewable Necklace or Tubes
Find more parenting tips and insightful posts about Sensory Processing Disorder on The Jenny Evolution!
About Beth: Beth is a Flight Attendant Mom of two frequent-flier kids. Her goal with Cloud Surfing Kids is to help parents feel confident and capable when flying with their kids. You can read more from Beth on Cloud Surfing Kids.