Beth Henry is a flight attendant and a busy mom of two energetic kids. On her website, Cloud Surfing Kids, she shares tips for flying with kids., based on her professional and parental experiences.
Beth has always had a keen interest in child development and psychology and is fascinated with how her daughter, Ella’s mind works. (Ella is a Sensory Seeker and has ADHD: hyper-focus. )
This month we sat down with Beth to hear more about how parents can help their kids with sensory integration challenges enjoy travel better.
How did you start traveling?
My very first flight was when I moved from Kansas to Texas at age six. I don’t remember anything about it except that my ears hurt so bad while the aircraft was descending that the flight attendant gave me “Mickey Mouse ears” (Styrofoam cups with hot towels inside) to help with the pain. Nowadays, that remedy is no longer recommended as it has been proven as unhelpful and a risk of getting burned.
The next time I flew, I was at fifteen when I got to go on a school trip to Australia! That experience triggered the desire to travel for me.
After several travel opportunities with school—to South Australia, Hawaii, Seattle, Chicago, and Moscow, Russia, I recognized the joys of exploring new places and meeting people from different backgrounds. In my early twenties, I had the plan to move from city to city every six, so I could explore and get a real feel of the place. I just wanted to soak in the culture and rhythm of different destinations.
I never got a chance to follow through with that plan, but now as a flight attendant, I get to experience different cities just as I had desired.
Why is it important for you to travel?
I believe that travel helps make people more flexible in life
It helps us better understand other people and cultures. It also helps us appreciate the comforts of home.
How has traveling with special- needs changed your travel style?
My seven-year-old daughter, Ella has Sensory Processing Disorder and ADHD (over-focused). She was not diagnosed with these until recently, so I didn’t realize I was experiencing anything different than other travelers when I traveled with her. I would get compliments from other passengers about how attentive and understanding I was with her, but I didn’t realize it was unique.
Her additional needs don’t change how we travel; it just means I need to prepare more than others might.
For instance, where other kids might be okay with just one small toy to keep them occupied for a long meal, she needs to have a good variety of activities.
I feel like the way I prepare for travel would benefit all parents, whether or not their child has special needs.
Fondest memory from travel would be?
My daughter, Ella’s excitement each time we take off and land. She yells, “HIT THE BRAKES!” when we touch down.
Do you share your child’s disability with other people?
Sometimes I do mention that she has “sensory issues” if I know there will be something that will bother her, or if I need to explain her behavior if she is reacting to sensory overload.
I don’t usually tell people in advance since her meltdowns rarely happen in public.
Any tips to avoid kids from getting ‘sensory overloaded’ during traveling?
I am lucky that Ella is a sensory ‘seeker’, not a sensory ‘avoider’.
So, most things in our travel day are exciting to her.
I try to help her stay balanced by incorporating lots of proprioceptive activities in our day.
I always have supplies with me that can help calm her if she gets upset. Chewing gum, playing with Play-Doh, holding a soft stuffed animal, listening to music, and snacks all contribute to keeping her calm.
I try to read her closely to avoid sensory overload, but when she does have a meltdown, the fastest way to calm her is to give her something to eat. Even two M&M’s will sometimes help her gain control of herself again and then we can address what is causing the sensory overload.
Items you would never leave home without are?
A change of clothes, diaper wipes, snacks, bubbles, water bottle or straw cup.
What do you do when stuck in the airport?
If there is a lengthy delay, I buy a day pass to the Airline Club Lounge. There we have a less chaotic atmosphere, nice bathrooms, snacks, and sometimes a kid’s room. It is worth every penny because it helps keeps everyone in the family more relaxed.
Other things we do to make things fun during a delay are: ride the airport train, explore the art (or even advertisements) throughout the airport, or look for a children’s play area if they have one.
What are your best strategies to lessen kids’ anxieties on flights?
We always bring a plush blanket, plush stuffed toy, headphones with a music player, chewing gum and chewy candy to help maintain a calm feeling on the aircraft.
As Ella has been on over 200 flights, she doesn’t experience anxiety over flying, but if she is having an “off” day, the sensory overload can make the flight challenging.
Distraction works best for her if she starts to get upset, so I always bring a large variety of snacks and toys. Bubbles are my “emergency” tool to help her relax. I always pack a tiny bottle of bubbles.
What would be your ideal hotel room?
Mmm, that would be a two-bedroom suite with kitchenette and black out curtains.
Ella doesn’t eat much, but it would be helpful to be able to keep the basic foods I know she’ll eat in the hotel room. Until she was four and a half, she would wake at the first hint of light, which was hard to us as parents. Luckily, she now will sleep past dawn if she’s still tired.
On your trips do you go or avoid ‘touristy’ attractions?
I love to explore ‘touristy’ attractions!
But since my daughter enjoys a visit to the pet store nearly as much as Disney World (okay, not quite that much, but maybe as much as the zoo), I don’t rush to experience everything all at once.
I remind myself there is plenty of time in the future to do things like NYC Times Square at night, which would be way too much sensory input for her right now.
How do you keep memories alive for your kids after the trip is over?
Photographs are the best since they keep us talking about our adventures year after year. I try to put them into photo books but haven’t since my son was born 2.5 years ago.