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Flying with ADHD Children: Is Good Behavior Possible?

Traveling with a child with ADHD can be challenging. But instead of having to sit still and behave for several hours on the plane, one boy made the most of the experience thanks to some friendly flight attendants.

Last week was spring break for our school system, and my daughter Natalie’s best friend and ADHD-soul mate, Harry, went to Puerto Rico with his mom and dad.

The best story to come out of that trip wasn’t Harry’s nasty sunburn, nor was it the fun he had learning to boogie board — it was the plane ride home.

Consider all the problems that could potentially occur when a 9-year-old boy with ADHD has to stay relatively quiet and still, in the close quarters of an airplane, surrounded mostly by grown-ups, for several hours straight.

I can imagine what Natalie would be like in that setting — she’d pop in and out of her seat, swing her unbuckled seatbelt around wildly, whine for a constantly changing array of entertainment, and would kick the seat in front of her repeatedly. (Given how hard it’s been to travel with her by car, we’ve avoided taking her on a plane so far.)

If Harry had behaved as I believe Natalie would, his fellow passengers would surely have ended up grumbling, “Why can’t those parents control their child?” and Harry’s parents would have spent the whole miserable flight repeating, “Harry! Sit down!” and “Harry! Quit bothering that nice lady!”

Now, consider that, unlike a passenger with a physical disability, who, say, boards the plane in a wheelchair, the flight attendants couldn’t look at Harry and see that he has “special needs.” He doesn’t wear a medic-alert bracelet. There were no special circumstances noted on his boarding pass. His mom didn’t whisper a heads-up in anyone’s ears. So, how does one account for the flight attendant who outperformed many highly trained behavior specialists in making the flight a great experience for Harry and his parents — not to mention all the other passengers?

Here’s what happened:

When, upon boarding the plane, Harry started asking the flight attendant question after question after question, she didn’t shut him down; she didn’t view his ADHD-fueled need-to-know as a bother, as intrusive, as bad behavior. Instead, she put him to work as an honorary flight attendant! He helped serve the snacks and (non-alcoholic) drinks. He walked up and down the aisle with the garbage bag, collecting empty cups and used napkins. He even made the prepare-for-landing announcement, asking passengers to “Please turn off all ‘vices,” which is really a darn good idea, isn’t it? That’s at least as important to a safe landing as turning off all electronic devices if you think about it. He elicited smile after smile, more than a few laughs, many thanks. He barely had time to sit down, let alone worry about staying still.

His mom glanced around often, trying to gauge if anyone was irritated by this busy-bee helper, but all signs were that everyone was sincerely enjoying the entertainment. It was proof positive when, back at the airport after the flight ended, as Harry pulled the last of his families’ bags off the luggage carousel, he yelled to his fellow passengers, “Goodbye everybody! Let’s all go to Puerto Rico together again soon!” One after another, his new friends smiled their agreement, waved, and called back, “Goodbye, Harry!”

With the help of an intuitive, flexible flight attendant, Harry’s charisma once again (Read about how Harry made friends while biking across Iowa) overcame the potential for problem behaviors to arise from his ADHD. Wouldn’t it be great if all kids with ADHD could have such positive experiences while traveling the friendly skies?

I hope so for Natalie’s sake. Car travel is getting much easier for her, so hopefully that will transfer to air travel. We’ll find out when we all visit the kids’ Aunt Julie in San Diego next winter!

Do you have an air travel-meets-ADHD story, positive or otherwise, to share? Leave a comment below to tell us your tale.