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Airlines and Autism

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I received an message on my Facebook today from a most distraught mother whose family was kicked off an airplane when her autistic daughter wasn't able to fasten her seat belt because of her anxiety with flying.

The airline's response to the mother was:

When a passenger tries to open the doors of the plane while the plane is rolling to the runway, we are as an airline committed to intervene immediately and to react. The safety of our passengers is always at our forefront.

The mother told me that her child had never tried to open the door as she was sitting next to the window on a three-person row. It would have been impossible for her to go across all of them and open the door.

As much as I empathize with the mother, I can also see the airline's position. Safety is paramount and if the flight attendants do not understand autism, a panic attack can seem threatening. Ideally, airlines would educate their employees about autism. But I have also learned ways to help with successful airline travel and I now travel easily with my seventeen-year-old severely autistic and non-verbal son, Neal.

This wasn't always the case. I recall being in a similar situation shortly after 9/11. Jeff, my boyfriend at the time (now husband) and I were traveling with Neal from LAX to Washington, D.C.

Neal was just shy of nine years old and about 4' 7'', almost my height. To outward appearances, he looks like a "typical' or "normal" kid." In some ways, this is to his advantage; in other ways it's not. For most people it's easier to feel compassion for a child in a wheelchair, or for a teen with a seeing-eye dog. But autism is an "invisible disability." Most kids with autism look like other kids -- but tend to exhibit "bad" behavior.

At the airport, as we wait to board, Neal stares excitedly out the window at the huge planes. I turn my head for a second. I hear the sound of an alarm. Neal has raced to the exit door and tried to open it so that he can go outside and be with the airplanes. Now, the loud alarm has set Neal off. He's freaking out. People glare at him. Security races over.

"It's okay sweetheart," I tell Neal, then I call out to the panicky crowd, "It's okay everyone! He has autism! He just likes airplanes! He didn't mean any harm!" Then we board the plane.

We are seated in coach, about eight rows back from first class. Neal puts his backpack under his chair and snaps on his seatbelt. He covers his ears with his hands before take-off just as we rehearsed.

Soon, the flight attendant comes over and asks if we want anything to drink. We practiced this too, and Neal knows to ask for water. He does. Success. But then Neal wants to go to the bathroom. He needs to go, NOW. The flight attendant's cart is blocking the aisle. This is not something we rehearsed.

He can't wait the thirty minutes it could take for the attendants to get to the back of the plane, so Neal and I get up from our seats and I ask one of the flight attendants if Neal can use the bathroom that's right in front of us. As I ask, a man from first class, clearly able to overhear me, heads into the bathroom, pushing ahead of Neal.

"No," the flight attendant tells me curtly, "That restroom is for first class passengers, only."

"We know this," I say, calmly, but determined. "But my son has autism and he really needs to go to the bathroom."

"Well," she answers, "he's going to have to wait like everyone else."

Neal sees an opening. He darts towards the bathroom door. Another man jumps in front of the door and glares at him with the cocky condescension of a first class citizen. Neal tantrums.

"Return to your seats," demands the flight attendant.

Neal grabs her eyeglasses off her face. She panics and calls for security.

All this happens within twenty seconds. I'm losing it. Jeff steps in. He calms me, then calms Neal enough to get him to wait behind the cart as it passes each seat. He then takes Neal to the bathroom. I go back to my seat, fuming: if that stupid flight attendant hadn't been so stuck on her rules, if that guy in first class hasn't been so arrogant none of this would have happened.

Today, I know that I need to call the airline in advance and let them know I'm traveling with a child who has special needs. When I do this, they are more than accommodating, especially on smaller airlines. I also practice with Neal everything that is going to happen weeks before we board the plane. I call this "Rehearse for Life." Here are some of the things you can do in advance:

  • Pack and unpack luggage.
  • Drive to the airport and watch airplanes take off.
  • Practice taking off shoes and going through a "pretend" security line
  • Read books and look at DVD's about airplanes, travel, flying
  • Create songs about flying
  • Practice boarding an airplane, putting on a seat belt, watching a video, ordering food, going to the bathroom -- think of everything that could possibly happen -- and rehearse this.
  • Practice putting your hands over your ears when things get too loud.
  • Discuss take-off and landing
  • Practice breathing and calming techniques.
  • Wrap up small gifts from the 99 cents store and let your child unwrap them throughout the flight.
  • Definitely call the airlines in advance and let them know that you are traveling with a child with special needs.
  • Carry a card with you that explains autism. You can order these cards from TACA .

With the rise in autism (1 in 110 children) there will be more and more people with disabilities traveling. I encourage everyone to be more conscious of those with "invisible disabilities" and to be less fearful of things you may not understand. In a perfect world, those with autism and other special needs can teach us all to be more compassionate and patient.

Please share with me your travel stories -- Both positive and challenging.

Elaine Hall
Author: Now I See the Moon: a mother, a son, a miracle (HarperCollins July 2010)
Co-Author with Diane Isaacs: Seven Keys to Unlock Autism (Wiley October 2011)