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At the Airport with a Child with Autism

Standing in a slow moving security line at LAX a couple of months ago, I watched a young soldier ahead of me shepherd his two young sons through the line.  The older boy was about 10 and listened carefully to his father’s directions.  The younger boy, about 7, appeared antsy, loud, and talkative.  As I watched his dad answer his repeated questions, I realized that the boy exhibited some of the behaviors usually associated
with the autism spectrum.  We approached the conveyor belts and the metal detector, and the boy became more and more animated and anxious.  I lost sight of them as we approached the conveyor belts, but I couldn’t help thinking that this could be a tough trip for two small boys and their dad.

In a new initiative to ease the flight anxieties of children with autism and their parents, some airlines have teamed with airports to offer a “mock boarding” experience prior to the actual flight.  According to the New York Times, participating airlines are Jet Blue, AirTran, Continental, Frontier, Southwest, and United.  The experience is available at Dulles International; Atlanta; Bridgeport, Connecticut,; Manchester, New Hampshire; Philadelphia; and Newark airports.

The mock boarding experience allows families with a child with autism to take a trial run before the actual flight.  They can purchase tickets, go through security, and board, and fasten their seatbelts on a plane ChildAirport460that doesn’t leave the gate.  Neither parents nor airport officials claim that the experience eradicates all problems that might be encountered, but it can help allay a child’s discomfort with the unfamiliar. 

Parents of children with autism report various degrees of difficulty on flights, according to the Times.  In August, for example, a mother and her 3-year-old son with autism were removed from a plane set to take off because of the child’s loud crying and the subsequent complaint of another passenger.  And while many
parents prepare for flights with headphones for their child or other soothing aids, the experience can be challenging, especially since many passengers simply see the behaviors as annoying or as something a good parent could control.   According to the Times, Jennifer Repella, vice president for programs at the Autism Society notes, “What’s challenging is that autism is a hidden disability.  People see someone they think is just a spoiled brat or a kid misbehaving and they don’t realize the origins of that.”

The Transportation Security Administration has set up a hotline, TSA Cares, to help individuals who might have difficulty navigating the airport systems.  Since it was set up about a year ago, the hotline has responded to thousands of calls, over 300 of them regarding flying with children with autism.  In addition, Autism Speaks, an advocacy group, offers additional resources and travel tips.



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