Sally White watched her 32-year-old son, Ted, pace back and forth near the ticketing kiosks at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
One second he stood next to an airline representative. The next he was peering into a small baby stroller that cradled the medical alert dog of one of his classmates. In his right hand was a thick stack of seemingly random papers: crumpled coupons, worn receipts, tiny pictures from magazines. They were Ted’s security blanket.
“This is going to be terrifying for him,” White said. “He flew prior to 9/11, but since then with all the new procedures and the long lines it has just become too daunting.”
Ted is autistic. He and seven other autistic young people were about to begin a journey that would take them miles without ever leaving the ground. They were all part of a recent collaboration between Emory University’s Autism Center, Hartsfield-Jackson and AirTran Airways that tries to help people with autism get used to the process of flying.
Commercial air travel can be taxing for anyone. But at a time when airport security procedures grow more and more complex, with full-body scanning and pat downs about as essential now to flying as a boarding pass, they can make air travel all the more difficult for those with autism.
Long waits, pushy crowds, constant noise — all components of contemporary air travel — can exacerbate a disorder in which hypersensitivity to sound, sights and smell are common. Those stimuli can trigger reactions in an autistic person that can easily be misread by those unfamiliar with the disorder. And that has the potential to prompt unwanted glances or comments from fellow passengers and greater scrutiny from airport security.
In execution, however, it laid bare the difficulty many families face when they fly with a family member who is autistic, no matter where that person is on the autism spectrum.
Parents soothe, console
For this exercise, many of the young people had their parents by their sides. Program managers from the Emory Autism Center worked to keep the crowd together as they wound their way through the clattering maze of ticketing, security, concourses and baggage claim. The parents did their best to soothe and console. Their smiles and reassuring voices belied their concern.
Ted’s mother called his name and reached toward him, a soft gesture that brought him near. On the spectrum of autism, Ted is considered nonverbal. He doesn’t do well in crowds. Waiting makes him anxious. He doesn’t look strangers in the eye. White is used to those behaviors.
What concerns her is that a Transportation Safety Administration official or other airport security person could possibly misread his actions and signal them as cause for alarm. Should their child break down in the terminal, let alone mid-flight, they then have to deal with the responses from other travelers.
“On a plane, some people with autism may become withdrawn or others may become more physical, say tapping the seat in front of them or rocking back and forth or being more vocal,” said Lisa Goring, vice president of family services for Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group. “The person with autism is not intentionally trying to make it challenging for another traveler. They just might not have another means of communicating what they are feeling.”
Three years ago a mother and her 2 1/2-year-old son who was autistic were removed from an American Eagle flight before takeoff in Raleigh-Durham because the child allegedly was uncontrollable.
Moving through security
On the day the Emory group went through a security checkpoint, TSA personnel had been alerted in advance. Sondra, Jennifer, Stephanie and the other young people moved through security relatively easily. With great assistance from their parents they showed their identification cards, removed their shoes, placed them on the scanner conveyor belt, then ambled through the metal detectors. Every step of the way their parents and airport employees told them what to expect. The repetition of the commands was key to helping them understand.
But Ted was having none of it. He didn’t want to let go of his paper security blanket. He didn’t want to take off his shoes. His mother tried coaxing him, demonstrating what he should do. Finally another person on the tour called out, “You can do it, Ted!” That little encouragement seemed to do the trick. He made it through the checkpoint and headed for the train with the rest of the group.
Last month the Autism Society, another national advocacy group, met with TSA officials at their annual conference to talk about ways to ease the travel experience of autistic passengers, said Amanda Glensky, a spokesperson for the society. For now families can choose to participate in the TSA’s expedited screening program, but it requires disclosure of a long list of personal information. There is also a “blue card” program that requires disclosure of medical documentation to the TSA.
Making travel easier
Here are a few tips from the national Autism Society that may make air travel less stressful.
- Tell the airline in advance and ask if there are any procedures or accommodations that can be made for the traveler with autism.
- Prior to traveling, use pictures, video, even miniature toy planes to acquaint the autistic passenger with what they will experience.
- Tell the flight crew in advance that you are traveling with someone who has autism and that you may need assistance. You may need to explain characteristics of the disorder.
- Bring familiar items that will put the person at ease, such as a favorite toy or book.
- Bring along music that the person with autism finds soothing so that he or she can listen to it through headphones.