Air Travel and Autism

June 08, 2022

Recently in the news, we learned about a family from New Jersey who was stranded after a weeklong vacation in Aruba when their teenage son with autism was unable to fly home due to behavioral challenges.

As told by the Asbury Park Press, “(Jamie) Greene, her three children and her boyfriend flew to Aruba May 10. Although (her son) Elijah had flown to Florida and back in 2016 and handled the flight to Aruba with no problem, he balked upon boarding the flight home May 17.

Greene said the staff of the United Airlines flight was as accommodating as possible, but Elijah refused to sit in his seat for takeoff. They had to deplane and he would not get on a different flight.”

Thankfully and with the help of the autism community across the country, a solution was found, and Jamie and Elijah were able to travel home to the U.S. via cruise ship and car.

Air travel – or travel of any kind, for that matter – can be a challenge for individuals with autism.

That’s not to say it’s impossible. With the summer vacation season upon us, we offer the following resources and suggestions to help prepare for air travel. As the Greene family and many families of loved ones with autism know all too well, travel can be stressful and unpredictable for everyone.

Airports

More and more airports are offering accommodation for individuals with autism. Check the airport’s website in advance. The Port Authority of NY/NJ (Newark, LaGuardia and JFK) participates in the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower program, offering sunflower lanyards as a discreet way to communicate with airport staff about a hidden disability. Some airports offer quiet spaces for those with sensory issues.

TSA Cares

TSA offers assistance at the screening checkpoints via its TSA Cares Program. Sign up in advance using this web form at least 72 hours before your scheduled flight.

Airlines

In advance of your travel, connect directly with your airline about any special accommodations you might need before takeoff or in-flight. One of the more common accommodations airlines offer is pre-boarding for individuals with autism, allowing them to board in a more controlled atmosphere and giving the family an opportunity to get settled while the plane is emptier. Here are some direct links to the more popular carriers.

AmericanDeltaJet BlueSouthwestUnited

Airline accommodations will never supersede essential safety and security measures required of the gate and in-flight crew but making a direct connection with the airline staff to explain your particular needs can make a difference.

Practice and Prepare

Prior to the pandemic, airports and local chapters of national disability organizations were offering events that opened airports and aircraft for tours to help familiarize individuals with autism to the air travel process. The availability of these programs in this area may vary.

The Wings for Autism/Wings for All program, sponsored by The Arc of the United States, has been suspended since the pandemic but may return at a future date.

Use Visuals

In the absence of hands-on exposure, social stories or first-then board might help to aid in teaching and preparing for going to an airport and flying on a plane.

Travel Is Possible

As the Greene family’s experience demonstrated, a previous success may not be an indication of future outcomes, especially if air travel is infrequent. Many autism families opt for local trips via train and car travel instead, if air travel is too big a challenge. Published survey research indicates that families with children with autism go on fewer vacations than families of neurotypical children and that they experience a number of challenges and stressors to participating in tourism.

Hopefully, with greater awareness from airports and airlines looking to accommodate special needs and preparations on the part of families, the skies will be wide open to all travelers, making stories like Elijah’s the rare exception.


Life Imitates Art

In fact, while a dramatization, movie buffs may recall that this exact issue was a key plot point in the movie, Rainman, a renowned depiction of autism on screen.


Experience our Power of Connection

For additional information about travel accommodations or for assistance with accessing resources, contact Autism New Jersey at 800.4.AUTISM or email information@autismnj.org.