Young autistic adults get help navigating the stress of air travel

Emory University, Hartsfield-Jackson airport and AirTran Airways lend a hand

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.

The one-day project mirrored another done this year for younger children at Newark Liberty International Airport. Familiarity, repetition and routine are learning keys for those on the autistic spectrum. Like the Newark program, the one at Hartsfield-Jackson was straightforward in its mission to help autistic travelers feel more comfortable with air travel by taking them through each step.

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.

“The stress level on something like this is off the roof,” said Vanessa Hixon, 51, of Summerville. She was holding onto her 22-year-old daughter, Sondra, as the group made its way through ticketing and toward the security checkpoint. Sondra is also nonverbal. She comforted herself by singing the same four-note bar of music over and over.

As much as her mother would like to take a trip a few time zones away, Sondra had never flown before. When her family travels it is always by car.

But there are times when air travel may be necessary.

“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.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one in 110 children in the United States is somewhere on the autism spectrum, from Asperger’s syndrome to atypical autism. Nearly 40 percent of them do not speak. The ability to respond to commands is imperative in moving through an airport.

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.

Taylor Vickers, an AirTran flight attendant, welcomed the crowd onto the plane. She ushered the curious into the cockpit where Hendrick explained all the controls. She and another attendant went through the motions of preflight prep, pointing out exit rows and overhead bin storage. For Vickers, the experience was personal. Her son is autistic.

“Those early flights with Jordan were not pretty, but we stuck with it,” Vickers said.

Experience taught her to ask the gate agent not to separate the two no matter how packed the plane is. “Because if we’re separated he’ll talk about dinosaurs to the person next to him the whole flight,” she said.

The parents around her laughed, knowing that wasn’t the only reason for her request. Though a parent’s instinct might be to say nothing about their child’s condition out of concern over how they will be treated, disclosure is always best, Vickers said.

At that, Patricia McAdam’s eyes lit up. Her twin daughters, Stephanie and Jennifer, were with her.

“You would like us to tell you?” McAdam asked, her voice surprised but hopeful.

“Yes, absolutely,” Vickers said. “Because that way we can help. As a mom, I say just get out there and have no fear.”

Too much for some

On this day, Jennifer McAdam’s travel itinerary spanned continents.

From Atlanta she would jet to Phoenix, back across the country to Orlando, then on to “a little town in Peru where the llamas are found.”

Sitting high above the tarmac, the 24-year-old had a few questions for the pilot seated next to her in the cockpit. Her eyes darted all around the cove of dials, switches and screens.

“What happens if you let go of the wheel?”

“What happens if it won’t go up?”

On and on her questions went. AirTran Airways pilot Eric Hendrick answered each one, his tone patient and reassuring. He wasn’t worried about a delay in takeoff. In fact, the plane wasn’t even going to push back from the gate.

Farther back on the plane, Vanessa Hixon sat with her daughter Sondra, who was singing her song and smiling along. Hixon smiled, too, satisfied with Sondra’s progress.

“So far, so good,” she said.

A few aisles away Sally White sat alone. Ted had decided not to get on the plane. He stayed at the terminal gate with a representative from the Emory program.

“His anxiety must have overridden his ability to get on,” White said. “It was what I was afraid of.”

Ted’s brother was scheduled to get married in New Orleans a few weeks after the program. White decided they would have to make the trip by car.


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.