by Rachel L. Swarns -
For Dana Napoleon, a flight attendant in Tacoma, Wash., zipping in and out the nation’s airports every week is second nature. Yet she is still filled with dread every time she flies with her 10-year-old son.
Other children might scamper through the airport, delighted by the moving sidewalks and dreaming of sand castles. But for Ms. Napoleon’s son, the crush of unfamiliar faces, the creeping pace of security lines and delays in boarding and takeoff can trigger excruciating anxiety.
So before flights Ms. Napoleon worries: Will he dash through the metal detector without stopping? Will he disrupt other passengers by kicking the seat incessantly? Will he have a meltdown onboard, screaming and crying and hitting himself in the head, and get the entire family forced off the flight?
Her son, Keanu, is autistic. So for the Napoleons — and many other parents of children with autism — family vacations can be an agonizing exercise in parental endurance.
“My stomach is in knots,” said Ms. Napoleon, 41, describing her apprehension whenever she arrives at the airport with her husband and two children. “It’s so unpredictable. That’s what’s so stressful.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder, health officials say. And for the parents who struggle to navigate the nation’s airports and airlines with these children, aviation officials are providing more help.
Over the past two years, Washington Dulles International Airport, along with airports in Atlanta; Boston; Bridgeport, Conn.; Manchester, N.H.; Philadelphia; and Newark, have offered hundreds of parents and autistic children “mock boarding” experiences, allowing them to practice buying tickets, walk though security lines and strap themselves into a plane that never leaves the gate.
As of now, Jet Blue, AirTran, Continental, Frontier, Southwest and United Airlines have participated.
The early word suggests that the programs, which are free, seem to help. Autism experts and parents say that increased familiarity with busy airports helps autistic children and their caretakers travel more comfortably. And airport and security officials say they gain a better understanding of the difficulties experienced by autistic travelers.
“We recognize how intimidating to some people, particularly those with special needs, a facility like this can be,” said Christopher Browne, the manager of Washington Dulles airport. “We think the anxiety and uncertainty and trepidation can be greatly reduced.”
The Transportation Security Administration has also set up a hot line, TSA Cares, to help disabled passengers and their caretakers better navigate airport security checkpoints. Thousands of people have called in since the hot line was started in December. More than 320 calls involved passengers with autism.
But these fledgling initiatives don’t reach everyone. And many parents complain that aviation officials and fellow passengers still remain unaware of the enormous challenges faced by children whose hypersensitivity to light, sounds, unexpected events and subtle shifts in routine can often trigger emotional outbursts and anxiety attacks.
“Awareness of autism has certainly increased; there’s no question about that,” said Jennifer Repella, vice president for programs at the Autism Society, an advocacy group. “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.”
Such misunderstandings can have dramatic consequences.
In August, Delta Air Lines forced a mother traveling with her 3-year-old autistic son to get off a plane that was taxiing on the runway when the child began crying inconsolably, disturbing another passenger.
The passenger argued with the mother and complained to the crew. The mother, Saritta Trad Sarkis, who was flying from Cleveland to New York, explained that she was trying to soothe her son, whom she had just learned had been found to be autistic. But the pilot returned to the gate and flight attendants ordered the family off the plane.
“She was in tears,” said Ms. Sarkis’s brother, Tarek Trad, who said she was still too distraught to discuss it.“It was a harsh reality for a mother that just found out that her son is autistic.”
Delta Air Lines officials have apologized to Ms. Sarkis for what a spokesman described as an “unfortunate string of events” on the Delta Connection aircraft. The spokesman, Morgan Durrant, said that Delta is reviewing the episode and remains committed to striving to “accommodate all customer needs.”
Hoping to avoid such unpleasant experiences, many parents are developing their own survival strategies. Some carry letters from doctors describing their child’s autism diagnosis, pack noise-canceling headphones and dress their children in brightly colored T-shirts that declare “autism awareness,” trying to make the invisible disability visible.
Read more at Testing Autism and Air Travel.
[Via The New York Times]