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Airplanes and Autism – You Are Not Alone (BLOG)

By Jonathan Slack, Market Research & Development Specialist

airplanes & autism 5.14.15The recent news of a flight making an emergency landing due to the behavior of a 15-year-old girl on the spectrum (despite the fact that she seemed to be fine after she ate) had me empathizing with the family involved and thinking back to all of my airplane adventures with Jennifer.

Jennifer enjoyed traveling for most of her earlier life. We were able to cruise with her and fly to various locations all across the globe. When she was younger she viewed airplanes as just another “ride.” She loved taking off and landing. She would smile and flap her arms around in excitement. After takeoff we had at least three portable DVD players (more recently replaced with iPads) charged and ready for her to use. 

Unfortunately, as Jennifer grew up she started to see airplanes less as a ride and more as a potential death trap. Now she throws tantrums if we take off and she cannot look outside a window. We also learned the hard way that we need to take off and land with her during the day. Even if she looks out a window if she cannot see the ground during takeoff and landing she acts out. Now Valium is added to the bag of essentials that includes the electronics.

When I tell people about Jennifer and her traveling history, inevitably someone always asks, “What was the turning point?” Jennifer started to fear taking off in airplanes when she hit puberty. Around this time my family had planned to go to Hawaii to see family and then to California to take Jennifer to Disney Land. Disney World is her favorite place in the world, but she will accept Disney Land as a bribe for going out west to see family (while Jennifer certainly has her moments of impulsive behavior she could give politicians a run for their money with her horse trading).

Unfortunately, her temper tantrums and impulsive behavior were on full display during the trip. Her behavior got so bad that my family and I decided to cut our vacation short. To this day I still call it the vacation from hell. When we arrived in California, Jennifer made it clear she wanted to go to Disney World. She apparently was not going to accept Disney Land as a substitute. When my family and I tried to board a flight back to New York Jennifer threw a fit. She ran across the airport trying to find a plane to Orlando. When that failed she grudgingly accepted that she had to go back to New York.

My family and I were now faced with another problem…waiting to board the plane. Jennifer is not normally a good waiter, but she was even worse than she normally is. She threw yet another fit that she could not get on a plane, in front of all of the other passengers, the captain and the flight attendants. There was even a doctor who claimed to be “helping us” by telling the captain and the flight attendant that my sister was not fit to fly in her current state. This was the scariest moment for me because I thought we were not going to be allowed to board the plane. Being stuck in a place foreign to Jennifer would only make the situation worse.

Luckily the head flight attendant had previously worked with autistic children. She came to us and asked what we needed, and my Mom told her that Jennifer would be fine once she boarded the plane. The flight attendant let us board and Jennifer’s bad behavior disappeared as soon as she was able to sit down on the plane. Despite what the doctor said to the flight attendant she did not act out or cause any behavior problems on the plane. I’m thankful the flight attendant had experience with autistic children, because if it had been anyone else I’m confident the doctor would have succeeded in making sure we did not board that plane.

Jonathan and his sister

Jonathan and his sister

For all the other families out there who have difficulty traveling with their loved ones on the spectrum please know you are not alone. The best advice I can give you is to know your child’s limits and come prepared. For my family, that means knowing that Jennifer needs to sit near a window to see the ground during takeoff and landing. We come prepared with multiple entertainment devices for her. We even bring salad!

You are not alone. For every “helpful” person out there telling people your loved one on the spectrum cannot fly, there is someone who understands what you are going through and will offer to help. For my family that was the head flight attendant. There are so many resources out there. For example, AIR helps families with special needs with travel programs. Just a little bit of research will show you how NOT alone you are! 

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