In anticipation of summer travel, there are many parents with children on the spectrum who are overwhelmed by the thought of traveling outside their familiar communities for fear of rude comments, stares, and judgment from others. Even thinking about planning a vacation can cause stress in parents and family members leading many of them to keep their child at home.
We encourage our families to not rule out flying as an option for traveling. Recently, there's been an increase in awareness for special needs individuals and we're happy to see that several airports and compassionate passengers are stepping up to meet these needs with incredible solutions.
Read below to see how airlines and individuals are continuing to make better accommodations for special needs kids every day. Have a great summer everyone, see you in September!
Jason Rudge had an idea to help his son travel. His 4-year-old, Presley, had been diagnosed with level three autism and struggled with overstimulation in busy places, such as airports.
“Parents who have a kid with autism are afraid of how others will react if their kid starts acting out or has a meltdown, especially since many people don’t understand autism,” Rudge, a heavy equipment operator at Pittsburgh International Airport, said in a statement. "Going shopping or out to eat can be overwhelming, and planning a trip with air travel involved can be especially daunting."
Rudge petitioned the Pittsburgh airport for a special sensory room for his son, and other travelers like him, to be able to relax in a calm atmosphere before flights. The result: Presley's Place, a 1,500-square-foot, fully soundproof sensory room that opened in the airport's Concourse A in late July. The room is outfitted with a "transition foyer, a family room, individual rooms with bubble tubes, and an adult area all designed to have a calming effect in a noisy and stressful airport." It even includes a real plane cabin and jetway so travelers can rehearse the boarding process and eliminate any stress there, too.
It's all part of a broader push by the aviation industry to help make air travel more accessible to passengers on the autism spectrum and individuals with other developmental disabilities. According to the CDC, about 1 in 59 children are on the autism spectrum disorder. “We want to make flying accessible to everyone," Christina Cassotis, CEO of Pittsburgh International Airport, said when the space opened. "This room is an opportunity for special needs travelers from children to adults to have a place to decompress and get prepared to fly.”
Pittsburgh follows airports like Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, Alabama's Birmingham-Shuttlesworth, and Ireland's Shannon Airport in creating dedicated, calming spaces for passengers with autism and sensory sensitivities.
"There are many stimuli in the airport that can be very overwhelming, especially for an individual who has autism," says Kerry Mauger, a senior manager of The Arc, which runs a nationwide flight rehearsal program called Wings for Autism for fliers with intellectual and developmental disabilities. "Unfamiliar environments and routines can bring on anxiety and fear." Wings for Autism tries to remove those unknown factors with a practice run of what it's like to be in an airport. The program "provides families with the opportunity to go to an airport and practice all the steps involved in air travel, from obtaining a boarding card, going through TSA security and boarding a plane in a safe, but realistic environment," Mauger says.
The TSA is another resource available to fliers with autism. In 2011, the agency launched a hotline to help travelers with physical or developmental disabilities called TSA Cares. Travelers who have questions or need assistance getting through the security checkpoint can call the hotline 72 hours before their flight to set up support from TSA at the airport.
“It seems to me like there's more awareness and more of a recognition that there are families out there that need a little extra support,” Lacey Pires, who has an 8-year-old daughter, Rayne, with autism told Seattle's K5 News. Pires called TSA Cares back in May when her family took a trip from Seattle to California, and a TSA officer met them at the airport entrance and walked them through security.
“At one point she turned to me and said, ‘What signs do I need to look for if Rayne is getting anxious, as we're walking through the airport?' 'What can I do if she starts to feel that way? What's the most helpful thing for me to do if she does have a meltdown?’ And that was the most helpful thing she could've asked," Pires said of the TSA officer.
For a traveler with autism, these services can mean the difference between exploring the world or staying home. “A caregiver for a kid with autism might think ‘I’m never going to be able to fly anywhere with my family—it’s too hard to travel with someone with autism,’” Rudge said in the statement. “Having a sensory room at the airport changes that thinking to ‘Maybe we can take that trip after all.’”
A mother took to Facebook to publicly thank a stranger for putting her mind at ease during her son's first solo airplane ride.
Alexa Bjornson of Las Vegas, Nevada, told "Good Morning America" her son Landon was traveling on June 27 to Portland, Oregon, to see his father. The 7-year-old makes the trip once a year, Bjornson said, but this was Landon's first time flying alone.
Landon has high-functioning autism and Bjornson wanted to ensure he'd have an enjoyable flight.
"When you have autism you can feel when someone is irritated with you," Bjornson explained. "My goal was to make sure he felt comfortable with whomever was sitting around him so he could talk and be himself."
Bjornson decided to write a letter to the person who would wind up sitting next to Landon, in hopes that person would show him kindness.
She wrote, "He might ask you, 'Are we there yet?' a few times or get a little loud with his headphones on. If you could please find it in your heart to make him feel comfortable and safe, I would be forever grateful!"
Bjornson also included a $10 gift and her cell phone number at the bottom of the note.
Within 20 minutes of Landon's plane landing, Bjornson received a text from a man named Ben Pedraza.
"I was Landon's seat neighbor for his flight to Portland," Pedraza wrote to Bjornson, along with a selfie of himself posing with Landon. "He did ask if we were there yet several times but he was a great travel buddy. He's a great kid and you're a lucky mom."
Pedraza also wrote in the letter that he donated the $10 to Autism-Society.org in honor of Landon.
Bjornson shared the letter on Facebook with her friends and family. The public post was quickly shared 134,000 times.
"I was relieved that I had picture-proof that my son had a good flight, he was comfortable and safe and felt like he could be himself," Bjornson said. "Then, I felt humbled that he donated that money and let me know Landon was no burden to him once so ever."
"There are good humans on the planet that make him feel like it's OK to be himself and not make him feel like an annoyance," she added.
Bjornson said Landon and his dad hope to meet up with Pedraza and his family for lunch while in Oregon.