If You’re Autistic, Super Unfriendly Skies This Season

Thanksgiving is tomorrow and we are staying put here in north central New Jersey. It would be lovely to spend the holiday with my family in California, but the last thing we are able to do on this, the busiest travel day of the year in the US, is to attempt a transcontinental airplane flight with our 13 1/2 year old son Charlie.

Charlie is on the moderate to severe end of the autism spectrum. When younger, he did quite well on these coast-to-coast flights, even during busy Christmas holiday traveling times. (Yes, that is him peaking out an airplane window, Barney in his lap.) A lot of individuals on the spectrum find air travel very difficult, and not only for the reasons that many people do. Like many autistic persons, Charlie is very sensitive to sensory stimuli. The constant buzz and hum of the airplane, the recycled air, the close quarters full of noises and smells, all must make air travel something like torture for someone on the spectrum. Charlie is minimally verbal and, when in distress, often has a great, great deal of difficulty expressing his needs. Currently, the best way to help him lower his anxiety is for him to do a lot of aerobic exercise—-something that would not be possible on an airplane.

Keeping in mind reports from past years of autistic children being taken off airplanes due to their ‘behavior’—I was pleased to read that some airlines (including Southwest) are opening their airplanes to ‘practice flights,’ in which ‘children with autism and their families [are able] to become familiar with air travel – carrying bags, getting boarding passes, going through security, waiting at the gate and sitting on the plane.’

Nonetheless, things have also changed now that Charlie is older and adult-size: He used to like sitting in the window seat with his feet curled under him but those days are quite gone.  Further, all the security measures on airplanes and in airports have made the whole flying experience much too complicated, not to mention stressful. It would a different story for my son, now a 5′ 8″ autistic teenager, to have a massive anxiety-as-a result-of-sensory-overload attack, than when he was a little guy who my husband could carry to safety.

And I don’t know how Charlie might respond to getting patted down by TSA agents. The video of the little boy who was strip searched by TSA agents at Salt Lake City airport in Utah has been making the rounds of the internet. And, if a recent report from Glenn Beck is believed, this child may be autistic:

Glenn Beck had Luke Tait, the college student who took the infamous video of the TSA agent doing a pat down of the shirtless little boy, on his show this morning to discuss the incident at the airport. During the interview, Beck said that he learned from a ‘refounder’ (Congressional insider) that the little boy didn’t actually set off the metal detectors as the TSA reported, but rather the boy had on a baggy shirt that caught the attention of the TSA and thats why they wanted to do a pat down. Beck said he also learned a detail that hasn’t been reported yet, that the little boy has autism.

In which case, one really has to wonder, are those TSA agents thinking about what they are doing at all?

Photo by the author.


Martha Eberle
Martha Eberle7 years ago

You're a great Mom. I have not had to deal with autism in my children -- it is your life, a full-time job, and I greatly admire how you're looking out for Charlie. There is a saying: It's not the problems that come your way in life, that brand you, but how you deal with them. You have shown courage and intelligence to give Charlie the best life he can have. Mom of the year.

jane richmond
jane richmond7 years ago

Ms Chew- THANK YOU for being a mom first and advocate second. Parents are their children's first and sometimes only line of defense. In order to fight the good fight sometimes you have to pick your battles. This is one Charlie does NOT need to face.
Thanks to Southwest airlines for realizing that not everyone can handle a flight first time out unprepared.

Michele C.
Michele C7 years ago

Good for Soutwest to provide these "practice" flights for children who autistic. As we progress as a society, we (as a whole) are losing touch with the sensitivity of others and their individual needs.

Lin Moy
Lin M7 years ago

Thank God for a parent that puts the child first.

Mary B.
Jillian Bradley7 years ago


Steffanie Beale
Steffanie Beale7 years ago

noted thanks

Julia W.
Julia W7 years ago

Judy T. said these procedures don't keep us safer and could hurt children and adults who are the victims of sexual abuse as well as autistic people on the spectrum.

>Proper screening, done by properly trained security personnel, would be far more effective and far less intrusive.

But, what you say would not be making the former head of the TSA Michael Chertoff a gazillionaire, because he's who is the behind the 'rapiscan.'

Yes, the body scan is actually called that.

Natalie B.
Natalie Burrows7 years ago

Although it's (mostly) nice to be with family on the holidays, why can't some of the autistic child's family come to visit him? In any case, Christmas is where the heart is, and this family obviously has its heart with their handicapped child.

Sue H.
Sue H7 years ago

I really think that the scanners should be the only device... no person
should ever have to submit to some
stranger groping them in the name of
Good for you for keeping Charlie off
the plane. How does he do on trains?
Please don't take this in a wrong way,
are there not anti anxiety meds for
situations where Charlie must fly?

Kathy M.
Kathy M.7 years ago

I agree with the parents on this one. They know their kid and, as parents, they should control the situations he is in, instead of putting him in any situation and expecting everyone else to deal with his problem and make accomodations for it. I wish more parents had that kind of sense.