10:37 PM EDT, April 16, 2013
On a flight from Israel to London a few years ago, the airplane video display wouldn't work for Margalit Francus' teenage son. The boy, who was 14 or 15 at the time, grew overwhelmingly frustrated. He screamed, he cried and he threatened to open the plane door.
Francus calmly explained to the flight attendant that her son has autism and was struggling with the unanticipated disruption.
It was another lesson in Francus' long journey of learning to travel with a child with autism. Children on the autism spectrum tend to become more easily "dysregulated" (a term favored by the mental health community) than their typically developing counterparts, and can be set off by changes in routine or unfamiliar situations. Travel obviously can present both in droves.
But Francus, who writes about traveling with an autistic child at autisticglobetrotting.com, is among those embracing the intersection of autism and travel.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 50 children have been diagnosed with a disorder on the autism spectrum.
Though people with autism tend to have atypical sensory experiences — Francus' son was once set off by a smell in an airport — the mother of two argues that that is precisely why autistic children benefit from travel.
She cited the example of her son reading about the 21 Spanish missions in California. Knowing that reading about the missions would barely register, the family traveled by car to the 21 missions.
"For my son, that made the difference in the learning process: seeing it, feeling it, smelling it and touching it," she said.
During the last 10 years, she said, the family has visited about 70 countries. Among the most crucial elements to traveling with an autistic son, she said, is being prepared.
"I travel with two iPads," Francus said. "Just in case the first iPad breaks."
She said it's worth accepting that things will go wrong and not to be afraid to acknowledge when it's happening — as she did during that flight to London.
"Just smile and say, 'I apologize, my son is autistic,'" she said. "If you don't share the information, how will they know how to deal with your kid?"
The industry has been increasingly accommodating to autistic travelers. The Transportation Security Administration has created an online guide for air travelers with "autism or intellectual disabilities" (tinyurl.com/cnmg6u2), and airlines, and airports have partnered to offer autistic children practice runs through the security and boarding processes.
Among the most prominent has been JetBlue, which began offering the practice runs at Boston's Logan International Airport in 2010. JetBlue has expanded the program to airports in Hartford, Conn. and Burbank, Calif., and plans to try it at John F. Kennedy International Airport in the fall.
The lessons also have benefited JetBlue staff, said Ray Fallon, JetBlue's Logan operations manager when the program began. He is now the airline's general manager in Dallas.
"There would have been more of a thought in my day of, 'Why can't they keep this kid under control?' and now we're more sensitive," Fallon said. "We've found that by getting the family on board and comfortable we've prevented in many cases what other travelers would have thought of as a tantrum."
JetBlue has instituted autism-friendly policies, he said, such as letting families with autistic children skip security lines and pre-board. When a family with an autistic traveler identifies itself, Fallon said, gate agents, flight attendants and even the pilots are made aware.
Francus said she hopes to see such efforts expanded, a step that she said would be to the industry's own benefit.
"The travel industry is starting to understand that there's a huge segment that can be developed," she said. "If you start to think 1 in (88) kids, and kids travel with parents, now we're talking money."
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