Travel can be really stressful. Even scary sometimes.
For families who have children with autism and/or other intellectual and developmental disabilities, the trip to and through the airport, and on to grandma’s house or a vacation in another city, can be just too difficult to even consider.
But there are programs and truly caring people out there who are trying to make that process a little easier.
Here’s a slightly shortened version of my piece on autism-friendly travel efforts I wrote for NBC News:
Because her almost 5-year-old son Matthias has sensory issues associated with autism Latonya Bingham’s family only takes vacations to places they can reach by car, sometimes leaving the house at 2 a.m. when the roads are calm and quiet.
Bingham would love to take Matthias on a trip by plane, so this week mother and son signed up for an air travel ‘rehearsal’ at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
The program allows families to practice going to the airport, passing through security, waiting in the gate area and getting onto a plane — all without the cost and commitment of a plane ticket — and is coordinated by The Arc, a Washington, D.C. organization that has hosted 75 similar events at more than 40 airports around the country.
Matthias has issues with crowds and loud noises, so Bingham was worried Matthias would have problems with the TSA experience and the boarding process, but all went smoothly until Matthias was on the plane, where “He felt too enclosed,” said Matthias, “He preferred the window to be open – and was ready to get off after 5 minutes.”
The chance to do an airport test run definitely made a difference for Katy Guerra’s son Danny, a 10-year-old with autism who doesn’t do well with change or fast-paced environments.
The military family is used to moving but has never had the opportunity to move together as a family overseas.
“We had put off taking trips because we didn’t want to be ‘that family,'” said Guerra, “and Danny has always made it clear he cannot go in airplanes because the air is too thin. So we knew there would be some issues.”
But after going through one of The Arc’s Wings for Autism programs, (also known as Wings for All) and spending two months preparing, Danny took his first plane ride: a 14-hour flight to Seoul, South Korea.
Test runs like this not only give families a chance to see how a child with a special need will react to the airport experience, they give airport, airline and TSA employees a chance to learn and practice how to interact with children and adults who have autism and/or other intellectual and developmental disabilities as well.
Sensory Rooms and Autism-Friendly Travel Destinations
In April 2016 Delta Air Lines opened a quiet, multisensory room at the Atlanta airport with a mini ball pit, bubbling water sculpture, tactile activity panel and other items to help ease the airport experience for customers traveling with children on the autism spectrum.
Myrtle Beach International Airport in South Carolina opened a “quiet room” for people with special needs not long after, and this month, Europe’s first airport sensory room for passengers with autism opened at Ireland’s Shannon Airport.
In the tourism-focused Myrtle Beach area “autism-friendly” goes beyond the airport.
The new $3.2 million ADA-approved Savannah’s Playground has special sensory-friendly features, there’s a quiet room for people with autism at the Myrtle Beach Speedway and, with a special card secured online or in-town locations, families can secure special accommodations for a child with autism at area attractions, hotels and restaurants where staff has been specially trained.
And to make sure potential visitors know the community gets that traveling with kids who have autism can be especially chaotic and unpredictable, in January, 2016 the town council in Surfside Beach, on the southern end of the Myrtle Beach, signed a proclamation declaring the area to be the first official autism-friendly travel destination.