How Travel Presents Unique Challenges for People With Autism

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My sister Margaret, who was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder when she was three years old, has never been a frequent flyer. But she and our mother came to visit me once when I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In those more relaxed days, before 9/11, I was able to wait for them at the airport gate with other families. My big sister emerged from the gangway and waded through the crowd of strangers a few yards ahead of Mom. Her dear and familiar face was open and unguarded as she searched the area for me.

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Mom said later that she’d told Margaret repeatedly that they were going “to see Eileen in New Mexico,” so my sister’s response shouldn’t have surprised me.

Her face brightened when she saw me.

“There’s Eileen!” she exclaimed and hurried over to enfold me in her signature bear hug.

Before Mom had quite reached us, Margaret released me, wheeled around, and headed back toward the plane. The mission to “go see Eileen” complete, she must have figured it was time to head home. How we managed to coax her out of the airport, I do not recall, but once in the car, things went more smoothly (although she did refuse to get up at dawn for the mass ascension of hot air balloons at the Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, which was the impetus for the whole trip. “No thank you,” she said, and went back to sleep.)

My sister takes things quite literally. What she made of taking an airplane to “go see Eileen,” we’ll never know. But it’s safe to say that whatever Mom said—probably something about going fast and then flying up in the air—made no sense to Margaret. Until it was happening. All was well in the coach section of that Southwest Airlines flight until Margaret, seated at the window, noticed the ground rapidly disappearing after take-off.

She slammed the window shade, yelled, “You’re going up in the air?!” and threw her arms around Mom. When I heard this story later, I was comforted to hear that Margaret settled down after the plane reached altitude. And Mom said the other guy sitting in their row also seemed relieved.

What’s hard about travel

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In my lifetime, more people have become familiar with the characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and that familiarity is helpful to families like mine. What’s less often talked about is how everyday activities, like travel, can be difficult for people with ASD. For my sister, traveling presents a series of challenging circumstances, including:

  • Changes to her routine
  • New and unfamiliar places, people, and activities
  • Auditory and visual over-stimulation
  • Crowded shuttles, planes, and gate areas
  • Different foods and mealtimes

Any one of these elements alone can turn Margaret’s day upside down in ways I will never be able to appreciate. So, I was interested to read about new tourism companies trying to make travel more accessible to people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

ASD-friendly travel companies

One organization, called Autism Double Checked, offers three levels of certification for travel-related businesses as well as things like practice flights, practice hotel stays, and entry to attractions on special days. To date, several small airlines have received certification from Autism Double Checked— Breeze Airways (a budget airline headquartered in Utah), Flair Airlines (a low-cost Canadian carrier), LATAM Airlines (a Chilean multi-national airline), and JetSuiteX (a boutique jet service). According to its website, the organization hopes to eventually provide a searchable database of autism-friendly businesses for travelers. Autism Double Checked was co-founded by Alan Day, a former travel agent and parent of a child with autism.

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Another organization, Autism Travel, offers another certification system—Certified Autism Center, Advanced Certified Autism Center, Autism Certified City, and Certified Autism Destination. Autism Travel is associated with the International Board of Credentialing and Continuing Education Standards, which provides cognitive disorder training and certification for education, healthcare, corporate, travel, and entertainment professionals. The organization’s directories offer options from adventure travel and family entertainment centers to theme parks, zoos, and hotels.

Both organizations have designed their own certification processes and training. So, while I do appreciate their philosophies, they don’t seem to reflect a sea change in the industry. Also, both companies seemed geared toward families with young children rather than adults with autism and their families. Still, I love the idea of improving travel options for people with autism, no matter their age.

At this point in our lives, air travel might be off the table for my sister. Travel has changed so much since the pandemic, with delays and cancelations becoming ever more common. It’s a lot for anyone. Anyway, she might prefer the train. Just for fun, I glanced at the Amtrak schedule for train rides between Margaret’s town and some nearby destinations we might both enjoy. Trains departing, mostly often, between the painful hours of 2 a.m. and 3:45 a.m.

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My sister, who still loves her sleep, would likely say, “No thank you, Eileen.”

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