Can I take my autistic child on a flight?

As we are coming to the summer I thought I would write some posts speaking to our experiences with the boys traveling, on vacation or generally out and about. With all the recent discussion over the United flight and overbooking, a particularly pertinent experience came to mind. As any of us come to grips with an autistic diagnosis, there is a tendency for many of us to attempt to immediately normalize our children’s behavior without fully recognizing that this takes time. For those of us that understand this however, society likes to place its own demands and standards on our children, who frequently appear bold or unruly. If I had a dollar for every rude stare or comment I got over Conor and Eoin’s behavior, I’d be a very wealthy parent.


I recall an occasion when we were traveling from New York City to San Francisco. The boys were about eight at the time and had huge language deficits while constantly trying to feed their sensory integration needs. At the time, the boys also had colds so they were coughing without the usual manners that we would teach our typically developing children.


We were sitting in the departure lounge of a Delta Airlines flight. The lounge was full of people milling around sitting or generally taking in the atmosphere. A Middle-aged man was sitting next to Conor and was staring intently at him as he shifted in his seat and coughed. The man looked up and said in a loud voice “where is this child’s parents”? I was already aware of this man given that we never let the boys out of our sight. I stood up and walked over and asked him what his problem was. He immediately informed me that I was a bad parent and my son shouldn’t be traveling. The discussion continued for a short time with the man becoming abusive. For my part I remained calm and collected up the boys with Valerie and sat elsewhere. Notwithstanding however I was seething over the incident, and felt I could not let this slide. Not just for me and my family but for anyone who would find themselves in the same situation.


So, when we were boarding I took an air hostess aside and explained what happened. I stated firmly that I wanted to make a formal complaint about what I considered to be an abusive passenger. She acknowledged the complaint, asked me to be seated and said she would get back to me. It was a wide-bodied airplane and it was full. It took well over half an hour for the passengers to board with another 15 minutes or so to get everybody seated and organized. The boys, totally nonverbal, were now oblivious of the incident and were bartering with each other for the Window seat. Time was passing and the plane was nearly ready to close the doors. I was beginning to wonder if anybody had been listening to me or if any action was going to be taken. Just then a man in a Delta uniform quietly made his way to me, knelt and asked me what had transpired. He was the Captain and listened quietly and sympathetically to what had happened while taking the boys hands in a gesture of sincere human contact. He asked me to point out the man in question and then he walked over to him to discuss the matter. As the discussion continued I saw a couple of additional Delta ground staff step into the cabin while down below a baggage handling truck had arrived and opened the cargo bay.


As all this was happening, the air stewardess that I had met originally stopped momentarily by me and quietly said, he’s off for sure, and went on her way. About 10 minutes later the Captain returned with an update. He said he had spoken with the passenger, cautioned him and warned him that what he had done was not acceptable. The man responded by saying that what he had done was wrong and undertook never to display the kind of behavior again. And then something surprising happened. The Captain asked me if we felt safe with this man on board and if not he would be asked to leave. We chatted for a few moments and I could see that removing this passenger would delay the flight some hours and anyway the point had been made. It was clear there would be no further trouble. I said that if the crew of the flight were happy to go on then so were we. Immediately the Captain and all the crew got together and met in the back galley of the airplane. The doors closed, the baggage truck drove away and 10 minutes later we were in the air, arriving a full hour early in San Francisco. The boys, who were constantly on the move during the flight, wearing deep tracks into the carpeting were treated like royalty by crew and passengers alike.


For many an incident like this might seem minor in the greater scheme of parenting young children. But for Valerie and I, this was an important validation that our family, our boys would be treated with the respect that anyone should expect. And most importantly, it was there for the asking. So, if you are wondering about taking your autistic child on a flight, just remember they deserve their vacation just as much as the next person. Go out and book those tickets!