By William Stillman
Within the past year, I’ve had a couple of air travel experiences that have confirmed what I’ve recently suspected to be true: when it comes to accommodating people with disabilities (and complying with the federal ADA), airlines know how to “do” physical disabilities but are eons away from accommodating invisible disabilities like autism. Allow me to explain. In order to be in compliance with federal mandates, reasonable accommodations need to be made for persons with physical disabilities such as ramps, curb-cuts, Braille information, or sounds indicating safe walking at crosswalks to name a few examples. This is great, and as it should be; but when traveling by air, no one has thought to consider the needs of persons on the autism spectrum. I know because, after some upsetting incidents, I contacted all the major airlines and spoke with (or made attempts to speak with) the persons in charge of accommodaing travelers with disabilities.
In one experience, my delayed flight caused me to nearly miss a connecting flight due to severe weather which would’ve meant I’d have to stay overnight unexpectedly and in a strange place—polar opposite from my plans. I became so exasperated that I felt that the clerk wasn’t listening to my expression of restrained anxiety when she offered me a traveling cart to get me from one gate to another—I can walk, run if I have to, so getting from one gate to another wasn’t the issue! After not hearing the reassuring words I needed to hear, I finally “outed” myself by blurting, “I have autism (she never would’ve understood ‘Asperger’s’), and I really need your help to understand my options.” (By the way, I got home that same night just fine.)
In another circumstance, I left my tagged, carry-on travel bag by the boarding ramp as I entered the plane and specifically asked a flight attendant if it was okay to do so. I was told it was fine, but upon leaving the plane, I was told my bag had been checked to baggage claim and would not be brought plane-side as was customary. Very upset by this—and after a pilot shrugged and walked away from me while I was trying to explain my situation to him—I re-boarded the plane to confront the flight attendant who originally assured me I was doing what was proper. Rushing up behind me were five other staff members, including the rude pilot and a man I thought might be the air marshal. All I wanted was an explanation for what had occurred, forget that I had already missed my connecting flight!
Let’s face it, airports can be very confusing enviroments, and I’m certain these sorts of glitches happen throughout every day on all the air carriers; but, because of my sensitivity, my literal-mindedness, and my tendency to over-exaggerate the severity of unexpected circumstances, it really got me to thinking: should I see these events as an opportunity to influence change? So I followed up by desiring to make suggestions to the major airlines about serving persons with “invisible” disabilities, like myself, and others on the autism spectrum who may not “pass” as obviously. I thought there could be at least one staff person in each airport trained in accommodating the individual with autism, or perhaps a quiet, secluded area for persons who are in sensory overload, or additional information in writing that would be more tangible to name a few ideas. In only one instance, did someone actually listen to my suggestions; the rest did not return my calls or e-mails, or indicated that they couldn’t anticipate the nuanced needs of every air passenger because they were “hemorraging thousands of dollars a day” as it was.
Given the reaction to my outreach, it would seem as though learning how best to serve travelers with autism was low priority for major air carriers. My missed connections became missed opportunities—so much for flying the friendly skies. As usual, it would seem we’re on our own, folks; and I’d appreciate hearing from other self-advocates with suggestions, similar experiences, and ideas about how to create change for air travelers with autism.
©2006, William Stillman