What I've Learned From Traveling With My Teen on the Autism Spectrum

Transparency and respect for other families' needs go a long way in making travel more inclusive.

<p>fotostorm/Getty Images</p>

fotostorm/Getty Images

As I write while sitting on a six-hour flight, my 16-year-old son sits across the aisle from me, pointing out the specific L.A. references in the anime show he's watching on his laptop. The journey has been pretty chill and easy, despite a 4 a.m. wake-up. Above all, I feel intensely grateful. This relaxed tone is largely set thanks to the self-advocacy he consistently draws upon as a teen on the autism spectrum. After hitting various speed bumps at different developmental stages, we've gradually figured out how to make travel go more smoothly, with him taking the lead and knowing he has our support.

I'd be lying if I said I have a roadmap. For much of his early childhood, flying meant the highest highs and the lowest lows during what's already an inherently stressful process. Parents of kids on the spectrum know how even the slightest change in expectations can seriously derail so much. It's one of the many very specific forms of insider knowledge that comes with being part of the unofficial spectrum parenting club.

A lifelong transportation enthusiast, seeing aviation in action has always been a big event for my son. From an early age, he became (and still is) a walking encyclopedia of transportation engineering facts. Sometimes we'd go to nearby spots at LAX to watch planes take off and land. Without any restrictions or expectations, the excursions that didn't involve actually going anywhere were easy and fun; less so when it was time to get on the plane and reach our destination, which sometimes left me feeling wrung out. During better moments, I wished I could bottle his joy. (That said, a product labeled "Airport Security Excitement!" would likely be a tough sell.)

I'm a people pleaser. While fiercely opinionated, there are other times I just want to follow protocol and get through whatever steps are required to get from point A to B. Our son doesn't think that way. He has an innate, burning sense of fairness which would early on lead to questions full of righteous indignation like, "Why are airline seats so cramped? Just so companies can make more money?" and "Why does that kid who is younger and smaller than I am get to sit in first class?!"

This teen has figured out that being shame-free about his diagnosis and transparently communicating how being on the spectrum shapes his perceptions and responses only helps him and others. It's admittedly harder for me to recognize that the world at large needs to acknowledge and adapt to folks with autism and different abilities — not vice versa. After one particularly stressful flight from Los Angeles to Oakland during which he insisted on trying to sit on his own and an exchange with a flight attendant led to hurt and misunderstanding on all sides, my husband decided enough was enough. We would request pre-boarding — to which our son is legally entitled — to help mitigate some anxiety, and if it came up, explain to crew members why this kid might say or do things that come off as rude, even if it's not his intention. I used to think it was better to avoid potentially awkward conversations, hover a little more closely, and hope for the best, but that people-pleasing discomfort does us all a disservice when what he really needs is a delicate combination of breathing room and advocacy.

Every parent and caregiver has their own approach to publicly disclosing this type of diagnosis. It's an intensely personal, idiosyncratic experience. Circumstances involving invisible disabilities can be particularly nuanced for some people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) who can often "pass" as neurotypical. Some families are private, opting to not have their child diagnosed in the first place, and caregivers might be wary about sharing information that sounds stigmatizing or pathologizing. We've been there, but our son has since forged his path to being "out and proud autistic" while generally maturing and building self-assertion skills.

Nowhere is this confidence more important and helpful than in an airport or other sensory-loaded environments. He asks TSA staffers for an alternative to the full-body scanner, which to him feels claustrophobic, and he explains to gate agents why he needs to pre-board. (He might not tell train conductors his life story in detail, but chances are many are familiar with this guy's brand of deep-cut transit knowledge.) Adaptations and adjustments might look different for folks who are inclined to be more discreet — and they need and deserve the space to make those choices.

And although my son has become a willing self-advocate, the burden shouldn't fall on kids and parents to be de facto autism ambassadors and educators. Evolving certification programs, welcoming destinations, and travel companies such as JSX, a semi-private airline, are showing there's another way. Flying semi-private may not be financially sustainable for most travelers, but nonetheless, I was impressed by the company's participation in the Autism Double-Checked certification program and its commitment to servicing its customers with ASD when we visited a JSX terminal just to take a look around. The customer service pro we met innately understood what kids and parents might be experiencing and had the proper tools to respond with grace and kindness.

These companies (and others, like Legoland Resorts, which recently made all three of their U.S. parks Certified Autism Centers) are moving in the right direction, but there’s still work to be done across the industry to make travel more accessible for all. Providing more intentional resources and improved training will help to include people of all abilities in travel and support those who are moving through the phases of their own journey.

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