These Airlines Go the Extra Mile for Travelers With Autism

Find out which airlines are making the extra effort to support travelers on the autism spectrum.

Portion of white JSX plane

Smaller airlines like “hop-on jet service” JSX require customer-facing staff to have autism training.

Courtesy of JSX

Flying can be a nightmare for kids on the autism spectrum. The loud noises, crowds, lines, and TSA chaos trigger overstimulation that can send many into meltdown. Yet few airlines and their staff have the training to recognize this distress, offer help, or answer the questions of neurodiverse families.

In fact, when my son was young and flying to see relatives, we would often get challenged by gate agents when asking for early boarding—a protection mandated under the Air Carrier Access Act (ACAA)—because his developmental disability was invisible.

Thankfully, some airlines and airports are now working to make that experience a little easier for the neurodiverse by completing autism training through the nonprofit Autism Double-Checked. So far, low-cost carriers Breeze Airways and Flair Airlines, along with LATAM Airlines and boutique air carrier JSX have received the certification. Negotiations are underway with larger airlines.

To get the certification, every member of their passenger-facing crew must attend online training, so they not only understand autism and the sensory needs of neurodiverse travelers but also know how to respond (or not respond) when these travelers express their discomfort.

“A huge emphasis in the course is on not being judgmental,” says Alan Day, a former travel agent, autism parent, and cofounder of the organization. “And don’t chime in with 100 helpful suggestions for parents,” he added. “You do nothing until [the parent] asks, then you do whatever they ask.”

Flight attendants, he says, often see a momentary loud meltdown as a danger, a reaction that has cut short too many vacations for autism families. Alex Wilcox, the CEO of JSX, also remembers seeing a family suddenly abandon their vacation at the gate when a child became overwhelmed and inconsolable.

“That moment stuck with me,” Wilcox said. “I vowed that when I got to run my own company someday, I’d make sure that never happened again.”

JSX, Breeze, and other airlines, as well as Autism Double-Checked, provide practice boarding events across the country so families can get their kids used to flying. Some are offered in conjunction with the Arc’s Wings for Autism program or other local autism organizations. At these events, families get a gate pass, wait for their boarding to be called, find a seat, and run through safety and departure briefings before disembarking.

Lastly, Day advises families to call ahead and enlist the help of a TSA Passenger Support Specialist to help walk an easily stimulated child through the security process. He has seen it open up a “new world” of travel for many families.

Melinda Fulmer is a lifestyle writer and editor with travel, food, health, and wellness bylines in the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, AAA, and other major media channels. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @melindafulmer.
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