Autism and Traveling

Yesterday we flew back to New York city.  Emma is a terrific traveler, content to stare out the window, look at her books and sing songs.  As long as she is able to sit in a window seat, she is happy.

On the flight from Denver to New York, which was already delayed by about a half an hour, we noticed a man speaking in a loud voice to one of the flight personnel.  He was a large man, well over six feet tall, with close cropped greying hair.  I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was clear he was unhappy about something, not unusual given the rigors of traveling nowadays.  But as he went on, I noticed a cadence to his speech that was familiar to me.

“Mom, what’s wrong with that guy?” Nic asked me as I watched the scene unfold.

“Don’t know, Nic.”

“Is he autistic?”  Nic asked.

“Maybe.  I’m not sure.”

It was at this moment that we were called to board.  The man, visibly upset and walking with a cane, boarded first.  When we finally settled into our seats, I noticed that same man was seated directly in front of me – in an aisle seat.   The usual parade of harried travelers filed along, as exhausted flight attendants urged everyone into their seats so that we could take off without further delays.  By the time the plane was airborne, we all began to relax.  At a certain point the man in front of me yelled out, “I can’t see out the window!  I can’t see out the window!   Excuse me miss, I can’t see out the window!”

It wasn’t clear who he was speaking to, but it seemed that the woman seated near the window in the row in front of him had pulled the shade down.  Someone then said, “It’s her seat, she can do what she wants.”

To which the man shouted, “I can’t see out the window.  I hate these aisle seats.”

For another hour or so all seemed to calm down until about an hour from our landing when the pilot announced we were in a holding pattern over Pennsylvania and would be for an indefinite period of time.  The pilot then went on to assure us that we had enough fuel for several hours so everyone should relax and he would keep us updated.  But the gentleman in front of me began to get agitated, asking the flight attendant what was happening, what time would we actually land etc.  She explained that we were in a holding pattern and couldn’t predict what time we would actually land.

After she left the man began to shout, “I can’t see out the window.”  People were muttering and saying things under their breath, while the poor man became increasingly upset.  At this point I leaned forward to the woman in his row seated next to the window and asked her if she would mind changing her window seat for his aisle seat.  I explained to her that I thought he probably had autism and was becoming increasingly upset by all the delays and needed to be by the window.  I told her my daughter (happily gazing out the window directly behind her, also had autism and needed to sit in the window seat too.)  The young woman complied and I asked her if she minded if I intervened by telling the flight attendant.  She said that would be fine.  I went to find the flight attendant who was discussing the situation with another flight attendant in first class.  I explained that I thought the man had autism and that my guess was he would feel much calmer if he could sit in a window seat and that the woman to his right had agreed to change her seat with him.

The flight attendant then returned saying to the man, “This nice woman has agreed to change seats with you.”

“I hate these aisle seats.  I told them at the gate I hate these aisle seats.  I was suppose to have a window seat.  I told them I was suppose to have a window seat,” the man said, now standing in the aisle of the plane.

Once he had reseated himself by the window, all was quiet with no further mishaps despite our over an hour delay in landing.

What I find most upsetting about this, is how it all could have been avoided.  The airlines, like so many, do not have any understanding of autism.  How hard would it have been to give this man a window seat as he requested at the gate?  When I went to the flight attendant and suggested he might have autism, she said, “Oh, yes.  He does.”  So it’s clear the airline had been made aware of this and yet, chose to do nothing to help this man.

Sometimes I feel as though I am yelling from the top of a very large building.  WHAT IS IT GOING TO TAKE ?   The lack of understanding around a condition that affects hundreds of thousands of people is mind boggling.   The scene we witnessed could have been avoided had the airlines and it’s personnel had even a vague understanding of autism.

For more on autism and traveling with Emma, go to:

One response to “Autism and Traveling

  1. It was lucky you intervened- that po rman could have becme even more distressed. Clearly Airlines need to educate their staff.

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