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Family vacations are often anything but relaxing, but having a child with autism can make the experience even more challenging. New experiences can be particularly stressful for kids on the autism spectrum and the overwhelming confusion of airports, crowds, plane noises and strange hotel rooms can trigger meltdowns and anxiety attacks. Unsympathetic bystanders and travel professionals only make things worse. Last summer, one airline actually removed a mom and her newly-diagnosed autistic 3-year-old son from a plane on the grounds that the inconsolable boy was disturbing fellow passengers, according to The New York Times.
The good news: A handful of welcome new programs aim to make traveling easier for families with autistic children, which affects 1 in 88 children (and 1 in 54 boys). These programs also educate TSA, airline and hotel personnel on how to deal with issues more sensitively. Here's what's available now -- expect to see more programs like these in the year ahead.
Mock boarding programs. Kids can practice air travel long before their flight leaves, with free mock boarding programs offered in select airports. TSA volunteers and uniformed flight crew members familiarize children with the entire flying process -- from ticketing to security check-in to boarding the plane and buckling up. Though the flights don't actually leave the ground, kids get to review safety procedures and hear the engines turned on, so they're prepared for what to expect when they fly for real. So far, the programs have been offered in airports like Boston Logan, Atlanta International, Philadelphia International, Washington DC's Dulles International, Newark Liberty International and New Hampshire's Manchester Boston Regional. Airlines like United, American, Frontier, Continental, Southwest, Jet Blue, U.S. Airways and Air Tran have all participated. Check with your local airport to see if there are upcoming programs.
TSA Cares hotline. This helpline (855/787-2227) is specifically for travelers with disabilities and special needs. Call 72 hours before your flight to request assistance going through security and to request help with other issues that may come up during the screening process.
Autism-friendly hotels. Some hotels offer specially designed rooms and activities for families with autism. At Wyndham Tampa Westshore and Wyndham Garden Hotel in Austin, Texas, the "Thoughtful Rooms" have door alarms and other childproofing features, along with toys and picture books telling kids what to expect. The restaurants offer gluten- and casein-free options since some families choose these diets for their autistic children. TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach, Florida offer room safety kits, gluten-free snacks and special sensory activities in their KONK kids' club. The Clinton Inn Hotel in Tenafly, New Jersey designed its Alpine Suite with door alarms, cushioned furniture, childproofed cabinets, plastic dinnerware and décor that cannot be moved.
Autism on the seas. Group cruises for families dealing with autism, Asperger Syndrome and other developmental disabilities are led by trained staffers. They can also help you select the best individual cruises to suit your family's special needs.