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Originally published Sunday, October 28, 2012 at 10:00 AM

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Helping an autistic child cope with air travel

For Dana Napoleon, a flight attendant from Tacoma, zipping in and out the nation's airports every week is second nature. Yet she is still...

The New York Times

Making the flightwith autistic child

• Pick a short flight — an hour or so.

• Visit the airport ahead of time to familiarize your child. Tell your child what to expect, including delays and long waits, in the airport and on the airplane.

Call the TSA Cares hotline — 855-787-2227 — 72 hours before your flight to alert them that you might need assistance going through security. Some parents ask to go through the handicapped line with children who have difficulty in crowds or waiting in long lines.

Call the airline ahead to alert them that you might need to board early or require additional assistance onboard. Carry documentation of your child's diagnosis that you can share with security and airline personnel.

• Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, has a website, kjhttp://bit.ly/lZXYba, with additional online resources and travel tips.

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For Dana Napoleon, a flight attendant from Tacoma, zipping in and out the nation's airports every week is second nature. Yet she is still filled with dread every time she flies with her 10-year-old son.

Other children might scamper through the airport. But for Napoleon's son, the crush of unfamiliar faces, the creeping pace of security lines and delays in boarding and takeoff can trigger excruciating anxiety.

So before flights Napoleon worries: Will he dash through the metal detector without stopping? Will he disrupt other passengers by kicking the seat incessantly? Will he have a meltdown onboard, screaming and crying and hitting himself in the head, and get the entire family forced off the flight?

Her son, Keanu, is autistic. So for the Napoleons — and many other parents of children with autism — family vacations can be an agonizing exercise in parental endurance.

"My stomach is in knots," said Napoleon, 41, describing her apprehension whenever she arrives at the airport with her husband and two children. "It's so unpredictable. That's what's so stressful."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 1 in 88 children has been identified as having an autism spectrum disorder, health officials say. And for the parents who struggle to navigate the nation's airports and airlines with these children, aviation officials are providing more help.

Over the past two years, Washington Dulles International Airport — along with a handful of other airports — has offered hundreds of parents and autistic children "mock boarding" experiences, allowing them to practice buying tickets, walk through security lines and strap themselves into a plane that never leaves the gate.

Autism experts and parents say that increased familiarity with busy airports helps autistic children travel more comfortably. And airport and security officials say they gain a better understanding of the difficulties experienced by autistic travelers.

The Transportation Security Administration has also set up a hotline, TSA Cares (855-787-2227), to help disabled passengers and their caretakers better navigate airport security checkpoints. Thousands of people have called since the hotline was started in December. More than 320 calls involved passengers with autism.

But these fledgling initiatives don't reach everyone. And many parents complain that aviation officials and fellow passengers still remain unaware of the enormous challenges faced by children whose hypersensitivity to light, sounds, unexpected events and subtle shifts in routine can often trigger emotional outbursts and anxiety attacks.

"Awareness of autism has certainly increased; there's no question about that," said Jennifer Repella, vice president for programs at the Autism Society, an advocacy group. "What's challenging is that autism is a hidden disability. People see someone they think is just a spoiled brat or a kid misbehaving and they don't realize the origins of that."

Such misunderstandings can have dramatic consequences.

In August, Delta Air Lines forced a mother traveling with her 3-year-old autistic son to get off a plane that was taxiing on the runway when the child began crying inconsolably, disturbing another passenger.

The passenger argued with the mother and complained to the crew. The mother, Saritta Trad Sarkis, who was flying from Cleveland to New York, explained that she was trying to soothe her son, whom she had just learned had been found to be autistic. But the pilot returned to the gate and flight attendants ordered the family off the plane.

"She was in tears," said Sarkis' brother, Tarek Trad, who said she was still too distraught to discuss it. "It was a harsh reality for a mother that just found out that her son is autistic."

Delta Air Lines officials have apologized to Sarkis for what a spokesman described as an "unfortunate string of events" on the Delta Connection aircraft. The spokesman, Morgan Durrant, said that Delta is reviewing the episode and remains committed to striving to "accommodate all customer needs."

Hoping to avoid such unpleasant experiences, many parents are developing their own survival strategies. Some carry letters from doctors describing their child's autism diagnosis, pack noise-canceling headphones and dress their children in brightly colored T-shirts that declare "autism awareness," trying to make the invisible disability visible.

They ask to go through the handicapped lanes in security and to board the airplane ahead of time. And even before setting foot in the airport, they painstakingly walk their children through the journey step by step, often showing them photos of the airport and airplanes so that they can visualize what they will encounter.

Napoleon, the flight attendant, can't quite envision a trip without hiccups. She likes to joke that her favorite part of flying with her son is landing.

"I want to kiss the ground," she said.

But the truth is that nothing quite compares to the wonder in Keanu's eyes when he looks out the window at the bright city lights sparkling in the night.

"There's this huge world out there," Napoleon added, explaining why she and other parents keep flying. "I want him to know that it's out there and how it works."

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