Delta launches Atlanta airport facility for Autistic kids

Ball pit in the multisensory room.

Ball pit in the multisensory room.

April is National Autism Awareness Month, and I’m sure parents with children on the autism spectrum rejoiced last week when Delta opened Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s first multisensory room.

The project, a partnership with autism advocacy group The Arc, provides a calming, supportive environment and includes a mini ball pit, a bubbling water sculpture, a tactile activity panel, and other items children can interact with to help calm them and prepare them for travel. The room is located in a quiet space on the F Concourse, one of the busiest airport terminals in the country.

In short, it’s the perfect facility in the perfect spot for parents traveling with kids on the spectrum.

I was hipped to this news by buddy Damon Brown, who blogs about these sorts of things for Inc. magazine. In a post published yesterday, Damon noted that the room isn’t just good news for Autistic kids, but also for anyone who struggles with the sensory overload of today’s airport experience.

In related news, as I wrote in my weekly travel roundup column for AFAR.com, The Arc also sponsors “familiarization tours” during which pilots and flight attendants lead autistic children and their parents aboard parked planes to help alleviate any fears and uncertainties about the boarding process. The program is called Wings for Autism. For more information, click here.

Family travel experiences for all

A family travel hero.

A family travel hero.

A wonderful thing happened today in New York City, when an actor in “The King and I,” on Broadway (at Lincoln Center Theater), spoke up publicly on behalf of a mother who was traveling with a child on the Autism spectrum. The actor’s name: Kelvin Moon Loh.

Kelvin wrote about the incident on his Facebook page, and a friend alerted me to it. Here, in its entirety (and unedited), is his post:

I am angry and sad.

Just got off stage from today’s matinee and yes, something happened. Someone brought their autistic child to the theater.

That being said- this post won’t go the way you think it will.

You think I will admonish that mother for bringing a child who yelped during a quiet moment in the show. You think I will herald an audience that yelled at this mother for bringing their child to the theater. You think that I will have sympathy for my own company whose performances were disturbed from a foreign sound coming from in front of them.

No.

Instead, I ask you- when did we as theater people, performers and audience members become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?

The theater to me has always been a way to examine/dissect the human experience and present it back to ourselves. Today, something very real was happening in the seats and, yes, it interrupted the fantasy that was supposed to be this matinee but ultimately theater is created to bring people together, not just for entertainment, but to enhance our lives when we walk out the door again.

It so happened that during “the whipping scene”, a rather intense moment in the second act, a child was heard yelping in the audience. It sounded like terror. Not more than one week earlier, during the same scene, a young girl in the front row- seemingly not autistic screamed and cried loudly and no one said anything then. How is this any different?

His voice pierced the theater. The audience started to rally against the mother and her child to be removed. I heard murmurs of “why would you bring a child like that to the theater?”. This is wrong. Plainly wrong.

Because what you didn’t see was a mother desperately trying to do just that. But her son was not compliant. What they didn’t see was a mother desperately pleading with her child as he gripped the railing refusing- yelping more out of defiance. I could not look away. I wanted to scream and stop the show and say- “EVERYONE RELAX. SHE IS TRYING. CAN YOU NOT SEE THAT SHE IS TRYING???!!!!” I will gladly do the entire performance over again. Refund any ticket because-

For her to bring her child to the theater is brave. You don’t know what her life is like. Perhaps, they have great days where he can sit still and not make much noise because this is a rare occurrence. Perhaps she chooses to no longer live in fear, and refuses to compromise the experience of her child. Maybe she scouted the aisle seat for a very popular show in case such an episode would occur. She paid the same price to see the show as you did for her family. Her plan, as was yours, was to have an enjoyable afternoon at the theater and slowly her worst fears came true.

I leave you with this- Shows that have special performances for autistic audiences should be commended for their efforts to make theater inclusive for all audiences. I believe like Joseph Papp that theater is created for all people. I stand by that and also for once, I am in a show that is completely FAMILY FRIENDLY. The King and I on Broadway is just that- FAMILY FRIENDLY- and that means entire families- with disabilities or not. Not only for special performances but for all performances. A night at the theater is special on any night you get to go.

And no, I don’t care how much you spent on the tickets.

What makes this post so poignant is that Kelvin (follow him on Twitter here) didn’t even know the woman—he just spoke out for what he believed to be just. IMHO, he was 100 percent right. And his argument applies to all forms of family travel activities, not just family-friendly Broadway shows. (For all we know, the mother and her child likely were visiting New York City from somewhere else.)

To echo Kelvin’s point, all families, regardless of their situations or realities, deserve the right to travel and experience new places, people, and things. The more easily we all remember this, the better off we all will be.

Special needs, yet just like us

Meghann Harris, courtesy of The New York Times

Meghann Harris, courtesy of The New York Times

I always am encouraged when I see articles geared toward parents of special needs kids who love to travel. The fact that these parents prioritize travel is wonderful; that reporters actually pay attention to them is something even better.

Naturally, then, I was delighted to open up the Travel section of The New York Times this weekend and see a Q&A with Meghann Harris, the founder of SpecialGlobe.com. The site is a travel website for families with children who are on the autism spectrum and have other physical and cognitive challenges. In short, it’s a great resource for special needs parents who want to travel but don’t know how.

The Q&A, written up by Rachel Lee Harris, is short and sweet; it details a bit of history about how the site was founded, and offers insight on the day-to-day challenges of traveling with a special needs child.

Personally, I don’t care how long or detailed the piece is: It raises awareness, and that’s huge.

I discovered SpecialGlobe.com while researching an article for one of my clients—a nonprofit that focuses on educating and informing parents of children on the autism spectrum. I was moved then and I’m moved now. Families with kids who have special needs travel just like families with “ordinary” kids; the special needs families just look for different things. It’s about time we started including these families in the overarching conversation about family travel. Thanks for broadening the discussion, NYT.

Hope for Family Travelers on Planes

Kate. Photo by Shanell Mouland.

Kate.

The Internet has been abuzz this week with praise for a tear-jerking essay from Shanell Mouland, the woman behind Go Team Kate.

The story was titled, “Dear ‘Daddy’ in Seat 16C,” and was published Jan. 9. In it, Mouland recounts an anecdote from a recent flight with her 3-year-old daughter, Kate, who has autism. Details of the story are irrelevant here (honestly, I encourage you to gather some tissues and read the piece yourself). The bottom line: The dude who sat next to Kate was just a really good human being.

Over the course of the multi-hour flight, the guy smiled at the child. He engaged her. He let her touch his computer. He even played turtles with her. And at no point did he make it seem as if Kate or Shanell were annoying him or invading his personal space. He was just a good guy.

I loved the story for a number of reasons.

First, as a parent, it’s uplifting to hear about a stranger going out of his way to be kind to someone else’s kid. Second, as a supporter of the autism community (I’ve done work for AbilityPath), it’s wonderful to read about someone treating a child on the Spectrum with the kind of patience and respect these children deserve.

Finally, as a blogger, I love the bigger picture. At a time when airlines get kudos for segregating family travelers and passengers seem to enjoy ganging up on those of us who travel with kids, this story was a welcome breath of fresh air, a feel-good example of the reality that there still are some people who fly the “friendly” skies.

The piece left me feeling hopeful that maybe, just maybe, the prevailing attitudes about family travelers on airplanes can soften and change.

We just need more people like the Daddy in 16C. And we need to hear more stories like his.

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