The news that a 15-year-old nonverbal girl with autism and her family were removed from a United Airlines flight from Houston to Portland this week frustrated many family members, their advocates and allies. For its part, the airline told KOIN 6 News that it made the decision to divert the flight to Salt Lake City, "after the situation became disruptive."


One in 68 American children today has autism, making awareness and acceptance of the sensory processing disorder crucial for the public, advocates say. Motherly reached out to Autism Speaks, an advocacy organization, which shared tips and insights from parents and experts on how to best help a family in the midst of a autism-related challenge.

Here's what autism advocates want you to know:

1. That parents know best

"Do ask the family whether there's something you can do to help,"explains Autism Speaks, but "be prepared for 'no.' It may be that they want to minimize attention to the situation to avoid worsening the meltdown." And that unsolicited parenting advice? No thanks, says one mama.

2. That people with autism may feel overwhelmed and need the space to calm down

As someone standing by, you can help by making the space as peaceful as possible, Autism Speaks recommends. "Scan the area around the child for sights and sounds that may have contributed to the meltdown. Many individuals affected by autism are easily overwhelmed by sensory input. Is there an alarm that can be silenced? A flashing display that can be temporarily turned off?"

3. Parents just need your patience

"How long the meltdown lasts can vary widely," the advocacy organization explains. "Neither you nor the family will have ultimate control of when it ends. Keeping calm and helping others keep calm is the best support."

4. That it's possible to have better training, awareness and acceptance

Not only can families and children prepare for the experience of air travel, but corporations can also help develop programs to make life easier for the millions of Americans on the spectrum. You can read about one such program JetBlue developed here.

5. That the rate of autism is increasing, and so is the need for awareness and support

6. That kids with autism and their parents are people, too!

Nobody is perfect. But keep reaching out, asking questions and engaging with your friends and families who love someone with autism.