Invisible disabilities

The holiday season can be a magical time: Our kids get their first real break from school, and the days are filled with fun activities and traditions — and even trips to see far-flung relatives.

But for families with children who have disabilities — a mental health or emotional or behavioral disorder, for example — a long holiday trip (not easy in the best of situations) can spell disaster, particularly if there’s an airport involved.

Things can get even more complicated when a child has a disability that is largely invisible to others. 

Jade’s 7-year-old son, Anthony, has autism, and he functions best when there’s plenty of structure built into his day. 

During school, a regular routine makes things easier, but unstructured time during the holidays is always challenging for Anthony.

Last December, Jade decided to go to Colorado to visit her sister. Even though Anthony was excited to see his cousins, Jade knew it could be a challenging situation. 

She did her best to prepare her son for the journey and packed a few of his favorite foods and toys in her carry-on bag. They arrived at the airport early and made it through security without a hitch. But when they reached the crowded gate area, Jade could see her son was struggling to stay calm.

To most of the people waiting for the plane, Jade’s little blonde-haired boy with the deep blue eyes probably appeared to be positively angelic, at first glance. 

While Anthony does display certain tell-tale signs of autism — the way he flexes his hands awkwardly when excited, his rigid posture, his darting eyes that never quite look at you — in a crowd, he looks quite “normal.” 

On that day, the other passengers waiting for the flight to Denver had no idea that Anthony could erupt at a moment’s notice.

After a long delay, the announcement finally came: “Attention in the gate area. We’re now ready to board all passengers with disabilities and anyone needing extra time or special assistance.”

This was Jade’s cue. 

But just as she was about to hand the gate agent their boarding passes, Jade suddenly heard a loud mock-whisper coming from behind her.

“There isn’t a thing wrong with that child,” huffed a middle-aged woman in the red dress. 

Jade was mortified. It felt like every eye at the gate was on her. As much as she wanted to offer the woman a few choice words, Jade turned away and quietly walked down the jetway with Anthony. As the parent of a child with an invisible disability, Jade was accustomed to being judged for her parenting skills and her child’s often unruly behavior.

If you’re the parent of a child with an invisible disability, here are some ideas to help you cope in situations like this:

Be proactive (Plan A)

If a situation is likely to be sensory overload for your child, plan ahead to help him or her cope. Smart phones, iPads and other electronic devices can work well as a distraction, especially if the child uses earbuds to block out other noise. Games, music and movies can keep your child busy and minimize potential triggers.

Come up with a Plan B

Just because a particular technique helped keep your child calm last week doesn’t mean it will work today. Even when you do careful planning, your child can surprise you with unexpected behavior, so a Plan B is important. Some families use a technique called “instant amnesia” where the parent offers the child an unexpected and welcome surprise — a special snack, for example — that quickly redirects the child’s attention.

And a Plan C

Be prepared and develop a crisis plan. It might be a “hold” or hug for your child, or perhaps a quick escape into a quiet bathroom. Having a plan can prevent an overreaction on your part and help you slip away from onlookers.

Always be positive

We know it’s not easy parenting a special needs child in the heat of the moment. Onlookers can cause severe embarrassment, even among veteran parents. 

However, many parents, find that being positive makes a big difference in helping to diffuse difficult situations and calm their children. Praise and rewards can work particularly well.

A ‘just in case’ speech

There are many things Jade could’ve said to the woman in the airport. She would have loved to have offered a snappy comeback. But it probably would’ve escalated the situation instead of defusing it.

Most parents ignore the critics, but it helps to have a ready response just in case: “Our child is wonderful,” you could say, “but as a result of his disability, he has a lot of needs that aren’t always obvious. Thanks for your patience.”

If you’re a bystander waiting in a crowded airport and a scene like this unfolds in the vicinity, please don’t jump to conclusions. 

Appearances can be deceiving. Just because a child looks “normal” doesn’t mean that’s always the case.

Support and compassion go a long way in helping children and families who may be facing challenges the rest of us know nothing about.

© Disney. Reprinted with permission from Disney Online. All Rights Reserved. A version of this article originally appeared on and was published in partnership with The PACER Center, a nonprofit organization based in the Twin Cities that helps families with children with disabilities and also runs the National Bullying Prevention Center. Learn more at