Autism Careers Justice

Autism and Flight: What the FAA has to say about Autistic Airmen/Women4 min read

An aspiring pilot faces discriminatory bias in FAA guidelines which threatens to ground autistics and other neurodivergent or disabled candidates.

Autism has a lot of hallmark stereotypes– chiefly, the ability to hyper-focus on special interests.

As children, an obsession with dinosaurs or trains is acceptable; however, the hyper-focus eventually puts us at odds socially.  As we get older, namely as adults, our special interests and the spaces generated by our peers to enjoy those interests can be just as exclusive of us as they can be inclusive.

So, what about those special few who are aviation nerds?  What if, per se, you were autistic and wanted to go beyond being a “back-seater”?

What if you actually wanted to fly?

The Standard Process for Student Airmen/Women

Acquiring your student pilot’s license is a fairly straight-forward process:

  • The applicant must check out with a certified Air Medical Examiner to obtain either a First or Second Class Medical Certificate.
  • The applicant then takes their identification, along with their medical certificate, birth certificate, and other required paperwork into their instructor, who then helps the student fill out their application for a student pilot’s license.
  • The instructor will ask general questions, regarding background, and look over the medical certificate, and make sure that any restrictions are explained in detail.

Autistic Airmen/women

Here is where the bias comes in.  If you look up on google, something along the lines of “‘x’ disease” or “‘y’ disorder”, then add FAA rules, you should find the specific things that the FAA deem “unsafe to fly/do not fly”.  For example, any Attention Deficit Disorders, or Anxiety Disorders.  If you’re under the influence of certain psychotropic medications, is another general rule listed on there.

But if you look for autism, specifically, you won’t find it there.  Instead, you’re taken to a special bulletin, outlining autism spectrum disorder in detail.  I’ll link to the special bulletin here, for those that wish to read it.  Otherwise, here’s some general bullet points.

  • This case report was written by Colonel Elizabeth R.  Anderson-Doze, board certified in family medicine, and is an Aerospace Medicine Resident at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio.
  • This report outlines general hallmarks of autism, aka, stereotypes, and give one particular case study.
  • Overall synopsis: Asperger’s/Type 1 ASD can be considered by AMEs on a case by case basis, so long as they can provide a familiar, outside psychiatrist or medical doctor’s approval and recommendation.
  • The FAA, and AMEs are looking for “stabilization in treatment”.  No history of violent meltdowns, no hospitalizations, things like that.

Here’s the problem that THIS student airman has with this decision: what if you’ve never received “treatment”, and decide to self-disclose?  Because it sounds like you’d have basically shot yourself in the foot, here.

And, what about Autistics that AREN’T “type 1”, but still show the necessary skills and “stabilization” in order to be considered to fly?

Why can’t any of the other Neurodivergent disorders fly, even if they’re still considered “stable in treatment” by their physicians?

I’ve sent out some emails for comment, but I haven’t heard back yet.  In the meantime, these questions are things that I’m definitely wanting answers to.

An uncertain future

The biggest problem with this exclusion and bias isn’t simply getting the plastic card and the privileges that come with having a pilot’s license.

Ask yourself this question: how many professional pilots with disabilities have you seen flying these skies deemed “friendly” by our airlines?

In WWII and beyond, pilots could regain flight status with the use of prosthetics.  How many do you see on American Airlines?  Delta?  United?

How many pilots do you see who are representative of you?  Your skin color?  Your ethnicity?  Your disability?

This issue is far more important than just us.  But, like all movements for change, those who are disabled seem to be the last to see that change.

But either way, this author dissents to the opinion that psychiatric stability is the only thing keeping most back from their dreams of flight.  Because if that were the case, honestly, then it should apply to ALL neurodivergence and disabilities, not just autism.  It should apply unilaterally as standards for all people.

Combat vets with PTSD can’t become pilots?  No matter how “stable” they are?  What about someone who has been diagnosed with acute MDD (major depressive disorder), AFTER an otherwise-perfect performance record and umpteen years of experience?  Are they not supposed to fly anymore?

“Psychiatric stability” covers more than just autism.  It is not exclusive to just autism.

If you have the aptitude, if you have the applied skill set necessary, no matter what the industry, shouldn’t you be allowed to become a professional?

As we continue to push for inclusion inside of employment, I pose this final question to our allies: would you be any less afraid of flying than your current comfort level if the pilot in command had a disability?

I honestly would not.  Because I trust the schools and the rules put in place that make up the eligibility requirements that ALL pilots must meet.  I’m going through it.  And I know my brothers and sister pilots in training are as well.  If I’m not treated differently by them, why should I be treated differently by the industry at large?

Short answer: No one should.

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