Making shopping, flying comfortable for people with autism

Retailers, airlines and even Broadway are stepping up with programs aimed at making the experience of shopping, flying, or seeing a play comfortable even if you are a person with autism. These programs are changing opportunities and experiences for families all over the country.

Xavier, 7, raced down the jet way. Mom and dad were just a few feet behind. This was Xavier's first time boarding an airplane. Xavier took part in a special program the airline JetBlue provides. It allows people with autism to experience what it might be like to take a trip on an airplane.

The plane didn't take off. The pilot taxied around on the runway at JFK.  The flight attendants and crew did what they could to help the passengers get used to the experience of air travel. Xavier's parents say he is not comfortable in crowded places with lots of lights and noise. After his experience at JetBlue, Xavier seems ready to fly.

A growing number of companies are trying new programs aimed at helping children with special needs experience family and holiday traditions more easily.

Santa Cares is program that invited 40 families to come to the shops at the Plaza Hotel early on a Sunday morning so their children could meet Santa in a calm environment. Christina Jimenez brought her 11-year old daughter Neena here to see Santa. Thanks to Santa Cares, Neena got an early Christmas present.

Toys R Us recently held quiet shopping hours in the King of Prussia mall in a suburb of Philadelphia. A spokesperson for Toy R Us said in a statement the retailer wants to "make it more convenient and comfortable for families and children with special needs to shop in our stores."

Target also created what they call a welcoming shopping event for shoppers on the autism spectrum at one of its stores in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

The nonprofit organization the Theater Development Fund has been hosting autism-friendly performances known as the Autism Theater Initiative for the last six seasons.

Right now, these efforts to adapt experiences for people with autism are somewhat limited. Many are pilot programs only available in a few large cities in the country.

But Autism Speaks hopes to continue to encourage more companies to get involved finding new ways to make people with special needs feel comfortable and included.