Preparation and Trial Runs Key for a Fun Vacation: What one Airline is Doing to Help Autistic Kids

It is that time of year when families begin planning for a vacation.  For some families with autistic members, any trip can be so stressful, they no longer go on one.

There are a variety of noted vacation spots suitable for families that have individuals with autism. Just as the options for destinations range from crowded, noisy theme parks to serene, cool aquariums, so do the considerations for the autistic individual. A certain vacation spot for one family may not be the best destination for an autistic member of another family.

To make a getaway fun for everyone, preparation and familiarizing the autistic child with the entire process are the two essential factors in a successful trip. We begin our vacation series reviewing these two criteria.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Preparation needs to begin long before the van pulls out of the garage for that campsite or for the hectic airport that looms in the distance as a potential roadblock. With time and some forethought, however, these roadblocks become gateways to new and exciting experiences for an autistic child, even those with sensory issues. After choosing a place to go, calling ahead to airports, cruise lines, theme parks, hotels and/or restaurants makes establishments aware of the child’s special needs.

One airline, JetBlue is making a difference with their “Wings For Autism” Program.  Families get to experience all aspects of getting ready in a low stress environment.  It is a complete simulation which covers all aspects of checking in, boarding, security, preparing for takeoff and deplaning. Children even have the opportunity to visit the cockpit and meet the pilots. The result is lower anxiety and increased confidence for both the child on the autism spectrum and the family.

The program began at Boston Logan Airport in May, 2011 and this year those in the Los Angeles area had the opportunity to participate at Burbank’s Bob Hope Airport. With a recent grant, the plans are to roll this out over the next three to five years to over 50 airports in the USA. Next on the list are New York at JFK as well as Baltimore and Detroit.

Different modes of travel may mean different solutions.

If flying, requesting bulkhead seats helps prevent kicking against the seat in front. Equipping a child with electronics such as Gameboys and iPads, or other engaging material like coloring books, provides ongoing entertainment during the plane ride. Airlines may usually accommodate for special diets if advised in advance. The TSA allows a parent or adult to be with the autistic child during the security check, and can even guide the process to allay anxiety.

Traveling by car, rather than by airplane, makes it plausible for an autistic child to bring along his or her favorite blanket and pillow for comfort during the ride and at the strange hotel room.

Overnight Accommodations

If staying at a hotel, calling ahead to Guest Services will enable hotel staff to make accommodations. Due to the nature of autism, it is recommended to reserve a room on a higher floor, since these tend to be the most quiet. Some hotels offer rooms and pillows that are hypoallergenic. Staying at the same hotel chain throughout the trip will increase the sense of familiarity for the autistic child since the look and feel of any hotel within a chain is often similar.

Trial Runs

Preparing for logistics is one part of planning a fun trip with an autistic child. The other part of preparation is familiarizing the child – to acclimate them to the new sites, sounds, and situations. If the autistic child has never stayed in a hotel, spending a night or two in a local hotel will decrease sensory overload and help adjust to a new environment.

Showing pictures of airports, planes, and inside of planes will help acquaint the child with the sites they will see. Even without the benefit of “Wings For Autism” Program, parents can do a trial run at the airport. This will allow the child to experience its procedures and bustle at a pace tailored to them.

Not only is all of this preparation good for the autistic member of the family, but it is can be worthwhile for the other family members.  Some families report that greater bonding occurs even before the actual vacation starts.

Tomorrow we look at the practicalities of going to theme parks and amusement venues for families with members on the autism spectrum.

Correction 23/07/13

Wings For Autism is a program that was created by Charles River Arc, also known as the Charles River Center, in Boston. While JetBlue has been involved, they are only one of several airlines which include: Southwest Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Delta and USAir. 15 airiports are in the queue for 2013-1

Autism Daily Newscast has published a follow-up article on the Wings for Autism here.

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About Ashley Isaacson

Ashley Isaacson writes fiction and journals about storytelling and faith on her new blog site. She's excited to publish one of her novellas before the end of the year. It was her close association with Learning Rx (a franchise training center that strengthens the cognitive abilities of students) that she became aware of autism. As a writer for Autism Daily Newscast, she likes being able to report on topics that concern human growth, development, and fulfillment.