In a recent article, Autism Daily Newscast shared tips for families traveling with children who have autism. The Wings for Autism program helps families by offering their children a trial run through the entire air travel process.
People with autism can be overwhelmed by new experiences, and the process of checking in, going through security, and boarding an airplane can be quite confusing. Preparation is key, and families can always use social stories or storyboards to explain the process to their child, but taking them on a trial run is even better. There are many potential difficulties families face, including long lines, security procedures, the hum of the airplane engines, or even fastening a seatbelt. Parents never know what might set their child off.
This issue was in the spotlight recently when a family on a Jet Blue flight from Boston to Nantucket were ejected by the pilot when their daughter had a meltdown because her father was unable to sit next to her. The family had informed the airline about their daughter’s condition, and requested adjoining seats, but the airline was only able to offer two seats that were next to each other. The girl, who is nonverbal, panicked because she did not understand that her father was on the same flight, so the pilot asked the family to leave.
The Wings for Autism program does just that. Families bring their children through the entire process of traveling, from getting a boarding pass, to going through security, right up to boarding the plane and simulating a flight. While the plane does not actually leave the ground, the engines are turned on, the safety presentation is completed, and drinks are served, just as they would be on a regular flight. The children are even given the opportunity to visit the cockpit and meet the pilots.
This allows the children to experience what it’s like to fly, while also giving airport staff the opportunity to interact with the children, and to learn strategies that can make their experience more comfortable. When airport staff and flight attendants are given strategies they can use to help travelers with autism, they will be able to remain calm when problems arise, which will help both the children with autism and the other passengers to feel more comfortable as well.
The program started at Logan Airport in Boston in 2011, through a collaboration with Massport, the Transportation Security Administration, and the Charles River Center (an autism support center). Over 1000 people have attended the Wings for Autism events, and the program has plans to expand to 50 more airports nationwide over the next three years, including Detroit, Baltimore, and JFK airport in New York. Several airlines, including Jet Blue, Southwest, Alaska Air, Delta, and US Air are also taking part in the program. For more information, visit their website at http://www.charlesrivercenter.org/index.cfm?pid=14828.