Wings for Autism
Children with autism often struggle doing new and unfamiliar things, so families who have a child on the spectrum sometimes avoid situations that they think will be particularly overwhelming. Traveling can always be difficult since it takes kids out of their usual routine and environment, but air travel can be particularly uncomfortable for a kid on the spectrum since there is limited flexibility and lots of unfamiliar rules, bright lights, loud noises, and people. My family has always hesitated to book a trip that would require us to take our five year old, who has autism, on a plane. We worried about whether or not he would get overwhelmed and have a meltdown in the airport or even worse, mid-flight. We’d heard stories about other families who had attempted to fly and had to bail on their plans at the last minute after trying to navigate the airport unsuccessfully. Luckily, a national program called “Wings for Autism” has emerged to help families prepare their children for air travel before they book an actual trip. The program is facilitated by The Arc in partnership with airports across the country and allows families to “rehearse” navigating the airport and riding on a plane.
The Baton Rouge Wings for Autism event was held on Saturday April 8th at Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport. My family woke up early that morning, grabbed our “luggage”- a small bag that our son could carry, and headed for the airport. When we arrived, we parked in the garage and entered the ticketing area, trying to contain our son’s excitement and anxiety about being somewhere unfamiliar. After waiting for a few moments at ticketing, while our son squirmed, we got our “boarding passes” and headed towards security. We all had to take off our shoes, a task that can be challenging for kids on the spectrum due to sensory issues, and placed our treasured belongings on the conveyor belt to be inspected by TSA. After we made it through the metal detectors and gathered our things, we headed for the gate. Waiting in a busy terminal is another task that can be particularly overwhelming, so we were glad to see the plane arrive after a few minutes. We boarded the plane, buckled up, stowed our luggage, and listened to all of the usual announcements from the flight attendant and pilots. Once everyone was safely seated, the plane taxied to the runway. The overwhelming sound and vibrations from the loud engines, the strange lights, the noise of so many other people talking, and the requirement to stay seated and buckled can all be difficult for a child on the spectrum to deal with, but after taxiing for about ten minutes, we returned to the gate uneventfully and deplaned.
For the past five years we have avoided booking a trip that would require our son to fly because we just weren’t sure how it would go. After two years of attending “Wings for Autism” here in Baton Rouge, I am more confident that our son would do well if we decided to take a flight anywhere. Giving parents that peace of mind and kids with autism the chance to get familiar with what it might be like to fly, is a wonderful gift that opens up new opportunities for so many families. Many thanks to The Arc, Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, and American Airlines for facilitating the event. We look forward to going back to the airport soon for our son’s first flight. To learn more about Wings for Autism, visit http://www.thearc.org/wingsforautism.